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Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quality isn’t enough: Canadian arts content needs government support Add to ...

They say the cream rises to the top. Or does it?

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage has finished consulting anyone who wants to express an opinion about its ongoing cultural-policy review and this week issued a summary of the results. The web page for the report begins with a slide that offers this optimistic comment from one Pollyanna on the Canadian cultural scene: “The strongest creators will generate content that stands out and gets noticed. The government can let the audience discover it on its own. If we make it, they will come.”

Long live the meritocracy. Except if that was ever true in the arts, it is much less so today. Earlier this month, Britain’s The Economist also issued a special report, this one on the new blockbuster economy arguing widespread digital distribution has made culture less democratic, producing an infinite supply of product in which only a very few big brands succeed in getting attention.

Everyone watches the same 50 titles on Netflix. Does anyone seriously believe that the other several hundred titles are truly inferior? Among other sobering stats, The Economist’s report includes this one: Nielsen figures on the 8.7 million music tracks sold in the United States last year show that 96 per cent sold fewer than 100 copies and 40 per cent, or 3.5 million songs, were purchased just once. Thanks mom.

That info hit my inbox the same day that an ad for a workshop at next month’s Canadian Music Week arrived: “Quit Bitchin’ and Do Something: The only person holding you back from sharing your music with the world is you!” Oh please. If the quest for a livelihood in the arts used to be a turn at the roulette wheel or a flutter at the track, today it’s more like wishing on stars.

This matters a lot for anyone who believes that Canada should not simply import culture but also generate some of its own, for anyone who believes that if you want to nurture a self-confident society of both economic and psychological health and opportunity, you need strong local creative industries. Canada is a medium-sized cultural market sitting beside the largest cultural producer in the world; inevitably, Canadian titles represent smaller brands and are more likely than ever to be the ones that nobody sees. This is not about quality, it’s about a broken distribution model that consolidates culture rather than encouraging diversity.

What can or should the government do to help fix things? Thankfully that initial slide is not representative of the comments and suggestions the Canadian Heritage consultations generated. Much of the report reveals a lively discussion about how you make content, how government can help seed that process and how it can help content get discovered. Several contributors stress the need to fund risk: Only by accepting many failures along the way do you generate successes. And then an investor in the video-game industry offers this sobering tale: “We get hundreds of pitches and we’re really good at saying no. And it’s funny but not funny that one day we say no to a studio because they have no chance and there is no commercial viability. And then, the next day, we see an announcement that they received a million dollars from one of the Canadian funding agencies.”

The truth, of course, is that there is no reliable formula for creating great content and the report is filled with what appear to be disagreements or contradictions. Take risks or fund proven winners. Define Canadian content more narrowly as content with Canadian stories, themes or values or make it easier for Canadians to collaborate with foreigners. Funnel support directly to creators rather than to producers, but remember that the biggest investments in Canadian content are still those made by the traditional television broadcasters. Think about creating a Canada portal, but narrow the mandate of the CBC. The list goes on.

Some of these, however, are false dichotomies: The report prepared for the government by Ipsos Public Affairs makes much of balancing support for creators with respect for citizen choice as though citizens did not already have a plethora of choices. Most of us have easy access to more news and entertainment than we know what to do with, but if there is any particular choice that will evaporate without strong government support, it is the choice to consume some culture that was made in Canada.

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