Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez prepares to appear before the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications on Bill C-11, in the Senate of Canada Building in Ottawa, on Nov. 22, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Senate has sent Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, back to the House of Commons with a raft of amendments. Bad news: the unelected Senate has no democratic mandate to amend anything. But it’s potentially good news, if the government seizes the opportunity for a little “sober second thought” of its own, and pulls the bill in its entirety.

The legislation, which would envelop the online streaming services in the same impenetrable regulatory goo that has made the Canadian broadcasting industry what it is today, has aroused an interesting range of opponents. There’s the right, whose hostility to the “online censorship bill” is as fervent as ever. But there are also, in increasing numbers, the artists.

This is, sad to say, unusual. Canadian artists have historically been all too eager to accept whatever regulatory and subsidy favours the politicians have thought to throw their way, notably including Canadian content quotas. But a new generation of artists has grown up that has never known a world without the internet, and the promiscuous crossing of boundaries it encourages.

These younger artists do not feel threatened by the presence of foreign creators on Canadian screens, nor do they wish the state to impose restrictions on it – any more than they would wish other countries to limit their availability to foreign audiences. And not only the young: of late some of the older lions have begun to roar.

The senator and novelist David Adams Richards attacked the bill in a speech last week. “I do not know who would be able to tell me what Canadian content is and what it is not,” he told the Senate, “but I know it won’t be in the Minister of Heritage’s power to ever tell me.” His sentiments were later endorsed by, God bless us, Margaret Atwood.

And this gets to the nub of it. Some have pointed to the absurdity of a national government claiming the power to regulate the global internet. Others have listed the bill’s probable violations of international trade law, not to say net neutrality.

The loudest voices have warned that its regulations would apply to user-generated content, and not solely, as the government insists, to a handful of large streaming services. My own contributions have focused on how unnecessary it is, given that the internet is subject to none of the technological constraints of traditional broadcasting that gave rise to regulation in the first place.

Lately some have reminded us of the inherent difficulties in defining Canadian content, especially where a work is the product of several collaborators. Is a movie Canadian by virtue of its actors? Director? Crew? Location? Theme? Even as applied to individuals: Should citizenship be the criterion? Birthplace? Residency? Subject matter?

But the real folly of CanCon is not that it is impractical, or prone to abuse, or even unnecessary, though it is all of those things. It is rather that it is nonsensical at its root, in its very purpose – again, so far as anyone can define it. Is the point, after all, artistic or political? But it cannot be artistic: there is no theory of aesthetics that prefers that Canadian artists should make Canadian art that teaches Canadians how Canadian they are.

It is, rather, a political project: the inculcation of national feeling in the public, for the purpose of creating a political community, separate and distinct from the colossus to the south. Without the Maginot Line of CanCon quotas, it is suggested, we would be overwhelmed: first the artists, then the country.

But note the assumptions built into this emotive appeal: that a separate nationality cannot be maintained without cultural difference; that our cultural differences with the Americans are both sufficient in themselves to justify our statehood and yet so fragile as to be washed away in an instant; that, left to their own choices, Canadians would unhesitatingly choose the products of an incomprehensibly alien culture over their own; and that, by virtue of this diet of foreignism, we would no longer be Who We Are as Canadians. Therefore we must not be left to our own choices.

Which is nonsense, because we would still be Who We Are, even in that hypothetical dystopian future: it might not be Who We Were, but so what? The Who We Are we are now at such pains to preserve is itself vastly different from Who We Were before.

And who, in the end are we? As the comedian Martin Short once put it: “we’re the people who watch a lot of American TV.” The wholesale ingestion of a foreign culture – albeit much of it made by expat Canadians – is an integral part of our distinct national identity, an irony that must forever elude our cultural nationalists.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe