How did it come to this? Leave aside, for the moment, the implications – for free speech, for Canada’s reputation, for net neutrality – of Bill C-10, the federal government’s misbegotten effort to catch the internet in the same regulatory web as that which has long enveloped the conventional broadcasting industry.
Leave aside, too, the bill’s stated rationale: that it is necessary to establish a regulatory “level playing field” between the conventional broadcasters and their online rivals; that, to this end, both should be regulated, rather than neither, though the case for regulating either vanished long ago.
Let us consider, rather, the broader underlying basis of the legislation. After all, when a government drives onto the rocks this badly – attempting to fit a regulatory model built for a handful of over-the-air television and radio stations to the limitless world of the internet – it is usually caught in the grip of some more fundamental madness.
The march of folly on which the government is now irrevocably embarked – first targeting a few large, mostly foreign-based streaming services; later expanding to include sites, such as YouTube, that also display user-generated content; arriving, ultimately, at the insanity of scoring thousands of teenagers’ TikTok feeds for how much Canadian content they contain – is of a kind it would surely only entertain if it felt it had no option.
Part of that is politics as usual. The government is anxious to deliver for a highly vocal interest group: the cultural industries – in particular broadcasters, production companies, and their associated craft unions, or what the government prefers to call “artists and creators,” and especially those located in the province of Quebec.
But the power of those interest groups has deeper roots: in ideology. That the cultural industries have persuaded themselves they cannot survive on the willing support of their audiences, and should not be expected to – that they are entitled to their unwilling support, whether by taxing or regulation – is unsurprising. The same self-serving belief afflicts many industries, including my own.
Neither is the cultural sector unique in dressing up its demands as something more than special pleading, but rather as serving some higher interest. It has had, however, unusual success in convincing others of this. The notion that art, by its nature, requires both public subsidy and protective regulation – that art cannot be left to the choices of the ignorant boobs in the general public, but must instead be entrusted to cultural bureaucrats – is widely shared, here as in other countries, preying as it does upon middle-brow fears of being thought uncultured.
There is a peculiar twist on the argument, however, that has a special salience in Canada. It is the ideology of cultural nationalism, or as it sometimes called, cultural sovereignty. The latter is an especially mysterious term. Cultural sovereignty exists, surely, wherever people can freely choose whatever forms of cultural expression they wish.
There was a time, as I’ve written, when the particular technological limitations of early radio and television made it harder for Canadian choices to be represented. But those days are long gone. There is nothing today to prevent Canadians from watching Canadian television or listening to Canadian radio, if they choose, or to prevent providers from charging them for their choices.
So the question is why they should be forced to – why their choices should be constrained by regulation, or why they should be forced to pay for content they do not want. The cultural nationalist explanation has not changed in many decades: as it was put nearly a century ago, in the first Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting, foreign programming “has a tendency to mould the minds of young people … to ideals and opinions that are not Canadian.”
Were it left to them to choose, that is, too many Canadians would choose to watch and listen to too much foreign (read: American) content. And this would be bad because … well, it’s never quite spelled out. It isn’t really an aesthetic complaint. No theory of aesthetics that I know of holds that art that is produced by Canadians for Canadians that tells them how Canadian they are is superior to other art, as art. Rather, the argument is a political one.
If Canadians did not watch enough Canadian television or listen to enough Canadian radio – if instead we watched and listened to their American equivalents – then the cultural differences between our two nations would erode, and with them, any basis for our continuing existence as a separate nation-state. Cultural assimilation, followed by political absorption: It’s rarely stated as baldly as that. But that’s essentially the case.
Of the many assumptions embedded within this seemingly simple argument, it is hard to know which is the most fantastic. Is it that our existence as a country, now going on 154 years, hinges entirely on our cultural differences with the country we most resemble on Earth? That these cultural differences are both so robust as to constitute, on their own, an argument for nationhood, and yet so fragile as to disappear the minute it were left to Canadians to choose?
Is it that the differences between us are greater than the differences within – that there is such a thing as a Canadian culture, or an American one, to be contrasted with each other? Or is it the assumption that anyone can define Canadian or American culture in a coherent way, still less express this in legislation? How, after all, is a “Canadian” television show defined? By location? Theme? Setting? By the nationality of its director? Writer(s)? Stars? How is even their nationality to be determined? By birthplace? Residence? Citizenship?
Or, perhaps the most inescapable dilemma: when we fear that, swamped by American culture as we would surely be without the barriers that now protect us, we would no longer be “who we are,” who is the “we” that is to be preserved from this awful fate? The comedian Martin Short – among the many Canadians employed in making the American television from which we are to be protected – offers a pithy answer: “We’re the people who watch a lot of American television.”
That’s “who we are.” It’s an essential part of the Canadian psyche: it accounts, for example, for our (dare I say distinctive?) sense of ironic detachment. Though if we watched a lot more American television, or a lot less, that would still be “who we are.” I can’t see that changing, with or without C-10.
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