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There is a notion floating around that it's no longer possible to regulate culture – that the digital revolution has upended old policies that sought to protect Canadian arts and letters from foreign competition.

That notion is false. Determined governments could, if they chose, impose the same rules on new media that they imposed on old media.

"The question," David Eaves asks, "is should we?"

Mr. Eaves is a Canadian at Harvard, where he researches and writes on the interactions of government, information and technology. Like the rest of us, he is grappling with the Liberal government's decision not to impose either a tax or Canadian content regulations on, among other things, streaming services such as Netflix.

The debate over that decision is muddled, he believes, because we confuse cultural policy with industrial policy. To understand that confusion, we need to go back in time.

In 1949, the St. Laurent government appointed Vincent Massey to head up a commission on Canadian culture. Fledgling efforts to develop a uniquely Canadian voice were in danger of being overwhelmed by the American behemoth.

The Massey Commission's 1951 report established the framework for a heavily-subsidized Canadian cultural sector: the Canada Council, the CBC, Canadian book publishers, eventually the CRTC and its Canadian content regulations for broadcasters.

Massey's vision worked. Those subsidies gave us Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan and Drake, Robert LePage and Cirque du Soleil and Xavier Dolan. Those subsidies also created the infrastructure to identify, develop and support these and thousands of other artists. Massey's efforts to protect Canadian culture gave rise to the Canadian cultural industry. That industry is doing well, contributing more than 3 per cent to Canada's gross domestic product and employing more than 600,000 workers.

But the Internet, social media and streaming services have disrupted the old platforms. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly promised to come up with a new funding and regulatory model for broadcasters, telecoms, newspapers and magazines – "everything is on the table," she said.

And that's where everything stayed. Under Creative Canada, which she announced two weeks ago, there is more money for existing programs, a one-off deal that will see Netflix invest $500-million in Canadian productions, talk about "creative hubs," whatever they are, and a fresh set of reviews – of the Broadcasting Act, Telecommunications Act and Copyright Act.

But in the main, the government is leaving well enough alone. Is that wise? That depends on whether you are more interested in the industry or the artists.

The government is gambling that existing industries will adapt to new technologies. Newspapers and networks and theatre companies and record labels will evolve or be replaced with something more nimble and robust. The government may be right.

But as an incubator of Canadian culture, laissez faire may not be enough. The industry could survive, but not the artists. There could be lots of film production in Vancouver and Toronto, but nothing produced about Vancouver or Toronto, or any other place or people in Canada.

We could, if we wanted, keep the old model. The government could impose sales or other taxes on imported cultural products; it could require anyone selling cultural product into Canada to support Canadian content. It could use these tools to assist writers and directors and choreographers and musicians – real, living, breathing artists struggling to make a go of it, as artists have always struggled to make a go of it.

As Robert Sirman, the former head of the Canada Council, points out, European governments are far more aggressive than the Canadian government in defending their cultures from American domination.

Should Ottawa be more aggressive? He isn't sure. But if you look at the international success of Canadian artists today, he observes, "there is no doubt that it has something to do with public policy over the last 50 years." Without Vincent Massey, there would be no Handmaid's Tale on TV.

Maybe it's time to dismantle the old system. Maybe Canadians now proudly and confidently speak to each other in new media and old, and we no longer need the crutch of subsidies and quotas and other forms of protection.

Or maybe governments fear to intervene because they know Canadians just don't care about culture any more. Maybe both things are true.

Either way, there won't be a Netflix tax any time soon. Vincent Massey would not approve.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced a $500-million deal with streaming giant Netflix on Thursday as Ottawa unveiled its long-awaited cultural strategy. The NDP questioned whether the plan would 'protect Canadian content.'

The Canadian Press

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