Steven Guilbeault is the Minister of Canadian Heritage, but he often refers to his time as an environmental activist to describe how he plans to force foreign-based internet platforms to fund the creation of cultural content in this country.
International web giants have rejected attempts to regulate them and have lobbied against plans to compel them to invest in Canada’s cultural sectors.
In an interview this week, however, Mr. Guilbeault said he will introduce legislation by the end of the year, calling on those companies to increase their contribution to the creation and distribution of Canadian cultural products.
While he said he will engage in a dialogue with companies such as Facebook, Netflix and Spotify, he also made it clear that companies that operate in Canada will have to participate in the funding of Canadian cultural products.
“I don’t believe that we can go for a voluntary system,” Mr. Guilbeault said. “I think we will have to do this through legislation, not because I think they are bad people but, as an environmentalist, I have never been very convinced that voluntarism is a very effective tool.”
Before joining Justin Trudeau’s team as a Liberal candidate in Montreal last year, Mr. Guilbeault worked for Greenpeace – he scaled the CN Tower in 2001 to protest against government inaction on climate change – and at an environmental group called Équiterre, which he co-founded.
The Prime Minister surprised many people in November by appointing Mr. Guilbeault at Canadian Heritage rather than in an environmental portfolio. Still, the 49-year-old embraced the challenge of learning about Canada’s cultural industries and finding ways to adapt to the ongoing technological revolution.
The debate over the future of Canada’s culture policy will get a jolt in coming days when a government panel, chaired by industry veteran Janet Yale, recommends a new regime to provide greater funding to Canadian cultural industries.
Asked about his message to internet giants in the lead-up to the Yale report, Mr. Guilbeault went back to his time in the environmental movement. One day, he said, a senior executive in the energy sector told him it was better for his company to be “at the table than on the menu.”
“I think [internet companies] see the writing on the wall, not just in Canada but around the world," Mr. Guilbeault said. "For a while, it was pretty much the Wild West, they did want they wanted to do. That created all sort of problems. Self-regulation doesn’t work.”
Mr. Guilbeault has been meeting with members of the Canadian cultural community in recent weeks, and plans on sitting down with foreign-based companies to finalize his plan.
“If you are Spotify or Netflix or Apple, the model is working pretty well for you,” he said, adding other members of the cultural community are not as fortunate. "If you’re Drake, I guess you’re okay, but not everybody is Drake.”
Mr. Guilbeault wants digital platforms to adapt their algorithms to increase the accessibility of Canadian content, but also to propose how they can offer new sources of funding to creators.
“I’m someone who likes to build bridges, who likes to try and find people who will come from different sectors or have different opinions, and to be able to sit down at the table,” he said.
On the issue of taxing internet firms, Mr. Guilbeault said he is leaving it up to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. In the short term, Ottawa wants to impose the GST on subscriptions to foreign streaming services, while the taxation of revenue from digital services will come later as part of a coalition with OECD countries.
While he was a star of the environmental movement in Quebec, Mr. Guilbeault was known for his willingness to work with governments and the private sector to find pragmatic solutions. That stand earned him the rebuke of some of his more activist colleagues, but also the plaudits of progressive politicians and members of the business community.
Michael Sabia, the head of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, recalled how Mr. Guilbeault helped to forge a consensus with other community groups on Montreal’s $6.3-billion Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light-rail rapid transit system.
“The magic with Steven is that he is able to act in a way that is consistent with his basic principles, but in a pragmatic way to bring other people onside, to build bridges,” Mr. Sabia said. “Steven is able to focus on the big picture and the things that really matter.”
With so many different and diverging interests at play, attempts to make changes to Canada’s cultural policy are politically challenging. Former heritage minister Mélanie Joly found out the hard way with the backlash over a $500-million deal with Netflix that did not include any specific spending commitments in Quebec or measures to get the company to collect sales taxes.
Mr. Guilbeault said a key element of his plan is to listen to stakeholders and ensure no one is surprised by his proposals. “We may not agree on everything, but there are things on which we can agree together, so let’s run with this," he said.