Margaret Atwood has weighed into the debate about Bill C-11, saying “bureaucrats should not be telling creators what to write.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Atwood said bureaucrats also should not be deciding what’s Canadian.
“All you have to do is read some biographies of writers writing in the Soviet Union and the degrees of censorship they had to go through – government bureaucrats,” she said. “So it is creeping totalitarianism if governments are telling creators what to create.”
The author said she had not read the bill “thoroughly yet” and that there seemed to be “well-meaning attempts to achieve some sort of fairness in the marketplace.”
“But like a lot of well-meaning attempts, if people haven’t thought it through, the effect might be different from what you thought it would be,” she added, saying it was “unclear” how it would be interpreted.
“You can’t guess ahead of time what it is going to do.”
The online streaming bill, which has now passed through the Commons and Senate and is expected to become law this month, would compel streaming platforms to promote Canadian content.
Ms. Atwood tweeted on Wednesday that a speech by Senator David Adams Richards, a fellow writer, in the Senate this week – in which he railed against the bill and government interference – “needs a listen.”
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Mr. Richards, winner of the Governor-General’s Award and Giller Prize, and a member of the Order of Canada, launched an excoriating attack on the bill, which he called “censorship passing as national inclusion.”
He compared members of Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s staff with members of Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry in Nazi Germany.
“The idea of any hierarchical politico deciding what a man or woman is allowed to write to fit a proscribed national agenda is a horrid thing,” he said. “I am wondering if anyone on the staff of our Minister of Canadian Heritage understands this.”
He also alluded to Soviet censorship of author Vasily Grossman, whose classic novel Life and Fate was banned from publication for being anti-Soviet.
“Cultural committees are based as much in bias and fear as in anything else. I’ve seen enough artistic committees to know that,” he said. “George Orwell says we must resist a prison of self-censorship. This bill goes a long way to construct such a prison.”
The Heritage Minister has said he will ask the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to decide what counts as Canadian content. The bill would oblige streaming platforms to promote qualifying Canadian films, songs and TV shows – and to financially contribute to their creation.
Ms. Atwood – a multi-award-winning author, including the Booker Prize and Giller Prize – said defining what counts as Canadian could be problematic. “If it’s a matter of where it’s produced, that’s easy,” she said. “Produced here or not? That’s easy. When it comes to content, you are on pretty shaky ground.”
The Emmy Award-winning TV adaptation of Ms. Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, failed to qualify as Canadian content as it doesn’t tick enough of the official boxes.
Her remarks echo persistent criticism from senators, MPs and people in Canada’s creative sector that the bill could lead to unintended consequences because of its imprecise wording.
YouTube has warned for a year, since the bill was published, that one passage was so ambiguous that it could lead to amateur videos, for example of people’s dogs, cats and children, being regulated.
Senators Paula Simons and Julie Miville-Dechêne clarified the wording of the clause with an amendment that passed the Senate on Thursday in its third-reading vote. Mr. Rodriguez will now have to decide whether to accept the amendment, making it clear that the online streaming act won’t cover such “user-generated content.”
The minister plans to issue a policy directive with suggestions and instructions to the CRTC, including to modernize the definition of “Canadian content.” The CRTC would decide what counts as a Canadian film, TV program or song.
Mr. Richards said in his Senate speech: “I do not know who would be able to tell me what Canadian content is and what it is not, but I know it won’t be in the Minister of Heritage’s power to ever tell me.”
Ms. Atwood questioned what the CRTC, “the shadowy body that lurks in the background,” actually does. “They’re secret. How many of them are there, or what do they do actually?”
Laura Scaffidi, a spokeswoman for Mr. Rodriguez, said Bill C-11 “is not about dictating what Canadian culture is. It does not tell writers, producers or creators what they should write, produce or create. Bill C-11 is about modernizing the Broadcasting Act, which was last updated in 1991.”