To be a cultural worker in Canada is to be a filler of forms. If the American cultural scene is structured by entrepreneurialism and private foundations, our creative endeavours are highly dependent on direct government support. Canadian artists have a high degree of freedom, but their activities are fostered through subsidies and state regulations, especially with respect to Canadian content requirements. This is both a gift and a curse.
I often wonder what else could be accomplished in this country if its vast intelligence and creative energies could be redirected from the political lobbying necessary just to keep the lights on at our cultural institutions. Consider graduates of Canadian film schools, who often labour in unrelated fields to pay their rent and student loans, struggling for years to secure project funding. By comparison, Denmark, a northern middle power like Canada but with a population of less than 6 million, has free tuition. There, as the New York Times recently reported, the Danish Film Institute cannot keep up with the demand. Its students go on to create popular and compelling programs for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, disrupting the conventions of where productions are located.
Built into the psyche of our cultural industry is the idea that regulation and policy (instead of free tuition) will nurture creativity. Advocates point to the huge success of Canadian popular music, fostered by content requirements introduced in the early 1970s over the howling protests of station owners. The case for regulating radio is demonstrably solid: performers move to where their work is supported. Such policies were effective enough in the analog era, when films, books, and magazines were physical objects that could be stopped at the border, assessed, and taxed. Digital media can now cross borders more easily. The question is whether the kind of government intervention that once worked remains possible — or even imaginable.
This is the focus of two important books. Garry Neil and Richard Stursberg are both deeply invested in the role culture will continue to play in twenty-first-century Canada. Neil’s Canadian Culture in a Globalized World explores the possibilities and limits of cultural expression framed by economic and trade relationships, such as the erstwhile North American Free Trade Agreement, now rebranded as the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement. Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden takes up threats to our cultural autonomy — threats posed by the decline in advertising revenues brought about by the digital Frankenstein’s monster known as FAANG and the weak policies governments have mustered to tackle it. The acronym for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google is suggestive of Stursberg’s apocalyptic predictions for the future of English Canadian culture if we do not heed his advice. Of course, the future is actually much more complex, though ultimately unknowable.
These books are impassioned calls for action. Stursberg and Neil both warn that a monoculture of U.S. entertainment products would be fatal to employment within our cultural sector and would colonize this country’s consciousness. “When the media fail,” Stursberg writes, “we lose the major vehicle that allows us to converse among ourselves; we lose, in effect, the ongoing national discussion that makes sense of our lives as citizens and Canadians.”
Both authors concentrate on the political and economic conditions that drive culture in Canada. While they skip lightly over visual arts and focus on media industries, they illustrate the central dilemma for policy-makers: the dominance of the web and social media. Theirs is not simply a reactionary fear of new forms of expression; screen culture blurs the distinction between physical cultural repositories, such as museums, and television. And yet, as both Neil and Stursberg point out, the existing regulatory framework clings to old binaries.
Neil is a former head of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. His experience with ACTRA saw him working with the most commercial of cultural forms: movies and TV. He has lobbied against limits imposed by international trade agreements on Ottawa’s ability to subsidize or otherwise support these forms. His is a rearguard action, since politicians of all stripes are quick to make grand proclamations in defence of culture but have nonetheless allowed cultural autonomy to be used as a bargaining chip to benefit other economic sectors.
Within trade policy, culture is always secondary, and its economic impact is overlooked. But Neil believes that “cultural policies are the essential foundation for the development of Canadian storytellers.” The space for storytelling that is uniquely associated with the experience of being Canadian is under threat. The dilemma, as he sees it, is that while Americans deem culture to be entertainment, to be brought to market like any other commodity, Canadians tend to associate culture with intangible notions of identity. What’s more, our policies remain driven by American-style models, even as other approaches (like Denmark’s) are on offer — and likely better suited to our evolving population.
Neil advocates a shift away from treating culture as an industry; we should instead advocate for the protection of cultural expression in all its forms. Under current trade agreements, culture is nominally protected, but with the assumption that protections that do not conform to a free-market policy logic will eventually be eliminated. As it stands, Canada is able to maintain only existing exemptions; we cannot put forward new forms of protectionism. Canadian content on TV can be maintained, for example, but quotas for movie theatres or cultural forms not yet invented would be impossible without risking trade penalties.
Richard Stursberg, for his part, has a background in commercial production, though “commercial” is a curious term when all of our TV shows and feature-length movies are subsidized (and when being a Canadian filmmaker, at least until well into the 1970s, meant drawing a civil-service salary). He was head of Telefilm Canada, from 2001 to 2004, and of CBC’s English services, from 2004 to 2010. Before that, in the 1980s, he worked as an assistant deputy minister in the federal department of communications. Stursberg has always been clear about where he stands: as he told the Globe and Mail in 2007, “CBC Television needs to be more like Tim Hortons and less like Starbucks.”
In The Tower of Babble, his 2012 memoir about his time at the CBC, Stursberg argued that shows with a wide appeal, like Dragons’ Den and Battle of the Blades, could generate the necessary revenue for more lofty projects. His critics say that this kind of programming set the standard across the CBC, making the network less distinguishable from commercial broadcasters and thus inviting the question of why taxpayers should continue to subsidize it. Stursberg has no tolerance for highbrow notions of cultural identity, but he nonetheless wants to defend Canadian cultural production, including the CBC, through a FAANG tax that, he maintains, could properly support this country’s media industries. What he does not say is that Canada’s major media companies, including Bell and Rogers, are already highly profitable across their various platforms.
A watered-down version of Stursberg’s plan is already coming to fruition in the so-called Canadian Journalism Fund, which will offer tax credits worth $595 million over five years to help organizations with labour costs and the costs of transitioning to digital platforms. The program would also support charitable status for non-profit journalistic ventures. It is, however, highly problematic, because it risks jeopardizing journalistic independence and because it favours legacy news media organizations, especially newspapers. It fails to fully recognize the changing news media landscape, especially as emerging online entities — unencumbered by the hard costs of print production and operating under more viable financial models — could actually carry out the investigative journalism that legacy media companies have largely abandoned under the banner of cost-cutting.
These books respond to grim economic conditions: traditional news media outlets are in crisis. According to the New York Times, Google made at least $4.7 billion (U.S.) in 2018, which is money that might have been spent on conventional advertising. Beyond that, a 2019 survey by Digital News Report found that only 9 percent of Canadians pay for their digital news. The nature of the internet has conditioned us to expect free media. Our reluctance to pay is also a legacy of the TV marketplace, where content is free because the audience is essentially a demographic sold to advertisers. And, of course, such conditions influence other forms of content beyond journalism.
Neil says that the direct subsidies from a national journalism fund are of the sort that existing trade agreements can tolerate, because they do not propose fundamental structural changes, like quotas, that would threaten U.S. market share. But the problem is that subsidies are never enough, and they always face competing needs and political influence. Neil proposes a radical alternative: culture and creative labour should be explicitly recognized in international trade agreements as significantly distinct from other kinds of goods and services. This idea has gained some international traction, Neil shows, though it is up against the special kind of intransigence of current U.S. politics and the as yet unknown trade realities Brexit will bring for Canada.
So what can we do about FAANG, especially that G? It is wrong to assume that Google cannot be regulated, just as it is overly narrow and limiting to imagine culture simply as an engine for economic growth. In the European Union, for example, Netflix and other digital subscription platforms must conform to existing content requirements (including the blocking of hate speech). But Ottawa is shy about regulating and taxing FAANG. When former heritage minister Mélanie Joly unveiled a revamped cultural strategy in 2017, for instance, she said Netflix was willing to commit $500 million to new Canadian production. At the same time, she argued against taxing Netflix’s reported Canadian profits of $1.6 billion. Since then, there have been modest proposals to levy taxes on digital providers, always cautiously framed lest they trigger a U.S. response.
Stursberg suggests another reason: Justin Trudeau’s brand is linked with the image of cool technological progress. Though lately tarnished, his personal currency remains associated with the playful immediacy of social media, borrowing from the success of Barack Obama and symbolically setting his government apart from the dour public persona of Stephen Harper. “Like Obama,” Stursberg writes, “the Liberals took a very positive view of the big Silicon Valley companies. They saw them not only as the vanguard of the new economy, but — like the Liberals themselves — progressive and liberal on all manner of subjects.” He details how the Trudeau government has been strongly influenced by the industry’s lobbying to limit the expansion of existing broadcast policy to web platforms.
Stursberg proposes a simple tax credit, based on economic criteria, without vetting for cultural quality — a plan modelled on existing tax credits for film and television. His manifesto had its origin in a policy paper commissioned by Paul Godfrey, executive chair of Postmedia, who then invited its endorsement from his competitors. It is not surprising that Godfrey praised the announcement of the five-year subsidy plan, worth nearly $600 million, since his company is poised to gain millions. It is doubly ironic that a news outlet associated with neo-liberal laissez-faire editorial positions has led a collective march to the corporate welfare trough.
The hegemonic FAANG has certainly taken a huge bite out of newspaper and TV advertising revenue, but these old-school entities could have better championed the value of their content, rather than relying on layoffs and the familiar call for subsidies. The crisis of legacy news media companies has only been exacerbated by consolidation, reduction in journalistic coverage, and asset stripping that rewards the short-term interest of shareholders (Postmedia’s debt financing is mostly controlled by U.S. hedge funds).
Traditional organizations may indeed fail, but new forms of journalism and cultural expression may also flourish through emerging portals, even if under less familiar brands. The danger for new platforms is that they may be nearly invisible among the sea of content, especially when access is determined by algorithms designed by — and in service to — new monopolies.
Hence the underlying dilemma of Canadian cultural policy: It is needed as a bulwark against external forces with vastly greater resources. It also fosters a dependency that is not necessarily in the best interests of creativity.
Recent Canadian governments have done little to inspire leadership in this area, save for issuing lofty rhetoric. Subsidies may keep dead-tree media outlets on life support, but the question is whether it’s good enough simply to pacify a powerful constituency of corporate owners and influential gatekeepers, or whether we should figure out how to more fully meet the needs of all Canadians. To focus on the latter option is to acknowledge that Canadian culture includes a desire for something identifiably of this place, as well as the pleasure derived from that which is not.
Formulaic applications of content regulations are no more helpful than subsidies for legacy media organizations precisely because culture, like identity, remains hybrid and fluid. The systems set up to support and nurture creative work must likewise be adaptable rather than prescriptive. To get there, we need to understand that culture, irrespective of medium, is a point of view expressed through a particular kind of labour — one that is shaped by all the cross-border influences that make up life in the modern world. We have a better chance at creating policies that work within this reality if we get beyond the idea that culture is simply an engine for economic growth (though it is also that) or is something so fragile that it will entirely disappear without state intervention (it will not). Ultimately, there is no excuse to eliminate cultural support. But there’s also no need to load existing media monopolies with yet more public cash. The framework for subsidies must evolve along with the concept of culture and conditions of production. Let’s bring on the forms.
Darrell Varga is an associate professor of art history and contemporary culture at NSCAD University, in Halifax.