‘Telling Canadian stories’ is not a slogan.

September 9, 2022

For much of Bill C-11’s journey through Parliament, public comment and press coverage have been dominated by its critics which, in any democracy, is what you want.

I’ve posted previously that much of that criticism is factually inaccurate, leveraged by worst-case scenarios, and at times post-truth

But what are the good reasons for the Online Streaming Act in the first place? 

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s messaging has been that C-11, like the Broadcasting Act it will amend, is about “a level playing field” for media companies and  “telling Canadian stories.”

I agree with both, especially the latter. But it seems that outside Parliamentary committee rooms nobody is elaborating on why “telling Canadian stories” is a good thing.

I am tempted to say that such elaboration on Canadian content invites a discussion of “cultural nationalism” but allow me to disavow that term even though I call myself cultural nationalist as a kind of obligatory warning label. 

A truly satisfying description of “national Canadian culture” is elusive (at least in English Canada) and not especially helpful, if only because Canada doesn’t produce and consume culture, Canadians do, in a rainbow of imaginative visions. 

When asked why we value Canadian stories, and what makes them Canadian, our minds turn easily to the enduring riddle of the “Canadian identity” in hopes the answer to our question lies there. 

During the 1990s we experienced a burst of English Canadian introspection about “the Canadian identity” in response to watershed changes in trade with the United States, globalization of the economy, changing ethnic demographics across the country, and the near separation of Québec in a cliffhanger referendum. 

In the collection of essays Belonging (1993) about the meaning of Canadian citizenship, William Kaplan described something familiar to most Canadians: an unresolved tension between on one hand a post-national Canada populated by multiple nations and self-aware communities and, on the other, a lasting desire to live together in a sovereign community, what’s been described as “a focus of political allegiance and emotional energy on a scale capable of satisfying deep human longings for solidarity, symbolic identification, and community.” 

The place that Kaplan lands is the concept of citizenship (and identity?) based on the right to participate in a democracy where we can create good things together that “transcend race, religion, language, ethnicity and region.”

Writing around the same time, Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn tried to describe a Canadian identity rooted in something earthier, a political creed he called civic Canadianism. 

Publishing Nationalism Without Walls (1995) only months before a second sovereignty referendum in Québec would be narrowly defeated, Gwyn was pessimistic about Canada’s future. He dreaded the growing income inequality he saw resulting from trade deals, but also condemned official multiculturalism, immigration policy and “identity politics” as solvents that would unglue the cohesion of Canadians. 

As for public support for “Canadian culture,” Gwyn cited polling by Ekos (see page 89 of its report) that demonstrated a high level of public support for “Canadian culture” without identifying what it was. 

English Canadians overwhelmingly agreed “Canadian culture” was “something we can all take pride in” and also stated a high “sense of belonging” to Canada.

By the end of his book, Gwyn identified certain civic values as the sovereignty pact we make with our fellow Canadians: a deeper commitment to “egalitarian” and “collectivist” values than you might find in the United States. 

But the trouble with grafting this concept of “identity” onto “culture” is —especially if you are searching for distinctive cultural characteristics based on a common Canadian experience— egalitarian and collectivist values may be majoritarian, but hardly a consensus as we are reminded every day in 2022.

If Canadian culture is regulated and provided with subsidies in servitude to the state, national unity, or a contentious set of civic values, then public support for CanCon will be just as contentious.

Perhaps this is the connection to why many right-wing libertarians are harshly critical of Bill C-11 if the justification offered for subsidizing CanCon is a semi-official “cultural identity” rooted in egalitarian priorities they don’t rank nearly as high as liberty and free markets.

That may be why C-11 critic J.J.McCullough pigeon-holes “Canadian nationalism” as loyalty to “left-wing” federal policies rather than anything recognizably cultural. He believes culture is a commodity best left to the unregulated creative marketplace, something he acknowledges is dominated in the English-speaking world by American media conglomerates.

For similar reasons, the idea of CanCon-as-political-agenda may be why other critics of C-11 gripe that the legislation is driven by Québec MPs (where culture has different historical and linguistic roots with no real affinity for American-dominated media). 

The libertarians’ equating of Canadian cultural regulation with political goals or agendas is devilishly clever for it eats away at public support for the Broadcasting Act (polling results notwithstanding). 

But it’s a mistake for either supporters or opponents of C-11 to conflate political values with cultural regulation, even though Canadian politics and culture share similar moral values.

While some recognizably Canadian culture is expressly political —consider any number of Canadian historical dramas, documentaries, or hockey summits — most of it isn’t.

But what else it is often seems elusive.

The late Northrup Frye had something to contribute on this point. 

Frye (1912-1991) is Canada’s most famous literary critic and an original mind if ever there was one. 

Writing in the 1960s when the Québec Independence movement was on the march, Frye became intrigued with what English-language CanLit had to tell us about our inner imaginative lives. (It seems that deep thoughts about being English Canadian are stirred during crises of national unity).

In The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, Frye offered a series of insights and pregnant ideas rather than a tidy answer to the question “what is the Canadian identity” or imagination. The first and last of eleven essays are the most directly applicable to the debate about CanCon.

Writing about CanLit as just one medium of cultural expression, Frye was not concerned about whether Canada boasted a renowned literature that held its own against the great classics in western literature, much in the way CanCon is often measured against the best that the UK, France or the US has to offer in popular culture. 

Frye saw literature as one door into describing the Canadian imagination: “It is obvious that Canadian literature, whatever its merits, is an indispensable aid to the knowledge of Canada. It records what the Canadian imagination has reacted to, and it tells us things about this environment that nothing else will tell us.”

Frye made a series of observations about Canadian literature (and here we should consider if they also apply to other Canadian imaginative traditions like television) that most Canadians would recognize as true.

Canada did not have much of a youth as a post-Contact nation and, in the history of the European world, arrived rather late. Western mythical traditions in literature were so well established, said Frye, it’s no accident that instead Canadian literature often revolves around grand narratives in our history.

On that point he identified a distinctive feature of CanLit as “the romantic, exploratory and idealistic” that is “emotionally linked with Confederation and Canadianism.” 

But he also spotted an “alternating rhythm” in CanLit, the pastoral myth of an idyllic childhood, usually located on the Canadian frontier. He described the act of imagination as “reflective, observant and pastoral” and likely associated with regional and local expressions of culture. That may be why one of his most memorable comments about the Canadian imagination was “don’t ask who are we. Rather ask where is here?”

Frye compared these complimentary literary traditions to a similar polarity between great tales of nationalism versus imaginative expression rooted in regional or local communities. 

What he said is worth quoting at length, because it’s insightful:

“The question of identity is primarily a cultural and imaginative question, and there is always something vegetable about the imagination, something sharply limited in range. American writers are, as writers, not American: they are New Englanders, Mississippians, Middle Westerners, expatriates, and the like. Even in the much smaller British Isles we find few writers who are simply British: Hardy belongs to “Wessex,” Dylan Thomas to South Wales, Beckett to the Dublin-Paris axis, and so on…

“Similarly, the question of Canadian identity, so far as it affects the creative imagination, is not a “Canadian” question at all, but a regional question. An environment turned outward to the sea, like so much of Newfoundland, and one turned towards inland seas, like so much of the Maritimes, are an imaginative contrast: anyone who has been conditioned by one in his earliest years can hardly become conditioned by the other in the same way. Anyone brought up on the urban plain of southern Ontario or the gentle pays farmland along the south shore of the St. Lawrence may become fascinated by the great sprawling wilderness of Northern Ontario or Ungava, may move there and live with its people and become accepted as one of them, but if he paints or writes about it he will paint or write as an imaginative foreigner….

“Thus when the CBC is instructed by Parliament to do what it can to promote Canadian unity and identity, it is not always realized that unity and identity are quite different things to be promoting, and that in Canada they are perhaps more different than they are anywhere else. Identity is local and regional, rooted in the imagination and in works of culture; unity is national in reference, international in perspective, and rooted in a political feeling.”

Frye mistrusted nationalism in culture —he was opposed to Separation— but nevertheless saw national, regional and local expression as all of one Canadian cultural piece:

“The essential element in the national sense of unity is the east-west feeling, developed historically along the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes axis, and expressed in the national motto, a mari usque ad mare. The tension between this political sense of unity and the imaginative sense of locality is the essence of whatever the word “Canadian” means. Once the tension is given up, and the two elements of unity and identity are confused or assimilated to each other, we get the two endemic diseases of Canadian life. Assimilating identity to unity produces the empty gestures of cultural nationalism; assimilating unity to identity produces the kind of provincial isolation which is now called separatism.”

Aside from offering his opinion on what features of CanLit seem authentically Canadian, Frye also had something to say about the impact of our neighbours to the south.

The Canadian compulsion to define our own cultural traditions as distinct within North America, he suggested, is not anti-Americanism but an imaginative reflex to the domineering globalization of modern life:

“The writers of the last decade, at least, have begun to write in a world which is post-Canadian, as it is post-American, post-British, and post everything except the world itself. There are no provinces in the empire of aeroplane and television, and no physical separation from the centres of culture, such as they are. Sensibility is no longer dependent on a specific environment or even on sense experience itself. A remark of one critic about Robert Finch illustrates a tendency which is affecting literature as well as painting: “the interplay of sense impressions is so complicated, and so exhilarating, that the reader receives no sense impression at all.” 

“Marshall McLuhan speaks of the world as reduced to a single gigantic primitive village, where everything has the same kind of immediacy. He speaks of the fears that so many intellectuals have of such a world, and remarks amiably: “Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.” 

“The Canadian spirit, to personify it as a single being dwelling in the country from the early voyages to the present, might well, reading this sentence, feel that this was where he came in. In other words, new conditions give the old ones a new importance, as what vanishes in one form reappears in another. The moment that the peaceable kingdom has been completely obliterated by its rival is the moment when it comes into the foreground again, as the eternal frontier, the first thing that the writer’s imagination must deal with.”

There is one last pithy thing Frye said that I find myself hanging on to:

“One theme which runs all through this book is the obvious and unquenchable desire of the Canadian cultural public to identify itself through its literature.”

It’s an interesting choice of words, “an unquenchable desire.”. The thirst metaphor is compelling. Perhaps what we call Canadian culture, the telling of stories, is less a museum of artifacts than a compulsive introspection into our identity as Canadians.

While I suspect most libertarians are less compulsive about the Canadian imagination than I am, nevertheless the argument they make is that thanks to the miracle of the Internet we don’t need cultural subsidies to tell Canadian stories and should just leave CanCon to make its way in the free market.

Andrew Coyne likes to make the market argument and did so in a recent column:

“In the world of 1950, when there was no internet, no satellite or cable TV, and no means for viewers to pay for content directly, there was a clear case for government intervention. With spectrum in short supply, competition was limited. And when the business model of private broadcasters depended on delivering the largest possible audience to advertisers, much of what they broadcast tended to be the same – usually imported American fare. Some mixture of subsidy and regulation could be defended, precisely to recreate the diversity of offerings a well-functioning market provides.

“But none of those conditions now apply. There is no theoretical limit to the number of services streaming on the internet, nor much in the way of barriers of cost or distance. Consumers can pay directly for content, so providers need not always aim for the broad middle, but can serve niche markets as well. Regulation is unnecessary at best, if not actively harmful; so is subsidy. In particular, there is nothing to prevent Canadians from paying for Canadian content if they choose – and no reason to force them to if they don’t.”

That last sentence echoes McCullough: the sole calculus of culture is the number of paying customers. Point finale.

It is true that “niche content” —Coyne’s category for CanCon— can now find bigger audiences through Internet distribution. For example independent Canadian TV programmers and YouTubers use the Internet platform to expand their discoverability by domestic audiences and, depending upon the niche, draw even larger foreign audiences. 

On the other hand, the same technological miracle has robbed Canadian media of much of its advertising revenue. 

The Internet hasn’t changed the fundamental challenge to supply enough high-cost national, regional and local content to compete against American content for Canadian eyeballs. 

The challenge is scale, scale, and scale, in that order. 

It’s scale of financial resources to match US studios and their billion-dollar programming (outmatching Canada by the factor of 20:1) now launched directly into the Canadian market by streaming apps. 

It’s scale of audiences (or the lack of it in a small country) seeking national, regional and local media content. All genres of CanCon are unprofitable and English Canada is at the bottom of international comparisons of audiences viewing home-grown compared to foreign content.

And it’s scale of audience for the advertisers who want to reach those audiences despite the competing scale offered to them by the titans of digital advertising, Google and Facebook.

The Internet is at best a mixed blessing for CanCon and there you have the reason for C-11 updating the Broadcasting Act.

After C-11 becomes law, CanCon and the Internet will get along just fine so long as we consider the Internet an improved communications technology rather than worship it as a sacred totem of liberty.

Our current CanCon rules may be subject to both improvement and occasional ridicule, but that is all perfectible if telling Canadian stories is worth it.

The ancient Romans distinguished between “natio” —a cloving to ethnic cousins— and “patria,” the love of the land we inhabit. 

In our beautiful home of many nations, it’s our experience of patria we treasure and it’s our Canadian imaginations that celebrate it.

Kamloops skyline. Photo by Kent Simmonds, 2021

Charts in this post are from the CRTC’s 2018 report Harnessing Change.

***

Published by

Howard Law

I am retired staff of Unifor, the union representing 300,000 Canadians in twenty different sectors of the economy, including 10,000 journalists and media workers. As the former Director of the Media Sector and as an unapologetic cultural nationalist, I have an abiding passion for public policy in Canadian media.

5 thoughts on “‘Telling Canadian stories’ is not a slogan.”

  1. This is a lovely piece of Canadian content about Canadian content. It made me think about my own dear nation-the big sky of rural Saskatchewan, “This land is your land, this land is my land”, multicultural richness, urbanity, Trudeau, the freedom convoy, Tommy Douglas, the Canadian flag, good public policy – and to try to follow your brave shot at synthesis, and to realize again how much I care about and want to have this dialogue happening. Thanks for taking me back to Frye, of whom my David is a big fan. Really nice last paragraph. This is one of your best. Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. I forgot about that song, how could I? Here’s a couple of interesting things about it. Of course it was a Travellers cover of the Woody Guthrie song with the lyrics changed, how typically Canadian of us! But i think we made it our own and I am proud to say by one of my relatives! (My uncle Jerry Gray was/is the front man for the Travellers). As for Saskatchewan what more can be said than it truly feels like home even if you’re not from there. Thinking about the undulating prairie and the bison herd at Grasslands National Park.

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  2. Howard… commendations are in order for taking on the Canadian culture challenge. Certainly the sense of place that you discuss has been defining in our arts and politics. That by itself is more than enough reason for a cancon policy to make a place for Canadian stories. I would add that equally important are class distinctions in what and whose stories are told. Across the spectrum and legacy of Canadian arts it is hard to find portraits or stories of the lives of aristocrats and bourgeois society and they are rarely flattering. The overwhelming weight of Canadian stories are indigenous and the experiences of immigrants, habitants, farmers and workers. Most of those cultural histories and much of their real lives today are not well reflected in Canadian media and I haven’t seen a federal cancon or any other media policy yet that addresses this. As a result growing numbers of Canadians will turn to social media silos and literature and the arts where we can find or tell the stories meaningful to us.

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