Margaret Atwood and Bill C-11

February 6, 2023

Canada’s most accomplished writer Margaret Atwood recently threw in against the Online Streaming Act Bill C-11 by telling the Globe and Mail that “bureaucrats should not be telling creators what to write.”

Salting those comments, she added “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.”

Atwood echoed sentiments expressed last week during Third Reading of the Bill by her fellow novelist and Canadian Senator David Adams Richards, who for good measure added references to Nazi Germany and Joseph Goebbels.

To this Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne responded the following day, “with all due respect, those who denounce C-11 as an evil act of censorship and infringement of our rights and freedoms are out to lunch.” 

Atwood acknowledged to the Globe that she hadn’t read C-11 “thoroughly yet,” though presumably Senator Richards has.

Here are some thoughts to help them along their way to understanding the Bill better.

We’ve had government intervention to fund and promote Canadian content since the CBC was created in 1936. In the 1980s the CRTC imposed a similar responsibility on other broadcasting networks, the policy idea being to carve out a place for Canadian news, information, sports and entertainment within a continental market dominated by American programming.

Today the CRTC expects CBC and Radio-Canada to dedicate 85% of their programming budget to Canadian shows, while establishing a 30% spending obligation for other broadcasters.

Those spending responsibilities necessarily require a serviceable definition of “Canadian programming,” as opposed to American (or foreign). 

Contrary to what Atwood and Richards believe, the ‘bureaucratic’ definition of ‘Canadianess’ has always been based on the nationality of the creator’s passport, not the cultural specificity of her creation. What makes a broadcast Canadian is the citizenship of its producer and key creative talent.

The same citizenship test applies to many prestigious book awards, of which Atwood and Richards deservedly have many.

Atwood and Richards join more partisan voices in denouncing C-11 as ‘censorship,’ although those comments have been directed not at the definition of Canadian content but rather provisions in the Bill requiring Netflix and YouTube to promote Canadian programming in their personalized recommendations.

Oddly, the same C-11 opponents bemoan the lack of a culturally specific ‘Canadianess’ test for funded programming. The British, for example, have one such test of ‘Britishness.‘ And lo, it requires a ‘bureaucrat’ to apply it.

Double oddly, the proponents of C-11 are mostly defending the citizenship approach founded on the decades-old ‘point system’ that conducts a headcount of key Canadian talent involved in making a video or audio production, as well as Canadian ownership of the resulting product. 

That ‘legacy’ point of view rejects the subjective ‘Canadianess’ test lest it confine artistic expression. Instead, defenders of the ‘point system’ put their trust in the long-term propensity of Canadian artists to produce culturally specific art. Like the aforementioned Atwood and Richards, say.

So far the C-11 debate has (as Senator Miville-Dechêne acknowledged) featured a great deal of partisan hyperventilation about user generated content. The Senator co-authored an amendment, yet to be accepted by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, putting YouTubers and their uploads outside of a bill that otherwise regulates broadcasting on streaming platforms. 

That won’t leave a great deal in C-11 to quarrel over unless one is hostile to original policy behind funding and promoting Canadian broadcasting. That’s a goal that Ms. Atwood appears to acknowledge in her comment to the Globe about “well-meaning attempts to achieve some sort of fairness in the marketplace.”

Indeed Ms. Atwood’s colourful description of the continental marketplace, and whether Canada can maintain some measure of cultural sovereignty within it, can be found in her legendary remarks to a Parliamentary Committee on the occasion of the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the United States:

Canada as a separate but dominated country has done about as well under the US as women, worldwide, have done under men; the only position they’ve ever adopted toward us, country to country, has been the missionary position, and we are not on top. I guess that’s why the national wisdom vis-à-vis [the US] has so often taken the form of lying still, keeping your mouth shut, and pretending you like it….Our national animal is the beaver…noted for its industry and its cooperative spirit. In medieval bestiaries it is also noted for its habit, when frightened, of biting off its own testicles and offering them to the pursuer. I hope we are not succumbing to some form of that impulse.”


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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.

4 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood and Bill C-11”

  1. As usual in this blog, informed and reasoned analysis shines a light through the fog of rhetoric. I recently got caught in a moment of eliding C-11 with the online harms plan , and wonder if Atwood might have got caught in a similar concentration-lapse, an explanation the worthy Senator, as you point out, surely has read the actual bill. But either way, people with influence could do well to censor themselves when their tongues start to form comparisons between democratic policy proposals in a rule-of-law regime and Nazi and Soviet tyrannies.


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