Canadian Content – Milking the System


What do cows and culture have in common? Both crave protectionism, supply management for dairy products and content quotas for culture. While technology has driven a stake through the heart of cultural protectionism, Canadian dairy content at present remains intact.

The Liberal government is re-examining Canada’s cultural policies, which includes the hoary issue of the nature of Canadian content and whether it needs protection. Robert Fulford speaks of this in the National Post (May 27th, 2016)

 “Canada notably lacks a collective imagination. Individual novelists find ways to develop Canadian stories that win both national and international readers. But for the CBC “our stories” remains an empty slogan, a claim that commanding and important legends live offstage, waiting for broadcasters to bring them to life. Federally mandated Canadian content regulations express a yearning for a more robust national spirit, but it’s not something you can regulate into existence.”

On the same general topic, Andrew Coyne in the National Post (May 25th, 2016) writes

“… “American” TV, much of which is created by Canadians. As if the other paradoxes and contradictions of cultural nationalism were not enough, there is no self-evident definition of “Canadian content.” How do we define a Canadian? Parentage? Place of birth? Residence? What makes a Canadian story? Written by a Canadian? Set in Canada? “Identifiably Canadian themes,” whatever they are? 

Now add together all the moving parts needed to make a film or TV show — producers, directors, actors, writers, “in-betweeners” — and you have the absurdity of CanCon as it is actually practised, teams of dedicated bureaucrats using precision-crafted calipers to determine that, say, a Blue Jays broadcast from New York is Canadian but a Bryan Adams song is not.”

Lobbyists for retaining CanCon are the cultural industry associations, their lawyers and academics who feast on the policies.

So should cultural nationalism be supported? The answer here is a conditional yes, but not as presently structured. Questions to be answered include:

What is a Canadian story?

When do Canadians create them?

Why should Canadians listen/view them?

What happens if Canadians don’t read, listen to or watch them?

I will try to address some of these questions and suggest some policy options, one of which is to do nothing and let audiences decide. This is pretty much the view of Andrew Coyne, and one which has merit.

One qualification I would make is to recognize that at the birth of film-making, radio and TV, there may have been an infant industry argument for granting some support/and protection, so that Canadian producers and distributors could get started. This was one reason for establishing public broadcasters like the BBC, CBC and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in a number of countries, although not in the US….ok, PBS and NPR have elements of public broadcasting.

The difficulty is that once the infant is supported it is never weaned from the public teat. Canada made the mistake, in my view, of funding its public broadcaster with a combination of public funds and commercial advertising revenue, unlike the BBC and ABC. If the public broadcaster is to remain, it should not be in competition with private broadcasters for commercial revenues.

What is Canadian?

Content is usually considered Canadian if it is authored, acted/performed or produced by Canadians, involves Canadian writers, actors, performers etc, or Canada is where the money to produce it is raised and spent. Some connection to Canada is required. A movie made in Canada about Denmark would likely be considered Canadian content, while a movie made in Denmark about Canada would not. All sorts of anomalies arise.

In the case of current policies, whether Canadians are actually the audiences for Canadian defined content does not matter. For example, the audience for CBC English language TV has been declining markedly, and French language TV to a lesser extent.  CBC radio in both languages has experienced a lesser decline. It does not broadcast commercials.

A private Canadian broadcaster is required to distribute a certain amount of Canadian defined content regardless of whether anyone watches it. It is a push as opposed to a pull strategy where audiences choose to see certain programs. Check the channel packages you are forced to purchase with channels you never watch. Or imagine going to the grocery store and being told that if you want to buy a cabbage, you have to buy a turnip as well.

 Why the need?

The need for Canadians to create Canadian stories is argued to be good for national cohesion and as an aid to education. Canadians need to know about Canada, and the media is an important avenue for this to happen if it transmits the “right” content. So goes the argument.

The problem is that Canadians often do not fall into line. They choose to spend their time with other types of print, sound and visual content. Never more so than now, when the internet age makes it possible to access content either for free (if you own the right hardware) or at low cost and in a wide variety of locations.

So is there another way to proceed? That is to meet the desire of governments to support the arts, which is a branch of education, and to get larger Canadian audiences to pay for the output and delivery?

An alternative approach?

Those most in need of support are in the early stages of their artistic careers, where they have yet to gain a reputation and a track record whether as author, director, producer, performer, artist, etc. Similar to the support given to education and athletes at an early stage of their careers, assist those developing cultural related talents.

Subsidies directed to those who are already established can be both a waste, and a disincentive to survival without dependence on state support. The state does have a role, but it is with measures like copyright and patents to support those who are creative and who do succeed.

In today’s world (globalization and all that), creative opportunities have expanded as it becomes easier for artists to reach larger audiences. Challenges will remain to be rewarded financially from all those who benefit as audiences from artistic work, but this has always been the case. Today, the technology makes it easier to create and publish works, even though the competition for audiences has also increased. Music groups, for example, use the internet to distribute their productions for free with the aim of becoming known and then being paid. Apprentices in the trades face a similar situation.

Like the success of dairy farmers in retaining supply management, the cultural industry lobby in Canada has captured the politicians and bureaucracy to provide increased funding and protection without Canadians necessarily consuming it. Benefits accrue to certain cultural participants but not necessarily to Canadians as consumers.

There is a case for certain types of government support for creative endeavor by Canadians (I prefer to call it that rather than Canadian content). At the same time, there is a need to wean the lobbying groups off the existing so called cultural teats that have been used by all three levels of government. An alternative is to direct support to those at the outset of their creative careers. But at some point they need to be able to stand alone and not turn to the nanny state.


Having spent a lifetime in academia with tenure and as the recipient of grants, I realize a similar argument can apply. Here new technology may also bring about change, the subject for a future posting. With a colleague Keith Acheson, I did write Much Ado about Culture, North American Trade Disputes (University of Michigan Press, 1999) which dealt with these issues. We were unable to find a Canadian publisher interested in publishing this book.


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