Veterans of Canadian Cultural Policy advocacy weren’t surprised the Heritage Ministry’s “Creative Canada Policy Framework” bombed. When consultations for the initiative were announced, old hands knew the questions and problems were too many and too complex to be addressed by the method of inquiry. 

There wasn’t enough time. The roadshow sounding out “stakeholders” was theatre with a supporting cast of usual suspects from the industry associations, ringers and rubes. To imagine an outcome from the process that remedied anything was to engage in magical thinking. Many assumed the Government already had a new direction mapped out, was merely making a show of soliciting input and giving the Minister an opportunity to have her picture taken. It was worse than that.

Canada entered the internet age already disadvantaged from decades of under-investment in arts and culture. We’ve long done less to defend the national identity (or identities) from American influence than comparable G20 countries, with the advantage of distance and distinct language. The internet created a new reality that aggravated the situation, power was concentrated in yet fewer hands, the business completely unregulated. (The modern internet emerges in 1983, concurrent with the fanatical anti-regulatory zeal of Reaganism.)

The companies controlling content distribution, the “frightful five,” Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are now the largest on a planet they consider borderless.  Their business model includes underpaying for raw material, profiting from the traffic in stolen content, and avoiding earthly taxes in the virtual sphere.

The Heritage Minister suggested Canada might confront this new reality by entering their rigged market as a Small Cap competitor. Ask Bombardier how that goes. When it became clear that no significant new policy was forthcoming, a fuzzy deal with Netflix (the production of some small portion of their inventory in Canada, a perfectly desirable thing in and of itself, but in lieu of paying sales tax), was pitched as political cover.  Much of the rest of the “Creative Canada Policy Framework” ended up being a restatement of the original vexing questions.

What needs to be done? The Broadcast Act needs a “page one rewrite.” Regulations have to be established so that the Googles of the new world, the digital industrial complex, have the responsibilities of a publisher or a broadcaster when they behave like one.

Canada has to exert its sovereignty over all signals transmitted over its terrain. If Canada means to compete in the global content marketplace, it has to be adequately capitalized. Daunting stuff.  Some problems, like how newspapers will survive when advertising once on the page is now on your viewing history, when space on your screens is sold without your consent, or you being compensated, are so bewildering that credible solutions have yet to be proposed. Hoping the new global players care about anything other than profit is delusional.

In the absence of a strategy that confronts the global market’s new opportunities and obstacles there exists an interim solution, a cunning deke: a refocus on regional and local media.

The Government could put its energies and resources into fostering content created not for the world, but for its own neighbourhoods. Canada has control of levers that make this modest goal achievable.  This will almost certainly produce material that is, as unpredictably as hits are made, of interest to larger markets.  It’s salable politically, and returns to a founding principle of Canadian Cultural policy, nation-building.

The CBC, particularly radio, used to do a reasonable job of this but now, inadequately funded, seems satisfied disseminating indifferent content from Toronto HQ.  The Federal Government needs to take measures to increase the production of independent, local public affairs (that doesn’t mean news, weather, traffic, or journalists straining to be entertainers), documentary, and scripted content from and for the entire country. Maybe that means a radical reassessment of the budget and mandate of the CBC or, given new technology, the creation of some new mechanism.

The audience is blithely unaware how acute is the crisis, how fast things can come unravelled.  File sharing and steaming destroyed the recorded music industry in the blink of an eye. If something isn’t done soon Canada will be a country without newspapers or magazines, without its own distinct films and television; a nation state that will have to make do entirely with sponsored content, Facebook posts, and whatever an algorithm running on a computer in California decides it will watch. Check what’s on Netflix as you consider this.

Having been around the storytelling professions in Canada for over thirty years, I know there is an abundance of talent in the land. But the guiding principle, the code, “Best Idea Wins,” is rarely heeded in Arts and Entertainment here.  The business in Canada is risk-averse and the government monies tied to project funding are awarded to tick boxes or make quotas. And while Canadians celebrate their dead poets, they are happy to see those still living starve.  The country needs to learn that culture has a cost.

Perhaps it’s a rejection of globalization, perhaps an evolution in our understanding of “ecology,”  but we are more and more motivated to be “locovores,” craving that which is made by our own communities from our own resources. We value “craft” products over those which are industrial and generic.  Humanity has always been ravenous for stories. We need only the courage and will to tell our own.