Verner’s Challenge

The recent decision to shift Bev Oda out of the Canadian Heritage portfolio was one of the cabinet shuffle's worst kept secrets.  While the current conventional wisdom is that Oda's replacement – Quebec City MP Josée Verner – will be a stronger voice for culture around the cabinet table, my technology law column this week (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that a change in Minister may not be enough. While Oda had her shortcomings, the reality may be that the problem lies less with the identity of the Minister of Canadian Heritage and more with the department itself.

Few doubt the importance of the cultural sector from both an economic and social policy perspective, yet that status is not reflected in the Department of Canadian Heritage, which has gradually morphed primarily into a granting agency for various cultural initiatives. Increased funding for festivals, films, museums, and other culture industry programs may be worthwhile, however, the problem with the grant approach is that it has locked Canadian Heritage into the status quo at a time of dramatic change.
Government funding for Canadian cultural industries runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year – book publishers received over $35 million in 2005-06 as part of the Book Publishing Industry Development Program, the Canadian magazine industry received over $15 million, the Canada Music Fund doled out over $19 million last year, and almost a quarter billion dollars was spent on broadcasting.   Most of those programs were developed when there were limited channels of distribution and the costs associated with publishing books and magazines, recording songs, as well as creating new films was out of the reach of individual creators.  The programs are therefore unsurprisingly geared toward the distribution and marketing side of the cultural industries with limited attention paid to individual creators.

The beneficiaries of these funding programs are loath to see them change (other than to increase available funds), yet the modes of cultural production have changed dramatically in recent years. Digital technologies and the Internet have enabled thousands of individual creators to adopt alternative business models while producing quality content for distribution to a global audience.  

If Verner is to emerge as a strong advocate for Canadian culture, her starting point should be to face up to this new reality.  Funding programs should be reviewed to ensure that they reflect the current environment and maximize the potential of Canadian creators, leading to a trade-off that matches stable long-term culture funding with programs that put creators ahead of distributors and marketers. Moreover, Verner should beef up support for new media (which garners a tiny fraction of cultural funding) and grant equal airtime to emerging creator groups such as the Canadian Music Creators Coalition and Appropriation Art, two coalitions that represent hundreds of Canadian musicians and visual artists.

Effective advocacy also requires taking a more active role on digital issues that have been previously viewed as outside the Canadian Heritage mandate.  For example, Canadian Heritage has been surprisingly silent on the net neutrality issue, despite calls for to preserve equal access to Canadian content from the Canadian Media Guild.
The same is true for policies on high-speed networks and competitive wireless pricing, the two key distribution systems of Canadian digital content that will have an enormous impact on the actual marketplace success of Canadian cultural funding.  Further, while European countries have launched major digitization initiatives geared at preserving and promoting their cultural heritage, Canada has failed to implement a national digitization strategy.


  1. Peter Feldman says:

    Executive Director, Canadian Arts Presen
    Mr. Geist:

    It was interesting to read your take on the challenges confronting Madame Verner and the Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH). I agree that more attention needs to be paid to new technologies.

    However, I must take issue with your statement that DCH hasn’t paid sufficient attention to individual creators. Quite simply, that’s not DCH’s job. There is a funding agency for creators: the Canada Council for the Arts. It awards grants to artists after a rigorous peer assessment process.

    DCH is not an arms-length agency, and has never been, nor should it ever be, in the artist evaluation business.

  2. Kristian Clarke says:

    Executive Director, CARFAC Ontario
    Hello there,

    I just wanted to point out some inaccuracies in this article. The visual arts group that Mr.Geist mentions is Appropriation Art and not Appropriation Arts. Also, a more representative organization that speaks for visual artists working in new media would be the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA). Appropriation Art has had a narrow focus on anticipated changes to the Canadian Copyright Act. They have had concerns about corporate control of copyright and the use of technology to prevent access to potential content for appropriation art practitioners.



  3. Michael Geist says:

    Thanks Kristian for catching the typo in the name. It is worth noting that IMAA is a member of Appropriation Art (as is Merlin Homer, the Chair of CARFAC Ontario).

  4. Kristian Clarke says:

    CARFAC Ontario
    Hello Michael,

    This is incorrect. The IMAA and Ms.Homer were signatories to a collective letter and not members of Appropriation Art per se. Appropriation Art would not appear to have a membership base – there are no membership requirments stated on their website. They they put out a letter expressing specific concerns about the Act and rallied support for this cause which they titled a coalition.



  5. Gordon Duggan says:

    Appropriation Art
    Hello Michael,

    CARFAC is, yet again, advising against an arts group. Kristian, unfortunately, narrowly reinterprets and minimizes our concerns.

    It seems that Mr Clarke has misread your column. As I read it, you were not saying that Appropriation Art (and CMCC) should be the sole representatives for media artists, only that we be given a voice. We are certainly not in competition with IMAA (or CARFAC for that matter). Semantics aside, IMAA share our concerns about copyright, CARFAC does not. As Kristian points out, IMAA have signed on to Appropriation Art.

    As a coalition we do not have a \’membership\’. We do, however, ask that all signatories be art professionals (artists, curators, educators…). Looking at the CARFAC membership the principle requirement seems to be ability to pay the membership fee. We do not require a fee. A second difference is one of transparency. The names of all signatories to Appropriation Art are published. The concerns of these many individuals and institutions are very clear.

    I agree with Kristian on two points:
    1) The title is indeed Appropriation Art not Appropriation Arts. The offending \’s\’ should be removed.
    2) Media artists would be wise to look to the IMAA to plead their case. After a year of prompting CARFAC have yet to sign their support to the issues in the letter. They have yet to produce a clear statement of SUPPORT for the practice of appropriation or voice concerns with regard to DRMs.
    Membership fees it seems do not guarantee representation.

    Gordon Duggan
    Appropriation Art

  6. Kristian Clarke says:

    Executive Director
    Hi Michael and Gordon,

    Hope you’re both well.

    Its great to see Appropriation Art weighing in on this conversation – welcome!

    I was not advising against AA, Gordon. In the context of what Michael had written, I was pointing out that an organization like the IMAA was more representative of new media artists than AA. Their concerns do not just
    centre on Copyright changes. This observation is not intended to devalue the work that AA is doing.

    CARFAC, RAAV and CARFAC Ontario have taken the issues surrounding the Copyright Act very seriously and have read/listened to AA’s concerns. We have clearly articulated opinions in organizational newsletters and
    publications like FUSE magazine and Artsnews. Remember that CARFAC is also the sum of its parts. Very relevant articles have been prepared on the topic in provincial publications. CARFAC/RAAV is/are active partners in
    discussions taking place with the Creator’s Rights Alliance. They are collectively preparing a formal submission to the Minister.

    At CARFAC Ontario the requirements for membership are clearly stated on the website. This is the case for many of the affiliates as well. Until we live in a cultural utopia such as is eloquently described by Michael where funding is focused and bountiful, CARFAC Ontario like a multitude of its sister organizations (TWUC, DGC, AFM, OAAG, CAPIC) will be forced to
    charge a membership fee.

    In order to join as a voting member of CARFAC Ontario, you must be a professional artist as defined by the International Association of Artists (a non-governmental organization founded in 1954 under the auspices of UNESCO), who define a professional artist as someone who fits into one or more of the following categories: Earns a living through art making; and / or Possesses a diploma in an area considered to be within the domain of fine arts; and / or Teaches art in a school of art or applied art; and / or Whose work is often seen by the public or is frequently or regularly exhibited; and / or Is recognized as an artist by the consensus of opinion among other professional artists.

    I look forward to your feedback.

    All the best,