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Canadian Heritage Must Face Up To New Digital Reality

Appeared in the Toronto Star on August 26, 2007 as Time to Rethink Canadian Heritage's Mandate

The recent decision to shift Bev Oda out of the Canadian Heritage portfolio was one of the cabinet shuffle's worst kept secrets.  Oda was labeled by many commentators as a weak Minister – the Star's Martin Knelman described her as "an enigmatic and lucklustre head of culture" – who was undermined by fundraising controversies and was perceived to be an ineffective advocate on behalf of the Canadian cultural community.

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. A change in Minister may not be enough, however. 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.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage position can be a thankless job.  As the latest occupant of the position, Josée Verner has the chance to become a strong advocate for the cultural sector by ensuring that it is no longer business as usual.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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