Cultural policy in Canada can be contentious, but there is one issue – support for Canadian content or Cancon – that unsurprisingly enjoys near unanimous backing. Given the economic benefits, federal and provincial policies encourage both domestic and foreign film and television production in Canada, but there is a special place for certified Canadian content, which is typically defended on the basis of the need to support cultural sovereignty by promoting “Canadian stories.”
My Hill Times op-ed notes the emergence of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ have sparked a massive inflow of film and television production in Canada. Ian Scott, the chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission notes that Netflix is “probably the biggest single contributor to the [Canadian] production sector today”. The total value of the Canadian film and television production has nearly reached $9 billion annually, a record with overall production increasing in 2018 by 5.9 per cent.
Despite the success, the Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel Report – the so-called Yale Report – maintains that the record-setting production in Canada does not meet the cultural goals of ensuring production of certified Canadian content. At the report launch, Yale said measures are needed so Canada can “continue to assert its cultural sovereignty and Canadians can continue to express their identity and culture through content.”
The Yale Report seeks to address the issue by recommending that Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault overhaul Canadian communications law, including regulation of Internet sites and services around the world. Yet the panel strangely does not touch the issue of what constitutes Canadian content, dismissing the foundational policy issue in a half-sentence by remarking that “it is time to review the model for supporting Canadian content, but not the definition of Canadian content.”
Not only does the panel ignore industry data it commissioned that found Canada ranks first per capita among peer countries in spending on domestic production, but by failing to grapple with the definition of Canadian content, it avoids coming to terms with the not-so-secret reality that Canadian content is often indistinguishable from foreign location and service production.
I recently launched a “Cancon quiz” in which users were asked to identify Canadian content from among 20 film and television productions. With nearly 2,000 quiz takers, only a handful of participants managed to guess all 20 correctly. The results should not come as a surprise. Qualifying as certified Canadian content requires having a Canadian producer along with meeting a strict point system that rewards granting roles such as the director, screenwriter, lead actors, and music composer to Canadians. It is checklist approach that is ultimately a poor proxy for “telling our stories.”
The challenge is that the Cancon rules are premised on three competing objectives which do not mesh easily together into a single policy.
The first objective posits Cancon as a cultural policy that preserves and promotes Canadian stories. The current approach is woefully ineffective in this regard. Programs such as The Handmaid’s Tale may be based on a Margaret Atwood novel, but using one of Canada’s best known novelists as the source doesn’t count in the Canadian points system. Meanwhile, “co-productions”, in which treaty agreements deem predominantly foreign productions as Cancon (enabling the Norwegian language film Hevn to qualify as Canadian) almost completely sever the link between certification and Canadian stories.
The second objective envisions Cancon as economic policy designed to create jobs and facilitate local investment. Yet other than a handful of specific industry jobs, there are few economic differences between Cancon and foreign productions. Indeed, governments and industry tout the economic benefits of both equally since the overwhelming majority of job opportunities are the same.
The third objective is Cancon as intellectual property policy, which adopts the position that producers must be Canadian to ensure control over the global rights. This leads to rules that preclude foreign companies from producing Cancon and requiring domestic IP ownership. As a result, revivals of Canadian programs such as Trailer Park Boys do not meet the qualification requirements if Netflix is the sole funder and producer. Further, the Yale Report recommendations would require foreign companies to invest in Cancon but cultural policies restrict their ability to actually own the IP, setting up the possibility of a trade challenge under CUSMA.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to promote Canadian stories, facilitate job creation, and enhance intellectual property ownership. But if the goal is Canadian stories, the current policy needs to be revamped to better reflect those cultural goals. If it’s economic policy, there is no reason to distinguish between investment in domestic or foreign productions. If it’s IP, Canada can’t both require foreign investment in Cancon and restrict IP ownership. Before the government leaps into a controversial communications law overhaul, it need to get its Cancon story straight.