Kids in the Hall @ Cobb Energy PAC 05.24.2008 by Melanie McDermott (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kids in the Hall @ Cobb Energy PAC 05.24.2008 by Melanie McDermott (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The Cancon Conundrum: Why Policies to Promote “Canadian Stories” Need an Overhaul

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.


  1. Both the Handmaid’s Tale and Trailer Park Boys series should definitely benefit from a re-definition of Can-Con for the reasons you cite. There may be others.

  2. Fortinbras1 says:

    Yes, Canadian public policy may have more than one objective and pursue varying economic, cultural and foreign policy goals at the same time, and this is the case of policies concerning the certification of Canadian content. Some programmes, such as federal and provincial tax credits, target economic objectives and include the funding of foreign location shooting. The same is true of official international coproductions which the Department of Canadian Heritage apparently believes further foreign policy objectives. Other programmes, such as the Canadian Media Fund (financed partly by Canadian Heritage), target high quality Canadian television production and Canadian stories. All of these programmes use the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO) rules as a starting point and then add their own eligibilty criteria. CAVCO rules are essential since they require an impartial, objective administrative approach acceptable to federal and provincial revenue agencies.

    When we look more closely at foreign location shooting in Canada, it is apparent that most of it (64% in 2017-18) takes place in British Columbia. In other words, it consists of runaway Hollywood production attracted by federal and provincial tax credits. Moreover, the percentage of total foreign location shooting attributable to the United States has not changed over the last decade (it was 77% in 2009-10 and the same in 2017-18) and the contribution of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney has not altered this. Ian Scott’s outburst (Netflix is “probably the biggest single contributor to the [Canadian] production sector today”) does not change this.

    To say that fulfilling a point system is a poor proxy for “telling our stories” is wrong. The current point system is the best general approach to certifying Canadian content and identifying Canadian stories. The evaluation of television scripts in pre-production was undertaken at considerable expense by Telefilm Canada between 1983 and 1996 with mitigated results. The practice was abandoned in favour of a more streamlined approach after complaints from producers and broadcasters that content analysis was unpredictable and unreliable.

    Today, adapting one of Margaret Atwood’s novels counts in the Canadian points system as long as the principal writer on the team of writers associated with the production is also Canadian. This increases the likelihood that the treatment itself is from a Canadian perspective. On the other hand, the adaptation of David Morrell’s novel, First Blood, the first in the Rambo series starring Sylvester Stallone, did not qualify as Canadian content even though it was directed by a Canadian and shot in British Columbia. Locke & Key is a recent example of one of Netflix’s teen drama series that chose Canada (Toronto and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia) as a shooting location to fill in for Seattle and Massachusetts. Its storyline has nothing to do with Canada so the series is not certifiable as a Canadian program. Contrast this with drama series such as the CBC’s Fortunate Son and Burden of Truth, shot in Alberta and Manitoba respectively using almost exclusively domestic creative resources. These productions address important domestic issues in a clearly Canadian context.

    The creation and control of intellectual property lies at the heart of determining what is Canadian. Could a Canadian novel be written by an Australian or a Russian? Maybe, but it is not likely. Similarly, while it is possible that a Canadian television series could be written by an non-Canadian, the chances are unlikely. The Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel Report does not deny the success of Canadian television and film production, it proposes maintaining such production as a means of consolidating our cultural sovereignty and national identity. Because Canadian Heritage is proceeding to implement some of the legislative changes recommended by the review panel, including the integration of online services into the Canadian regulatory ambit, Michael Geist wants to undermine these changes by rendering the concept of Canadian content less meaningful. At no point does he suggest what an alternative Canadian content certification process would look like. From all appearances, the Cancon story is straight and has been for a long time, despite the interlopers who don’t want to listen.

    • So that is a long reply that doesn’t actually refute anything Prof. Geist wrote; that the point system is at odds with itself depending on which objective CanCon is trying to fulfill (cultural, economic, IP). It can’t do all three. The best that it achieves is IP ownership, however there are issues with CUSMA if that is indeed the overriding goal of CanCon.

      As for Canadian content itself. Schitt’s Creek is a great example. This qualifies as CanCon yet it specifically goes out of its way to not pin a location to the fictional town. I have a feeling it is ambiguous so its palpable to a US audience but really small town USA is not much different from small town Canada and is honestly why Canadian locations in particular are great stand-in’s for US cities and town’s.

      For that matter, as it was used by both sides of the argument. The Handmaid’s Tale, despite being written by a Canadian icon, is set in the US and is about a dystopian US government in the future, so clearly authors can and do write about other countries. Particularly two countries that are as fairly indistinguishable as the US and Canada. Did she do it from a Canadian perspective?

  3. Two of my favorite Canadian stories (might have been considered cancon or not) got killed because of how things are today.

    Dark Matter was a fantastic science fiction story that got killed. I still don’t know why but I have to assume it was some sort of funding issue.

    More recently CBC killed Anne with an E to concentrate on Canadian content (or something to that effect). So it didn’t count because Netflix was partially funding it?

  4. Hope everything will be OK

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