Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, who is hosting a culture summit this week in Ottawa, has said that he is open to modernizing the definition of Canadian content and that he is “open to all kinds of suggestions and ideas.” I’ve devoted many posts to the Cancon definition issue (even creating a Cancon quiz), noting that the current system is a poor proxy for “telling Canadian stories.” This system matters since the government’s Internet regulation policies are ostensibly designed to support Canadian content, but if the existing definitions don’t do that, they cannot reasonably be expected to achieve their objectives.
While I’m supportive of Rodriguez opening the door to reform, I have my doubts the government will make any significant changes to the current system. The challenge is that Cancon policy stands on a shaky foundation that is really three policies in one: an economic policy, a cultural policy, and an intellectual property policy. These three policies are often at odds with one another and used by politicians and lobby groups interchangeably to justify mandated contributions, content regulation, and foreign ownership restrictions. When the data doesn’t support one of the policies, they simply shift the discussion to one of the other policy objectives.
The conversation around Cancon usually starts with an economic rationale, namely that government policies are needed to support the economic success of the sector and ensure jobs and economic benefits. For example, when introducing Bill C-11, Rodriguez told the House of Commons “this is about fairness and good middle-class jobs in the cultural sector” and that:
An unbalanced system with unequal obligations is only making this situation worse for our artists, our creators and our culture. With fewer resources, fewer opportunities and fewer productions, Canadian music and stories will become harder and harder to find, and that is not what we want. We want the opposite. Without intervention, current trends in the market are expected to result in a decline in the production of Canadian television content of almost $1 billion by 2023 when compared with 2018.
The problem is that the economic case does not line up with the data. This actually isn’t a problem, but rather a good news story of a sector that has enjoyed massive economic success and investment in recent years. Provinces such as Quebec and Ontario have pointed to record amounts of film and television production in recent months, with Ontario alone reporting:
its highest production levels to date with 394 productions bringing in $2.88 billion in production spending for the economy. In addition to dollar value, these figures represent over 48,000 full-time equivalent direct and spin-off jobs, which is an increase of 38 per cent or 18,468 jobs from 2020.
This data is consistent with the CMPA’s Profile 2021 report, which shows that the last three years are the three biggest years ever for spending on film and television production in Canada. Much of that has been driven by foreign investment, which has topped $6 billion per year for the past two years. COVID has obviously taken a toll, but the pure economic argument about regulation such as Bill C-11 to support production is not backed by the data.
When confronted with the numbers, supporters of Bill C-11 often shift to the second policy objective of cultural support by “telling Canadian stories.” This argument centres on the notion that the film and television production may be production in Canada but it is not Canadian production, leading Rodriguez to proclaim that “our cultural identity is at stake.” The problem with this argument – as Rodriguez seems to acknowledge with his willingness to open up the Cancon definition issue – is that the current system does not achieve the objective of telling Canadian stories.
Rather, the policy is little more than a tick-box exercise that privileges some professions over others. This means that productions based on works by Canadian authors may not count as certified Cancon, whereas productions with little connection to Canada such as “Gotta Love Trump” or the Norwegian film “Hevn” somehow count as Canadian. Is there any reason that basing a film on a Margaret Atwood or Yann Martel book is irrelevant for Canadian content purposes? If the goal is telling Canadian stories then why do those Canadian stories not count? Under the current system, the screenwriter counts, but the source of the story does not. That isn’t telling Canadian stories, it is providing economic advantage to some creators over others.
Given the lack of connection between certified Cancon and cultural objectives, supporters often then shift to the third objective, IP ownership. In fact, sometimes supporters say the quiet part out loud, such as when Peter Grant told the Canadian Press last month that “in defining Canadian content the proprietary rights must be held by a Canadian. But it doesn’t have to look Canadian or be about a Canadian story.” But Cancon policy as IP policy raises its own set of issues. Were the Montreal Canadiens no longer Canadian when they were owned by George Gillette, a U.S. businessman? Is Jusqu’au Déclin, a Quebec-based film not Canadian because it is owned by Netflix? IP ownership may be viewed as important from an economic perspective, but the correlation to cultural objectives is very weak.
In fact, IP ownership objective is regularly used to mislead the public on the reality of foreign streamer contribution. Bill C-11 supporters often claim that Netflix, Disney, Amazon and others do not contribute to the creation of Canadian productions. Yet the reality is that the system does not allow them to do so unless they are prepared to give up their IP ownership in the work. That leaves Netflix’s Trailer Park Boys, Amazon’s Toronto Maple Leafs documentary, and Disney+’s Turning Red as productions that are Canadian in every way except ownership and therefore do not qualify as certified Cancon. What Bill C-11 seeks to do isn’t necessarily to foster more productions in Canada, but rather require foreign payments while simultaneously blocking potential ownership of the resulting work.
Some of these issues could be solved with a candid policy reform process that identifies the policy objectives and how best to achieve them. But given that the current system already has its winners and losers, any changes will invariably spark a political fight. Far easier then, to misleadingly talk about jobs, cultural survival, and blocking foreign ownership as the basis for new Internet regulations and hope that few notice how much the bill hinges on an outdated policy that does little to advance Canadian cultural interests, however defined.