Why Fund Canadian Arts and Culture?

 In 1994 the eminent Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul professed his amazement at the ubiquity of the Canadian cultural presence in Europe and noted that while our political and business leaders got little mention, Canadian artists and their works were everywhere visible. He concluded that “Canada’s profile abroad is, for the most part, its culture. That is our image. That is what Canada becomes in people’s imaginations around the world. Not being a player in international communications today implies disappearing from the planet.”

The Canadian government funds our national arts and culture from taxpayers’ dollars. The funding amounts to about $6 billion for all three levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal. This is not a huge amount. Even our armed forces, which almost everyone agrees are ridiculously underfunded, command twice as large a federal budget allotment as our arts and culture get from all our governments. (see endnote)

Why do these subsidies exist? One reason can be found in the statement of Herbert Schiller, an American communications expert, who calls Canada, “the foremost example of a country exposed to an almost unrestricted flow of U.S. information.” Since the beginning of radio, and especially after the takeover of the incipient Canadian film industry by the Americans, and continuing through the television era, Canadians have been exposed to a huge bombardment of American messages, mythical and artistic, ideological and commercial.

In Canada today 90% of the movies, 75% of the newstand magazines sold, and 50% of the music played on the radio are American. Federal ownership rules prevent American takeovers of the Canadian book industry, but the giant American and international publishing concerns exert a huge influence on the book business and the reading tastes of Canadians. Canadian money is often inadequate for expensive television and film projects, and to obtain financing Canadian stories often have to be tailored (in effect, de-Canadianized) for an international market. Without Canadian government support of our culture it seems likely that the Americans would take over or Americanize most of our Canadian cultural industries.

In some quarters in our country, globalization on American and corporate terms is openly welcomed. The economist and journalist William Watson, who sees little difference between Canadian and American culture, suggests that Canadian government intervention on behalf of Canadian culture serves only to divide the country, and argues that globalization does not force us to harmonize our national institutions or public policies with those of the Americans.

To which I would reply that there are enormous differences between Canadian and American culture, that without government intervention our culture would be at risk from our enterprising neighbour to the south whose entertainment industry alone controls nearly one sixth of the global GNP, and that we have ample evidence that harmonization is exactly what the United States demands, whenever it suits its economic or political purposes.

Another optimist, the journalist Gwynn Dyer, attempting to be pragmatic, justifies the new global economy on the grounds that we are in the process of “democratizing consumerism.” This seems simplistic, since in the modern world advertising is what shapes consumption, and advertising is part and parcel of the media control exercised by representatives of a corporate culture whose bottom line is neither democracy nor quality, but profit. It is also worth noting that credible analysts believe that globalization is creating a greater gap between rich and poor, which suggests the closing and not the opening of economic opportunities for many countries and people. As Targ and Cormier, two American scholars, writing in Revista de Humanidades, (Tecnologico de Monterrey), summarize the situation: “globalization and neoliberal policies have hindered development and increased inequality in both industrial capitalist and developing countries.” If this trend is not changed, they say, “we will be condemned to global economic and political crises in the future.”

In the light of this, the Canadian government’s attempt to protect our culture, and the demands of many Canadians that globalization guarantee more fundamental rights than the right to buy what the international corporations produce, seem only sensible.

Some Canadian academics, private sector analysts, and journalists do not acknowledge the threat to Canadian identity implicit in American domination of the cross-border flow of information. Either they attempt to deconstruct the very notion of national identity, pointing out that our regional, linguistic and cultural diversity makes the notion of a “Canadian nation” unstable, and the concept of “Canadian culture” artificial and unworkable. Or they assume that technological change has made the creation and protection of any supposed national identity impossible: “In the new media world,” they suggest, “national borders cannot be made impenetrable, no matter what governments legislate. Why pretend otherwise?”

In fact, our diversity is precisely what clinches the argument in favour of protection of our culture. We are a nation that lives and thrives on creative tension, which is the very essence of our post-modern, low-key national identity. We give breathing space to various groups, regions, and cultures, protecting them by means of a national policy that seeks to harmonize a wide range of perspectives. Lacking the umbrella provided by a national government and a national vision, the various elements of the Canadian nation would disappear or diminish. Does anyone really believe that British Columbia or Alberta would survive as independent states with their own full cultural potency, if they were not part of the Canadian nation? Or that an independent Québec would have the means to define itself in a North America dominated by English and Spanish language groups? The financial and structural contributions of the federal government to Québec culture and identity are simply enormous. Take them away and the province could only diminish as a cultural force.

Is the idea of a Canadian national identity, then, merely a legal fiction, a structural convenience, that serves to protect a number of incompatible subcultural units? I don’t think so. Yet one of challenges to Canadians is to discover what unities underlie our diversity of regions and interests. I have no doubt that common factors exist (many Canadians have informally alluded to them, and, below, I refer to our “post-modernism”), and that the protection and support of our culture on the national level gives us the means to further define these as part of the ongoing national adventure. If we differ among ourselves, we also make up a nation that is different from the American, British, or French nations, and it should be our historic mission to continue to articulate and define those differences.

Similarly, the existence of the new media should not be taken fatalistically as compelling a single world of expression, or used an excuse to allow the domination of our communications by international corporations with agendas made in the United States. Whatever its faults and problems, the CBC has been a nation-building institution of almost unparalleled significance—and it came into existence largely because of the challenge of the new radio technology which, in the 1920s and 1930s, was beginning to inundate Canada with American media messages. Surely today we should opt for a similar creative responses to the challenge of the new border-dissolving technology. Rather than capitulating to the international corporate media with their monocultural glorification of “free enterprise” and “the American way,” we should be striving to refine and develop those policies and practices that can help insure the survival of our unique regional and national expression.

In 1998, Canadian Culture Minister Sheila Copps organized a conference in Ottawa in which some 20 countries participated, including Mexico. This was declared to be “an alliance to preserve national culture” in the face of U.S. world domination. The main theme of this conference was that “culture is not a commodity” and should be excluded from trade agreements. Now Minister Copps knows perfectly well that culture is also a commodity (our Canadian cultural sector reputedly generates a $16 billion gross domestic product); what her statement emphasizes, and what her conference signified is that it is not a “commodity like any other.”

Other, more recent, conferences and policy statements have reinforced Canada’s position on protectionism. One such statement, delivered to the World Trade Organization in 2001 by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, proclaims that “it [i.e., Canada] will not make any commitment that restricts our ability to achieve our cultural policy objectives until a new international instrument, designed specifically to safeguard the right of countries to promote and preserve their cultural diversity, can be established.”

To the United States, however, this support of our culture is often seen as unfair subsidy; it is a violation of free trade, although as the political analyst Geoffrey Wheatcroft (writing in The New York Times) puts it: “what American business has always believed in isn’t free trade but free investment, a very different thing.” And Wheatcroft adds: “It isn’t necessarily true that the expansion of American markets must always bring sweetness and light.” No indeed.

It is of course not merely the American government, but the international corporate interests that are made uncomfortable by such protectionism. Globalism, in the neoliberal agenda, means infinite expansion and control by the private sector, and leads to the casting off of notions of the public good, usurpation of public space and the commercialization of public resources. It is notable that three major Canadian provinces have governments that largely subscribe to this ideology of the right and see the promotion of economic growth as the key to progress. In all three, tax cuts designed to create such growth have meant less money for public services, mostly with negative and sometimes with dire consequences. This obsessive desire to promote private enterprise at all costs is often accompanied by admiring glances southward, and the United States economy held up as a model for Canada.

Despite this trend, most Canadians continue to affirm the values of state intervention to redress economic imbalances, and other forms of government regulation and subsidy. The real challenge for Canada is whether in the face of globalization it can find the will and the means to protect and develop its humane and responsible social programs, such as universal health care, free public education and the tax-based funding of arts and culture.

Canadian society has evolved to the point where it has perhaps more in common with Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway than with either of its NAFTA partners. Canada is neither a self-consciously “modern” country like the United States nor an emerging modern country, as some describe Mexico. Canada may well be, as some Canadians think, one of the first post-modern countries.

Our post-modernism is characterized by 1) A suspicion of overriding national slogans, paradigms, national meta-narratives. 2) A decline of religious consensus and a radical commitment to secularism on all fronts. 3) An increasing lack of interest (and lack of faith) on the part of most Canadians in the traditional political parties and a tendency to take issue-related politics more seriously.

Canadian bi-lingualism and bi-culturalism, combined with immigration policies that have been in place since 1967 and which (up until recently at least) have favoured new immigrants from developing countries, have resulted in cultural diversity and decentralization in terms of issues, styles, and metaphors. “The awareness of the other” is a huge factor in Canada, and our country regards the world beyond our boundaries with the same tolerance. By contrast, the United States is hampered by its own imperious mission, its self-justifying mythologies, and by the unshakable assumption of its own centrality. When I was in Mexico recently and expressed publicly the notion that Canada ought to and probably will survive, a very nice and quite eminent American academic informed me that “you have twenty-five years,” and compared our national desire for independence to the vain ambitions of one of the more culturally pleasant but politically impotent provinces of the Roman Empire.

To quote Geoffrey Wheatcroft again: “Like the Americans now, a hundred years ago the English combined political, cultural, economic and military hegemony with a very strong sense of their own virtue and high motives. And just like the Americans now, they failed to see how insufferable others found this combination of might and righteousness.”

By contrast, Canada is a tolerant, low-key, non-violent, multi-faceted, outward-looking society, without any salvationist delusions. As such, it seems ready to play a part in the newly emerging world society, though not at the price of becoming a province in the American imperium.

In summary, when we consider the tendencies of the new global culture and our rapidly changing technologies, specific challenges arise. Preservation of local and national identity and of treasured cultural values is only one of these. We must also ensure that the new technologies remain open to a diversity of groups and individuals, and we must not allow these technologies to obliterate live contact between cultural producers and consumers. New cultural expression through the leading edge technologies should be accompanied by the use of those same technologies to evoke and preserve the best of tradition. This in turn means educating a new generation in our cultural traditions, so that mass-produced, commercialized entertainment products are not allowed to obliterate the more characteristic, challenging or complex artifacts of our own culture.

Protection of culture does not mean isolation. Isolation is impossible. It should mean contact on all levels among countries that value their uniqueness and want to preserve it in a global context. In Greece and in Mexico I found much understanding for the Canadian position, and I believe that international contact as represented by conferences like this, governmental exchanges on key issues, contact among artists and writers, performers, athletes, and ordinary citizens is essential. Globalization can be an exciting prospect, and the planetary visibility referred to by John Ralston Saul is certainly desirable, but if Canada does not bring its uniqueness to the world scene, it will once again become invisible, this time forever.

****Note. According to figures provided by the Globe and Mail, 23 of 26 leading industrialized and major developing nations restrict foreign investment in the cultural sector. All 10 major European nations provide financial aid for cultural production. Canada is the only country that has both subsidies and protection in such major industries as broadcasting, publishing, sound recording and film-making.

Why Fund Canadian Arts and Culture?

 In 1994 the eminent Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul professed his amazement at the ubiquity of the Canadian cultural presence in Europe and noted that while our political and business leaders got little mention, Canadian artists and their works were everywhere visible. He concluded that “Canada’s profile abroad is, for the most part, its culture. That is our image. That is what Canada becomes in people’s imaginations around the world. Not being a player in international communications today implies disappearing from the planet.”

The Canadian government funds our national arts and culture from taxpayers’ dollars. The funding amounts to about $6 billion for all three levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal. This is not a huge amount. Even our armed forces, which almost everyone agrees are ridiculously underfunded, command twice as large a federal budget allotment as our arts and culture get from all our governments. (see endnote)

Why do these subsidies exist? One reason can be found in the statement of Herbert Schiller, an American communications expert, who calls Canada, “the foremost example of a country exposed to an almost unrestricted flow of U.S. information.” Since the beginning of radio, and especially after the takeover of the incipient Canadian film industry by the Americans, and continuing through the television era, Canadians have been exposed to a huge bombardment of American messages, mythical and artistic, ideological and commercial.

In Canada today 90% of the movies, 75% of the newstand magazines sold, and 50% of the music played on the radio are American. Federal ownership rules prevent American takeovers of the Canadian book industry, but the giant American and international publishing concerns exert a huge influence on the book business and the reading tastes of Canadians. Canadian money is often inadequate for expensive television and film projects, and to obtain financing Canadian stories often have to be tailored (in effect, de-Canadianized) for an international market. Without Canadian government support of our culture it seems likely that the Americans would take over or Americanize most of our Canadian cultural industries.

In some quarters in our country, globalization on American and corporate terms is openly welcomed. The economist and journalist William Watson, who sees little difference between Canadian and American culture, suggests that Canadian government intervention on behalf of Canadian culture serves only to divide the country, and argues that globalization does not force us to harmonize our national institutions or public policies with those of the Americans.

To which I would reply that there are enormous differences between Canadian and American culture, that without government intervention our culture would be at risk from our enterprising neighbour to the south whose entertainment industry alone controls nearly one sixth of the global GNP, and that we have ample evidence that harmonization is exactly what the United States demands, whenever it suits its economic or political purposes.

Another optimist, the journalist Gwynn Dyer, attempting to be pragmatic, justifies the new global economy on the grounds that we are in the process of “democratizing consumerism.” This seems simplistic, since in the modern world advertising is what shapes consumption, and advertising is part and parcel of the media control exercised by representatives of a corporate culture whose bottom line is neither democracy nor quality, but profit. It is also worth noting that credible analysts believe that globalization is creating a greater gap between rich and poor, which suggests the closing and not the opening of economic opportunities for many countries and people. As Targ and Cormier, two American scholars, writing in Revista de Humanidades, (Tecnologico de Monterrey), summarize the situation: “globalization and neoliberal policies have hindered development and increased inequality in both industrial capitalist and developing countries.” If this trend is not changed, they say, “we will be condemned to global economic and political crises in the future.”

In the light of this, the Canadian government’s attempt to protect our culture, and the demands of many Canadians that globalization guarantee more fundamental rights than the right to buy what the international corporations produce, seem only sensible.

Some Canadian academics, private sector analysts, and journalists do not acknowledge the threat to Canadian identity implicit in American domination of the cross-border flow of information. Either they attempt to deconstruct the very notion of national identity, pointing out that our regional, linguistic and cultural diversity makes the notion of a “Canadian nation” unstable, and the concept of “Canadian culture” artificial and unworkable. Or they assume that technological change has made the creation and protection of any supposed national identity impossible: “In the new media world,” they suggest, “national borders cannot be made impenetrable, no matter what governments legislate. Why pretend otherwise?”

In fact, our diversity is precisely what clinches the argument in favour of protection of our culture. We are a nation that lives and thrives on creative tension, which is the very essence of our post-modern, low-key national identity. We give breathing space to various groups, regions, and cultures, protecting them by means of a national policy that seeks to harmonize a wide range of perspectives. Lacking the umbrella provided by a national government and a national vision, the various elements of the Canadian nation would disappear or diminish. Does anyone really believe that British Columbia or Alberta would survive as independent states with their own full cultural potency, if they were not part of the Canadian nation? Or that an independent Québec would have the means to define itself in a North America dominated by English and Spanish language groups? The financial and structural contributions of the federal government to Québec culture and identity are simply enormous. Take them away and the province could only diminish as a cultural force.

Is the idea of a Canadian national identity, then, merely a legal fiction, a structural convenience, that serves to protect a number of incompatible subcultural units? I don’t think so. Yet one of challenges to Canadians is to discover what unities underlie our diversity of regions and interests. I have no doubt that common factors exist (many Canadians have informally alluded to them, and, below, I refer to our “post-modernism”), and that the protection and support of our culture on the national level gives us the means to further define these as part of the ongoing national adventure. If we differ among ourselves, we also make up a nation that is different from the American, British, or French nations, and it should be our historic mission to continue to articulate and define those differences.

Similarly, the existence of the new media should not be taken fatalistically as compelling a single world of expression, or used an excuse to allow the domination of our communications by international corporations with agendas made in the United States. Whatever its faults and problems, the CBC has been a nation-building institution of almost unparalleled significance—and it came into existence largely because of the challenge of the new radio technology which, in the 1920s and 1930s, was beginning to inundate Canada with American media messages. Surely today we should opt for a similar creative responses to the challenge of the new border-dissolving technology. Rather than capitulating to the international corporate media with their monocultural glorification of “free enterprise” and “the American way,” we should be striving to refine and develop those policies and practices that can help insure the survival of our unique regional and national expression.

In 1998, Canadian Culture Minister Sheila Copps organized a conference in Ottawa in which some 20 countries participated, including Mexico. This was declared to be “an alliance to preserve national culture” in the face of U.S. world domination. The main theme of this conference was that “culture is not a commodity” and should be excluded from trade agreements. Now Minister Copps knows perfectly well that culture is also a commodity (our Canadian cultural sector reputedly generates a $16 billion gross domestic product); what her statement emphasizes, and what her conference signified is that it is not a “commodity like any other.”

Other, more recent, conferences and policy statements have reinforced Canada’s position on protectionism. One such statement, delivered to the World Trade Organization in 2001 by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, proclaims that “it [i.e., Canada] will not make any commitment that restricts our ability to achieve our cultural policy objectives until a new international instrument, designed specifically to safeguard the right of countries to promote and preserve their cultural diversity, can be established.”

To the United States, however, this support of our culture is often seen as unfair subsidy; it is a violation of free trade, although as the political analyst Geoffrey Wheatcroft (writing in The New York Times) puts it: “what American business has always believed in isn’t free trade but free investment, a very different thing.” And Wheatcroft adds: “It isn’t necessarily true that the expansion of American markets must always bring sweetness and light.” No indeed.

It is of course not merely the American government, but the international corporate interests that are made uncomfortable by such protectionism. Globalism, in the neoliberal agenda, means infinite expansion and control by the private sector, and leads to the casting off of notions of the public good, usurpation of public space and the commercialization of public resources. It is notable that three major Canadian provinces have governments that largely subscribe to this ideology of the right and see the promotion of economic growth as the key to progress. In all three, tax cuts designed to create such growth have meant less money for public services, mostly with negative and sometimes with dire consequences. This obsessive desire to promote private enterprise at all costs is often accompanied by admiring glances southward, and the United States economy held up as a model for Canada.

Despite this trend, most Canadians continue to affirm the values of state intervention to redress economic imbalances, and other forms of government regulation and subsidy. The real challenge for Canada is whether in the face of globalization it can find the will and the means to protect and develop its humane and responsible social programs, such as universal health care, free public education and the tax-based funding of arts and culture.

Canadian society has evolved to the point where it has perhaps more in common with Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway than with either of its NAFTA partners. Canada is neither a self-consciously “modern” country like the United States nor an emerging modern country, as some describe Mexico. Canada may well be, as some Canadians think, one of the first post-modern countries.

Our post-modernism is characterized by 1) A suspicion of overriding national slogans, paradigms, national meta-narratives. 2) A decline of religious consensus and a radical commitment to secularism on all fronts. 3) An increasing lack of interest (and lack of faith) on the part of most Canadians in the traditional political parties and a tendency to take issue-related politics more seriously.

Canadian bi-lingualism and bi-culturalism, combined with immigration policies that have been in place since 1967 and which (up until recently at least) have favoured new immigrants from developing countries, have resulted in cultural diversity and decentralization in terms of issues, styles, and metaphors. “The awareness of the other” is a huge factor in Canada, and our country regards the world beyond our boundaries with the same tolerance. By contrast, the United States is hampered by its own imperious mission, its self-justifying mythologies, and by the unshakable assumption of its own centrality. When I was in Mexico recently and expressed publicly the notion that Canada ought to and probably will survive, a very nice and quite eminent American academic informed me that “you have twenty-five years,” and compared our national desire for independence to the vain ambitions of one of the more culturally pleasant but politically impotent provinces of the Roman Empire.

To quote Geoffrey Wheatcroft again: “Like the Americans now, a hundred years ago the English combined political, cultural, economic and military hegemony with a very strong sense of their own virtue and high motives. And just like the Americans now, they failed to see how insufferable others found this combination of might and righteousness.”

By contrast, Canada is a tolerant, low-key, non-violent, multi-faceted, outward-looking society, without any salvationist delusions. As such, it seems ready to play a part in the newly emerging world society, though not at the price of becoming a province in the American imperium.

In summary, when we consider the tendencies of the new global culture and our rapidly changing technologies, specific challenges arise. Preservation of local and national identity and of treasured cultural values is only one of these. We must also ensure that the new technologies remain open to a diversity of groups and individuals, and we must not allow these technologies to obliterate live contact between cultural producers and consumers. New cultural expression through the leading edge technologies should be accompanied by the use of those same technologies to evoke and preserve the best of tradition. This in turn means educating a new generation in our cultural traditions, so that mass-produced, commercialized entertainment products are not allowed to obliterate the more characteristic, challenging or complex artifacts of our own culture.

Protection of culture does not mean isolation. Isolation is impossible. It should mean contact on all levels among countries that value their uniqueness and want to preserve it in a global context. In Greece and in Mexico I found much understanding for the Canadian position, and I believe that international contact as represented by conferences like this, governmental exchanges on key issues, contact among artists and writers, performers, athletes, and ordinary citizens is essential. Globalization can be an exciting prospect, and the planetary visibility referred to by John Ralston Saul is certainly desirable, but if Canada does not bring its uniqueness to the world scene, it will once again become invisible, this time forever.

****Note. According to figures provided by the Globe and Mail, 23 of 26 leading industrialized and major developing nations restrict foreign investment in the cultural sector. All 10 major European nations provide financial aid for cultural production. Canada is the only country that has both subsidies and protection in such major industries as broadcasting, publishing, sound recording and film-making.

(A talk given at the University of Ottawa, 20 September, 2002)

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