Printer Friendly

Northern exposure: Canada fights cultural dumping.

Suppose 97 percent of the movies being shown in Dallas or Cleveland came from Russia or Japan, and radio stations would play American pop music only if required to by law - that the only American TV programming was news and low-budget PBS drama, U.S. magazines got only 20 percent of the space on the newsstands, American films were stocked as "foreign" in video stores and works by Updike, Mailer and Didion were shelved at the back of bookstores as Americana."

Such a dystopian fantasy isn't pulled from the pages of a cold war thriller about a Sovietized America. Its simply a version of everyday life in Canada, where between 60 and 95 percent of the film, television, music and publishing markets are controlled by Americans. Its as if a massive U.S. film festival were going on in every theater, and a tribute to American genius were running perpetually on radio and TV. ("In Canada there is a fear that we are on our way to being functionally annexed," says Dan Johnson, president of the Canadian film distributors, association.)

Canadian artists argue that U.S. domination would be even more dramatic had governments not created subsidies, trade barriers and tax policies to protect some small piece of their own cultural marketplace - and by extension, Canada's identity and voice as a distinct nation. Since the mid-1960s, Canadian culture has been transformed from a nonentity to the country's fourth-largest employer.

This year, however, cultural industries have become the focus of a rash of trade disputes. In March, then-U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor requested a World Trade Organization reversal of Canadian tax measures against Sports Illustrated's "Canadian" edition. Kantor also put Canada on the hit list of a new "trade enforcement" task force over issues like cable TV licensing, satellite transmissions and book distribution. In late April, acting trade representative Charlene Barshefsky signaled she would take the same tough line against copyright reforms intended to bring extra royalties to the Canadian music industry.

In Canada, the public television network (CBC) has announced it will cease carrying U.S. programming in prime time, and other cultural sectors are lobbying for greater regulation and protection. Such sentiments may seem to run counter to Canada's 1987 bilateral trade agreement with the United States, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement, but in fact Canadian artists demanded and got an exemption for cultural industries in both deals. In every negotiation since 1987 - including current talks to bring Chile into NAFTA - the United States has demanded that the culture issue be reopened, and Canada has refund.

In part this is a problem of perception. "For them its the entertainment industry. But for us, it is national cultural identity," Keith Kelly of the Canadian Conference of the Arts told the Toronto Globe and Mail in January. "They can't accept that. Its like were speaking a strain of Mandarin." Canadian cultural advocates say that U.S. media corporations, inability to admit any link between cultural industries (as defined in NAFTA) and cultural life is highly self-interested. "To the U.S. entertainment industry, the U.S. domestic market includes Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada," says Johnson. "This is a sixty-year standing insult."

At least NAFTA is bringing this clash to the surface. Sandy Crawley, president of Canada's Association of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, says his American counterparts are beginning to get the picture. "People have had to start acknowledging that cultural industries exist, because they're defined in the agreements. The Screen Actors Guild is starting to understand what we mean when we talk about cultural development. They used to say, `Culture? What culture? This is showbiz!'"

In the halls of cultural power, however, that recognition has yet to dawn. In 1991, U.S. trade representative Carla Hills infuriated Canadians when she tried to soothe fears about NAFTA by assuring that Canada could still have "fairs ... and that sort of thing." One of the standard formulas to decry cultural trade barriers has been, "This isn't about culture, its about money." The US. recording industry has accused Canada of cloaking a "culture of greed" behind the rhetoric of national identity. Time Warner complains of "discrimination" in publishing regulation. And Jack Valenti, Hollywood's head lobbyist and the man that Canadian culture advocates most love to hate, says Canada's "draconian" protections are spreading "a contagion effect around the world."

Dan Johnson argues that "the U. S. protects what it considers fragile industries, like lumber, or national-interest industries like government procurement. In Canada, film is a fragile industry. Culture is the national interest. Why? Because we are another country. There is a border. We are not just more Ohio."

Canada has been wary of creeping colonialism for more than a century, and culture has always been the sorest point. In the days before government subsidies and trade protections created a domestic book industry, Canadian authors were often pressured by their U.S. publishers to transpose their plots from, say, Saskatchewan to North Dakota. And it is a long-standing truism that Canadian actors and musicians have had to move to the United States to get recognition at home, because of U.S. control of the publicity and marketing machines. This year's Canadian-born Grammy winners Shania Twain and Alanis Morrisette, for example, were simply following in the foot-steps of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell when they moved south and signed to American labels.

Nevertheless, since the 1960s, Canada has become more competitive home-grown films, theater, literature and music. Many of these businesses struggle to stay afloat, but have helped produce figures like novelists Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, singer Jane Siberry, the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe, director Robert Lepage and filmmakers Atom Egoyan (Exotica) and Denys Arrand (Jesus of Montreal). All these artists remain based in Canada, producing distinctly non-American works to international acclaim. Quebec artists benefit from a ready-made francophone audience and have developed a loyal public at home and in France.

Still, an overall imbalance remains. The NAFTA exemption protected Canadian artists, achievements but did nothing to expand their influence or give them greater access to American audiences. Free-trade critics also point to several other flaws in the agreement. The exemption clause is immediately followed by the provision that the United States may react with measures "of equivalent commercial effect" to any Canadian cultural policy it deems "inconsistent" with the thrust of NAFTA. Under NAFTA sanctions could, have been imposed in the Sports illustrated case, for example, without any arbitration process. The United States took it to the W.T.O. instead as a diplomatic concession.

In addition, several important pieces of cultural legislation in Canada were shelved or watered down while the trade agreements were being negotiated. One long-promised measure would have guaranteed percent of film distribution revenues to Canadians by preventing Hollywood studios from buying up Canadian rights to foreign and independent films. Its final form was so gutted that the distributors themselves lobbied for it to be killed. Tax breaks for domestic moviemakers and a preferential postal rate for Canadian magazines have also been drastically reduced. (The United States had threatened to scrap free trade if such types of policies were not abandoned.)

Vincent Mosco, professor of mass communications at Ottawa's Carleton University, says NAFTA also mortgaged the future by tying culture to particular technologies. If the Internet becomes a major carrier of arts programming and information, for example, government efforts to insure Canadian content - public systems like Freenets in any of the three countries - might well be actionable as distortions of trade. Under NAFTA, the commercialization of information technology is effectively mandatory.

However, the present battles are not about new technology, or even new policies. Take the Sports Illustrated dispute. Canada moved almost thirty years ago to ban imports of what are known as "split-run" magazines. These are special editions of U.S. magazines to which one or two Canadian stories have been added. The publisher calls it a "Canadian" edition and can sell advertising in Canada at bargain rates, since most costs have already been covered by the main edition of the magazine. The Canadian magazine industry argues that it already competes with U.S. magazines, but that split-runs are unfair, the cultural equivalent of dumping. If Newsweek did it, it could kill Maclean's weekly. An Utne Reader split-run could devastate small liberal publications like This Magazine and Canadian Forum.

In the early nineties, Time Warner realized that if it beamed content electronically to a Canadian printer, it could circumvent the ban. Thus the "Canadian" edition of Sports Illustrated was born. Because there is no Canadian general-interest sports magazine, Time Warner argued that it was not compelling with anyone. Canada argued that the precedent was disastrous and slapped an 80 percent excise tax on the magazines advertising profits. The matter will be heard at the W.T.O. over the next year.

The United States is not only the largest cultural exporter in the world - entertainment is the second-largest U.S. export industry, after aerospace - but one of the least enthusiastic importers. Less than 2 percent of time on U.S. television screens is given to foreign programming, for example. Jim Millier, editor of a U.S. publishing trade journal, noted in 1991 that though Americans were constantly "yapping" about Canadian regulations, "when foreign firms come in here, [Americans] too start talking about limiting foreign investment."

Just as there are Americans who willfully misunderstand Canada's interests, there are Canadian nationalists apt to blame every negative development since 1987 on free trade. The past decade in Canada has been marked by cuts to cultural programs and public broadcasting, met with shouts of American conspiracies. Overall, however, few Canadians wish to bar U.S. culture. It is so integral to Canadian life that the country's great satirists and critics from the Second City TV troupe to Marshall McLuhan and cyberpunk writer William Gibson) have made a specialty of mocking and dissecting American icons. Yet a deep wariness of American power remains, and suspicion about the motivations of Canadian elites in consorting with it.

As Vincent Mosco sees it, what's at stake is not American incursion but the leveling effect of corporatism. "There is an ideological predisposition against the public sphere, an ideological and economic pressure from private interests in each country. On culture that strategy is more complex because there is a substantial constituency that supports a strong Canadian presence in the arts" he says. This analysis gives some inkling of why Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Trade Minister Art Eggleton - neither of them seen in Canada as a friend of the arts - have made so much of their defense of Canadian culture. Federal and provincial debt-reduction fervor has decimated the budgets of Canadian arts councils, subsidy programs and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. International posturing is meant to compensate for the fact that the Liberal government in Ottawa has broken its election promise to protect these institutions.

With Canada's cultural policy so loaded with contradictions, some of its tough stances end up backfiring. A case in point was the controversy this winter over the U.S.-based Borders book chain. Borders gave up early this year after months of negotiations on bringing its big-box superstores to Canada. Canadian publishers welcomed the concept of a new retailer, but wanted Borders to respect Canadian-held distribution rights over U.S. and foreign titles. The publishers depend heavily on their distribution business to subsidize homegrown product, and feared Borders would bring in books from its warehouses in the States. The publishers asked only that Ottawa make a clear statement that copyright rules would be strictly enforced. instead, the issue was confused by Canada's sole bookstore chain, Chapters, which lobbied against Borders being permitted in the country at all. By wrapping itself in the flag, Chapters effectively camouflaged its interest in market control. Ottawa vacillated, Borders withdrew and Canada was left with a monopoly. The result. If Chapters doesn't stock a particular book, it might not be sold in Canada at all.

In such cases, American complaints that Canada is protecting business, not culture, do have some validity. Media concentration in Canada is even more severe than in the United States. Canadian conglomerates like the Rogers cable company and the Southern newspaper chain appeal for relief from competition rules by claiming there is a need for Canadian behemoths to square off more equally against American ones like Paramount or MCA. In Canadian cable, three companies have 68 percent of the audience, up from 36 percent in Two corporations control more than half the daily newspaper circulation. Government intervention has also created a monopoly in direct-to-home satellite services, reducing potential buyers of independent TV productions and prompting some consumers to contract illegally with satellite companies over the border.

"Capital may be rapacious," says Mosco, "but it exists on both sides of the border. The free trade agreement is a convenient excuse to permit increased integration and concentration among Canadian companies. Rogers provides Canadian content only because the market wants it and the government requires it. A more effective nationalist policy would be to permit foreign companies but under tougher Canadian content rules. That would be genuine free trade."

Although its market of 26 million consumers is attractive, Canada is most important to U.S. media as the front line of planetary expansion. As "globalization" Americanizes the world with McDonald's franchises and Baywatch, other countries are beginning to follow Canada in protecting their own. France made film rights a central issue in the last round of GATT negotiations. The late French director Bertrand Tavernier, although a lover of American film, defended the French position: "Do we want to subject people to one language, to one culture, to one way of seeing things?" The French had a name for their fear of being erased by American images and ideas: They called it Canadianization. They also (a bit naively) said that what they were seeking was something like Canada's cultural exemption in NAFTA.

Mexico did not get an explicit cultural exemption in the deal, but was allowed to retain nationalist cultural policies that go much further than Canada's. Thirty percent of movies on the Mexican screen must be Mexican, on TV, news announcers and program hosts must be Mexican nationals. Still, Mexican artists and writers are beginning to fear NAFTA's effects. At a conference in March, Quebec International Affairs minister Sylvain Simard discussed the possibility of a joint Mexico-Quebec strategy for minority-language cultural protection. This is the kind of domino effect that gets Jack Valenti speaking of an infection in the world.

Americans who feel affronted by the worlds seeming hostility might pause and consider how little access they have to their own major media. U.S. citizens, perspectives are not well reflected in the stories that corporate magazines, films and TV tell either. One thing lacking in the debate on culture and free trade is a non-nationalist strategy to bolster grass-roots cultural efforts throughout the free trade area and beyond.

If there were such a movement, it might take its lead from Guillermo Verdecchia, a South American-born, Vancouver-based playwright who won Canada's Governor General's Award in 1993 for Fronteras Americanas, a meditation on borders, culture and polyglot identity. In his acceptance speech, Verdecchia took note of the competing philosophies:

"Thanks to all who have done something about the fact that your local video store stocks Canadian films in the foreign film section, thanks to all the administrators who subsidize art in Canada with skill and intelligence, and to anyone who ever did anything for free. Thank you to everyone who wrote something beautiful, to everyone who goes to the theater, to everyone who ever lent me a book; and thank you to everyone who recognizes that there is more to a city, a people, a nation, more to human endeavor than that which can be measured in the terms dictated by the goddamn, so-called free market.
COPYRIGHT 1996 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wilson, Carl
Publication:The Nation
Date:May 20, 1996
Previous Article:Cashing in on poverty: how big business wins every time.
Next Article:Divide and confuse: selling Nigeria to American blacks.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters