Somebody called me a protectionist this week. I've been called far worse, but the term rankled because I had not argued that Canadian television should be protected from foreign competition. I had simply pointed out that Netflix is an unregulated television service competing directly with Canadian broadcasters who have to program a certain amount of Canadian content by law. Whether they like it or no – and their commitment often seems lukewarm – the broadcasters are supporting television production in Canada. Netflix, which, by the way, pays no taxes in Canada, can license and commission entirely as it pleases.
Whether an unregulated service is ever going to commission a significant amount of Canadian programming – that is, more than the three Canadian shows Netflix has ordered to date – remains to be seen. The business model for Canadian television shows is weak, but it does exist. Because of its ability to gather small communities together and serve niche interests, the Internet probably holds out greater hope for the distribution of Canadian programming than unregulated Canadian broadcasters would. Either way, the distinction between Internet and conventional television will gradually blur, putting more and more pressure on the Canadian content regulations first drafted back in the 1970s. If we simply ditched the regs to level the playing field, how much Canadian programming would survive?
Behind that question there is, of course, my big assumption: that Canadian programming matters; that we should want it to exist. This isn't about "telling Canadian stories to Canadians." It isn't about seeing pictures of beavers, Mounties and canoes on our screens. It's about participating in a living culture, and recognizing that a living culture is often a local culture. A global and digital age offers vast opportunities to participate anywhere, any time, yet it seems to have spawned gatekeepers, the Netflixes, Amazons and Googles of this world, as culturally monolithic as any broadcaster that ever preceded them. Think of Canadian content as the cultural equivalent of the 100-mile diet.
I discovered the importance of local culture watching Canadian theatre. A healthy theatre is a three-legged stool, supported by the actor, the director and the playwright. Shakespeare may be a great playwright and The New York Times may have raved about the latest Broadway hit, but if you never program any Canadian plays at your Canadian theatre company, there will never be a living playwright in the rehearsal hall. So, you are permanently missing a key source of creativity and ultimately even your best offerings feel dead, second-hand things removed from the real artistic action that is always, inevitably, happening someplace else.
That's why this paper has paid a lot of attention in recent years to the number of Canadian operas being commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company. The company has not performed Canadian music on its main stage since 1999, when it produced The Golden Ass with a score by Randolph Peters, but this week it announced a flurry of new Canadian works. Barbara Monk Feldman will be the first Canadian composer since Peters to have her music played on the main stage, when her short opera Pyramus and Thisbe is performed in 2015. That work is already in the can and is followed by two full-length commissions: Rufus Wainwright is composing Hadrian for 2018-2019 and Ana Sokolovic is working on La Reine-Garçon for 2019-20.
There is no guarantee those two operas will actually make it to the stage – some previous commissions have never been produced – but you'll note that these operas concern a pair of ancient Greek lovers, a Roman emperor and a 17th-century Swedish queen. Only one other project, a revival of the 1967 Harry Somers opera Louis Riel (and that's recent by opera standards) deals with a Canadian subject.
The point is not to program stuff that is identifiably Canadian. The point is that opera is a living art form, existing in the here and now. If the COC never programs new Canadian work, it becomes only a guardian of 19th- and perhaps 20th-century European repertoire. If you don't happen to be an opera fan yourself, you may feel that the Europeans are doing a very nice job of that already and that, paltry though the grant may be, we might profitably reallocate the $6-million that the COC receives every year.
Of course, television productions are contemporary works, not historical ones, and Canadians see a great deal of the "now" on our screens. What we see a lot less of is the "here," since much of the TV we watch is American. If all we ever do is observe things that are made and set in L.A, we operate as a passive culture, always receiving from outside, never producing our own. We are left with the impression that "here" is of no significance and that, by extension, we are of less significance.
Some Canadian TV shows are great; others aren't and nobody should expect all three of those new operas to prove memorable, either. Cultural production can be time-consuming, expensive and result in many more misses than hits, but finding the mechanisms to nurture Canadian content seems a rather simple matter of self esteem.