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Mélanie Joly’s Net neutrality stance could spell trouble in Quebec

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

Mélanie Joly has had a soft ride so far as Minister of Canadian Heritage, in part because she has written so many cheques – to the CBC, the Canada Council and numerous other cultural agencies and organizations. But the road could get much rockier for her in her home province of Quebec if she maintains her position on how to keep major lanes open for Canadian content on the Internet.

Joly's full policy has yet to be revealed, but she favours Net neutrality, in which all content is seen as equal, over any scheme that would oblige online carriers to support and guarantee a space for Cancon, as conventional broadcasters do now. She also says she prefers to reason with transnational outlets such as Netflix and Amazon, rather than threaten them with taxes and regulation.

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Her position is not a hit with cultural producers in English Canada, but dissent has been muted by the perception that this minister cares about cultural industries and is still considering her options. The consensus seems to be: Give her a chance.

In Quebec, however, Joly's strategy of taming the Web's Godzillas by preaching diversity and corporate responsibility looks to some like a passive assault on francophone cultural identity. The issue could damage the Montreal MP and her party across a broad voting spectrum.

Joly's particular vulnerability in Quebec was laid out recently by Pierre Nantel, another Montreal-area MP, in a piece in Le Devoir. Nantel is the NDP's critic for culture and heritage, but he didn't write from a federal, pan-Canadian point of view. He focused exclusively on what Joly's soft policy could mean for a province where diffusion of Québécois programming is seen as a vital marker of cultural survival.

"No one would say Mélanie Joly lacks ambition," Nantel begins, acknowledging her goal to revamp the entire federal cultural policy. But so far, he says, she's not leading the way to any change "as solid and fundamental for Québécois culture as Camille Laurin's Bill 101."

Bill 101, of course, is Quebec's far-reaching provincial language law, which after 40 years is hailed by most francophones as a key legacy of René Lévesque's Parti Québécois government. For Nantel to deploy such a cannon in his opening salvo tells you how far his argument cuts across party lines in Quebec.

Nantel cites the mass migration of Quebec viewers under 35 from local TV to Netflix, and the resulting loss of revenue for Quebec producers and distributors. But his most telling complaint is that kids' shows similar to Passe-Partout – a childhood staple for many thirtysomething francophones – aren't on Netflix and probably never will be.

"A generation that does not see itself reflected in Quebec television and film, that is an erosion of our values," he says.

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"An erosion of our values" is a more profound charge than the one stirring in English Canada, where Joly and her government are mostly seen to be risking the erosion of certain cultural industries. But the implications of Nantel's argument reach even deeper, to the conflicted bargain many in Quebec feel they have made, and keep making, with the Canadian state.

A concise account of that bargain appears in a recent short book by Yvan Lamonde, a professor emeritus at McGill University and respected historian of ideas. Lamonde's Un coin dans la mémoire (A Wedge in the Memory) is a melancholy survey of what he sees as the internal divisions sown in Quebec's collective mind by colonialism and frustrated national ambition.

For nearly 200 years, Lamonde writes, francophones have been stuck in a debilitating tussle between two nationalisms, one political and the other cultural. Lamonde describes these as the two hemispheres of the Québécois political brain. The cultural nationalist side, for many decades promoted by Quebec's Catholic clergy, sees the lack of political sovereignty as an acceptable price to pay for security of language, customs and religion. The federal side of the deal is reflected in measures such as provincial jurisdiction over education, the Official Languages Act and the Cancon objectives enforced by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The CRTC, however, has no sway over the likes of Netflix, and Joly isn't keen to fill the regulatory void. A federal mechanism that helped create and sustain Quebec's robust broadcast ecosystem is being allowed to slide into obsolescence, and the province has no power to take measures of its own.

In Lamonde's terms, this turn of events exposes the fragility of the cultural nationalist position, which can always be undermined by federal action – or in this case, inaction. And when one hemisphere of Quebec's political brain is balked, the other side gains strength.

Nantel, in his essay, doesn't refer directly to what Joly's policy may mean for the dream of political sovereignty, perhaps because measurable support for sovereignty is low. It would be rash, however, to think the movement is finished. Quebec has a history of big political mood swings, such as the Orange Crush that carried NDP newcomers such as Nantel into office in 2011, and the referendum campaign of 1995, in which the sovereigntist side lost by only 1.16 per cent of the vote.

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If the push for political sovereignty revives its strength in Quebec, it will be because federalism's benefits seem outmatched by frustrations, some of them old – such as the 1982 Constitution, passed without Quebec's consent – and some new.

The day that francophones realize that their media environment has been stealthily anglicized, under a laissez-faire federal policy, will be a day of reckoning. And when the sovereigntist hemisphere of the brain wakes up, its first words will be exactly what Nantel says: "The future of our culture is at stake."

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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