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Joly barely moves the dial on cultural policy

Mélanie Joly created unrealistic expectations in promising to take Canadian cultural policy in a "bold" new direction in the digital age, so no one should be surprised to see the grab-bag of measures the Minister of Canadian Heritage unveils on Thursday fall short of the hype.

10 key takeaways from Canada's new cultural policy

The minister will seek to distract attention from just how little her policy package moves the dial, and from the criticisms of those who wanted her to impose a tax on online streaming services, by announcing a flashy deal with Netflix to produce Canadian films and shows. But a voluntary, and thus unenforceable, undertaking by Netflix to spend $100-million a year on nominally Canadian content is not a substitute for the sector-wide reform that is needed.

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Screen-based production is a $7-billion business in Canada, and the biggest customers for Canadian programming – private conventional and specialty television networks – are hurting. A part of the budget for domestic programming comes from cable- and satellite-providers that contribute a portion of their revenues to the Canadian Media Fund (CMF). But as Canadians cut their cable subscriptions, that funding model has broken down. It all calls for a new script.

For now, Ms. Joly's long-awaited policy package essentially amounts to this: Politely asking foreign streaming companies to produce some Canadian content and make it easier to find Canadian shows on the Web; propping up the broken financing model by using direct taxpayer funds to top up the CMF; and promising $100-million to aggressively promote Canadian cultural exports.

But those hoping for more substantive measures will have to await reviews of the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act – already announced in this year's federal budget – along with a review of the Copyright Act and a report Ms. Joly has ordered from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on potential "new models … to support the creation and distribution of Canadian and information programming, in both official languages."

Say again? Wasn't the minister to have done all that before tabling Thursday's policy statement? While the government may yet complete this work before the next election, any big policy changes are unlikely to be implemented until after Canadians go to the polls, if at all.

Ms. Joly had already indicated that her new policy would not include the so-called Netflix tax that Canadian creators and some broadcasters had been calling for to help fund domestic programming. But creators here were still hoping to see the minister take coercive action to force Netflix, Google and other foreign Internet services to pay up.

Her refusal to do so subjects her to particular criticism in her home province, where her Quebec counterpart, Culture Minister Luc Fortin, has accused her of depriving Canada of a strong negotiating position with foreign Internet services by rejecting new taxes outright. Granted, Google and Netflix did not become global disruptors by playing by the rules, and assessing taxes on services located outside the country presents certain challenges. But that has not stopped Britain or France from trying. Quebec seems prepared to go to war with Ottawa over this.

Ms. Joly will have to prove that her soft touch can yield far more than a single, unenforceable deal with Netflix. Skeptics can be forgiven for viewing the latter as a bit too conveniently-timed, providing cover for the Minister as she seeks to deflect criticism for letting foreign players off the hook. Domestic broadcasters, who face strict production quotas, wish they were so lucky.

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Bell Media, which owns CTV and 30 specialty channels, said in its submission to the minister that "the current funding model for Canadian video content needs to evolve from being focused on "distinctly Canadian" programs owned by Canadians to a more partnership driven model that results in programming that is still fundamentally Canadian, but creates increased opportunities for investment, employment and export."

That seems like an avenue worth exploring, at least for English-language programming, even if domestic creators are likely to be dubious. They seem to think Bell and Rogers should simply be forced to subsidize money-losing, 100-per-cent-Canadian programming with the profits they make from their respective cable, satellite and wireless businesses. Try telling their shareholders that.

In Quebec, where distinctly Canadian programming typically means distinctly Québécois programming, the opportunities for foreign partnerships and export sales are more limited. Luckily, Quebeckers somewhat make up for that by remaining avid consumers of local content to an extent English Canadians likely never will be.

Ms. Joly still has much to answer for, no matter how hard she tries to change the channel.

Sarah Polley says the many layers in Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace drew her to the story. Polley adapted the novel into a six-part CBC-TV series starring Sarah Gadon and directed by Mary Harron. The Canadian Press
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