Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Four ‘Constants’ in Canadian cultural policy – Page 3

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While political and social leaders occasionally proclaim their love of things artistic and cultural, it has really been technology challenges that propelled cultural policy development for nearly 100 years. Innovations and commercial opportunities triggered private and public investments, political uncertainties and strategic decisions. For example, the emergence of commercial radio networks in the United States and their spillover to Canada gave rise to fears about this country’s lack of presence in this new communications medium. The cultural importance of Canadian broadcasts and was key to the Aird recommendations in 1929. Similarly, concerns about the new commercial technology of television and recognition of the power of the ‘mass media’ were powerful stimulants to the proposals of the Massey Commission.

We can identify other key technology motivators for cultural policy innovations. In the 1960s, the rapid expansion of cable distribution systems drove political debate on the importance of Canadian ownership rules and priority carriage for domestic broadcasting. In the 1980s, the arrival of Pay-Per-View technology led to the licensing of television movie channels. In the mid-1990s, the availability of satellite distribution systems led to a major controversy and, eventually, to revised regulations on broadcast licenses and ‘Cancon’ balance. Again in the mid-1990s, the new ability to transfer content across borders through digitized signals led to a high profile trade dispute with the United States over so-called ‘split run magazines’. The potential effects of this technology persuaded the federal government to create a new program of support for Canadian publications.

Technology impacts on culture during the Twentieth Century have been seen especially in the field of broadcasting. Even the powerful medium of commercial film has been harnessed to the packaging and distribution capacity of television (although feature films are still normally shown in cinemas for their first-release window). Consequently, the primary focus of new policy and funding has been on broadcasting. A second focus has been complementary to broadcasting, in the sense of assisting the creation of Canadian content to supply the needs of broadcast media. Assistance to recorded music, to the feature film industry, and to documentary film production were directly related to challenges in broadcasting. Even the traditional activity of book publishing, which has often received government attention, can be thought of as a nurturing ground for the supply of materials to TV production.

By contrast, those areas of cultural activity that are not readily perceived as related to new technologies, notably arts performance and museum operations, are usually relegated to the lowest position on the cultural policy totem pole. Of course, Canadians and foreign visitors continue to attend and enjoy the performing arts and museums, even while these receive less political attention and funding than comparable institutions in other major countries.

In other words, culture in Canada has often obtained its strongest political attention as an offshoot from its relationship to technological innovation, rather than for its intrinsic worth as a voice of creativity, social values and identity. We might speculate as to why this is so. Does technology make public opinion leaders feel vulnerable? Alternatively, do they feel that technology creates uniquely effective vehicles for cultural expression? In other words, is technological innovation viewed as a threat or as an opportunity for Canadian culture and identity? Whatever the underlying motivation, the outcome is that technology has been the fundamental driver of modern cultural policy and this has been a consistent ‘verity’
in the shaping of the policy agenda.


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