Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Four ‘Constants’ in Canadian cultural policy – Page 4

– Page 4 –


Despite periods of cyclical neglect and the narrow political focus on technology impacts, a distinct Canadian cultural model of considerable breadth and depth did emerge during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Research studies and public consultations examined the dynamics of different cultural activities, shaping policies toward the arts and what became known as the ‘cultural industries’. Interventions to support Canadian content were implemented across a full range of undertakings, and a pattern or ‘model’ has been defined. This model came under pressure during the mid-1990s, when some major players in the fields of digital technology systems argued that the ‘convergence’ of telecommunications and broadcasting would make cultural regulations entirely outmoded. An acute observation by the federal Heritage Minister of the time, Michel Dupuis, summarized the essential challenge. He pointed to the emerging growth of ‘converged’ undertakings and commented: “Ça, c’est le contenant; mais oû est le contenu? Those wires are the containers; but where is the content?”

Minister Dupuis’ ironic question drew attention to the continuing relevance of cultural policies and programs that had evolved over many years. Despite funding restrictions and occasional campaigns from trade liberalization advocates (often related to suppliers of foreign TV programs and films) a policy model that envisages public intervention across the cultural production continuum remains effective in Canada. This model touches all aspects of cultural creation, production, distribution, consumption and preservation. It recognizes that there is vast access to imported cultural products, but that access to Canadian products, with support from funding and regulatory regimes, is essential to national identity.

In effect, as Sir John Aird and Sir Vincent Massey had foreseen many years ago, culture is similar to education or even to national defence: it is a ‘public good’ that must be managed to achieve more than economic market outcomes. In the absence of public interventions, a purely market-driven approach would relegate most large-scale cultural expression to economic oblivion (whether in the English or French languages).

This model is a central constant in Canadian cultural life: it is one of our cultural ‘verities’. It can be modified through timely initiatives, such as the recent efforts to negotiate an international legal convention to protect cultural diversity. The model is not purely federal in scope, allowing for complementary measures by different levels of governments. When major cultural construction projects take shape, for example, they inevitably require tiered funding from federal, provincial and municipal governments. Similarly, it is the layering of tax credits from different governments that effectively enhance the value of private philanthropy, or the value of private funding in operations such as film companies and book publishers.

Ironically, the only institutions that do not benefit from the layering of assistance are those of a national nature, notably the national museums. No provincial or municipal governments accord any support to national projects: everyone seems to expect that Ottawa alone will look after the pan-Canadian perspective. That unfortunately is another Canadian cultural ‘verity’.


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