Canadians debate threat to cultural fabric from US trade pact. For many, vital cultural flowering could be blighted
Toronto — ``If all the cultural policy papers, research studies, task-force reports, green papers, white papers, and royal commission volumes that have been devoted to the cultural industries in Canada were laid end to end, there would be a formidable border between Canada and the United States from sea to sea.'' So writes Joyce Nelson in a Canadian publication, This Magazine.
It's almost true. State support and the status of culture in Canada is certainly controversial, and it has become even more so because of the free-trade deal signed by the US and Canada last Jan. 2.
Probably a good majority of the Canadian artistic community sees that agreement as a threat to Canadian culture, opening the door to an even greater flood of American movies, television shows, records, magazines, books, etc.
``We can't go to dinner without this agreement being violently discussed,'' says Margaret Atwood, a well-known Canadian novelist.
The fate of that agreement hangs on whether the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is restored to office with a majority in Nov. 21 elections. The opposition parties have pledged to tear it up should they win. They are appealing to a deep-seated fear of American cultural power.
Supporters of the trade deal note that one provision exempts the ``cultural industries'' from the agreement. Its opponents, though, point to the next clause, which would allow the United States to take trade retaliatory measures should the Canadian government promote cultural activities in ways that harm American trade interests.
Those clauses are generally interpreted as grandfathering present Canadian measures to protect in varying degrees its newspapers, publishers, broadcasters, and other cultural industries from foreign influences.
Proponents of the deal say its cultural provisions basically endorse the status quo, since the US could at present retaliate against Canadian cultural measures. But Canada will be able to appeal a retaliatory US action under the agreement's dispute settlement provisions. ``The agreement actually improves, rather than worsens, Canada's ability to follow cultural support activities,'' says Richard Lipsey of the C.D. Howe Institute, a think tank here.
Opponents say the deal restrains Canadian efforts to protect and promote its culture.
``We maintain that Americans hold the view that we are cultural protectionists because they can't own and control our entire market,'' states Michelle d'Auray, national director of a lobbying organization, the Canadian Conference of the Arts. ``Were we to adopt their perspective, we would see, read, and breathe only American products. Even our current limited access to cultural products of other nations would be severely cut. That's not `free' trade as we understand it, that's massive dumping of American products and protection of the American cultural domination of our cultural scene.''
Both those cultural figures for and those against free trade agree that Canadian cultural activities have burgeoned in the last two or three decades.
``There is quite a diverse and vital cultural scene in Canada today, much more than 20 years ago,'' says Norman Webster, editor of the national Toronto Globe and Mail.
Nonetheless, Canadian cultural uneasiness is roused by such facts as these:
The Canadian government imposes Canadian content requirements on Canadian television stations. But some 72 percent of all English television programming available in Canada - off-air or via cable - comes from the US.
US film studios and distributors have fought Canadian efforts to get more Canadian films shown in Canadian movie theatres. Film distribution is dominated by US companies, resulting in more than $1 billion in revenues to US film producers and distributors. Only some 3 percent of film time is taken by Canadian movies.
US magazine publishers complain about preferential mailing rates and tax advantages for Canadian magazines and newspapers. However, some 77 percent of all newsstand periodicals sold in Canada originate from foreign countries, mainly the US.
Some 70 percent of the music played on Canadian radio and more than half of record sales in this country are of US origin.
Mostly, the Canadian attitude is not to exclude American cultural products, but to promote Canadian cultural activities. Ottawa, for example, funds a Canada Council to subsidize the arts relatively more generously than Washington's National Endowment for the Arts. Should any Canadian government attempt to ban some favorite American TV comedy or soap opera, it would face a public storm here.
Because of the widespread acceptance of cable TV in Canada, the average Canadian probably has access to more American TV than the average American.
Indicating the government attitude, the Canadian Broadcasting Act of 1968 speaks of the need to ``safeguard, enrich, and strengthen the cultural, political, social, and economic fabric of Canada.''
Canadian newspapers have not been bought out by US or British chains because Canadian advertisers in foreign-owned publications cannot deduct the cost of those ads from their taxable income.
To the American free-trade negotiators, the Canadian concern with culture is sometimes a disguise for commercial protectionism. This is generally disputed in Canada. But it was recognized to a degree by the pact's Canadian negotiators when they agreed, for example, to remove a requirement that Canadian periodicals be typeset and printed in Canada in order for Canadian companies advertising in them to deduct these expenses for income tax purposes.
Garry Neal, general secretary of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, blames the trade agreement for decisions by the Canadian government to reduce capital cost allowances for Canadian films and television programs, weaken a plan to strengthen Canadian film distributors, and failure to follow a proclaimed policy to require the sale of ownership of foreign-owned book publication subsidiaries in Canada to Canadians should the ownership of the parent company change hands in the US or elsewhere.
``The agreement recognizes a North American reality, but it leaves little room for Canadian vision,'' he argues.
Pierre Berton, a prominent Canadian journalist, says, ``You can't have economic domination without social and cultural domination. This agreement is the thin edge of the wedge.''
In general, those in the performing arts - opera, ballet, music, etc. - are less worried by the trade pact. They already enjoy a largely open North American if not world market.
``Free trade is good for Canadian culture,'' says Mr. Leberg of the Canadian Opera Company.
Simon Reisman, the Canadian negotiator of the deal, argues that the extra prosperity resulting from the trade pact will enable Canada to better nurture its culture financially.
Next: Canadian business looks at free trade.