COLUMN

The survival of Canadian culture

Barbara Amiel April 20 1987
COLUMN

The survival of Canadian culture

Barbara Amiel April 20 1987

The survival of Canadian culture

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Last year, before the beginning of the fall television season, British viewers were preoccupied by a dispute between the BBC and the competing Independent Television (ITV) network. The argument concerned the American series Dallas, and at one crucial point it looked as if English audiences might miss the opening show with its solution to the great problem of “How to bring back Bobby Ewing.” The dispute was settled and Dallas now runs in a primetime slot, as do Dynasty, Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, as well as a flock of perfectly awful out-of-date American sitcoms.

The American stranglehold on popular British culture is lamented every now and then by the intelligentsia but regarded as inevitable. Certain countries at particular times have often dominated one aspect of culture, much to the envy of other nations. Itaiy during the Renaissance overwhelmed the rest of the world in high culture. Up until the advent of the movies, it was the British who dominated popular culture in much of the world.

Now it is America that has a virtual monopoly on what is politely referred to as popular culture and more accurately described as vulgar common taste. British TV magazines spend most of their time on schlock accounts of the real and imagined love lives of American stars as well as their real and imagined professional brawls. The one saving grace for the English is that unlike Canadian TV, British television has managed to carve out a chunk of the popular culture for its own. The BBC soap opera Eastenders has an obsessive grip on the British and its success is due to the fact that the British do have an indigenous culture, quite different from America. The truth about Canada—painful to some, a matter of indifference or pride to others—is that we do not.

The CBC’S attempt at a soap opera, The King of Kensington, told us nothing new about our lives that could not be seen in a dozen better-acted, better-written and more technically proficient U.S. shows from All in the Family to one of the Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs. It is not enough to have a few local references and familiar faces in a show to make it appeal to a home audience; it must speak to

certain myths or truths that have remained untouched. Our popular culture is on the U.S. networks every night.

Fears about the Americanization of Canadian culture always resurface when issues like free trade hot up. But that particular fear seems a non sequitur since Canada and America share the same culture, and so the question of domination seems beside the point—except in an economic sense. The warning cries about selling our culture to the Americans reflect only the interests of a small but vociferous lobby of Canadian businessmen and intellectuals who want to protect themselves from American competition. Their fears have little to do with the intrinsic nature of Canadian culture. Even in the face of a free trade agreement, most of Canada’s public and private cultural entities would remain; the CBC would continue and so

It became necessary to invent a \Real Canadian identity, ’ different from the Coca-Cola and Hollywood one to the south

would the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet. Cultural businessmen may feel the bite in some areas, inefficient Canadian publishers may go under, but the good ones will survive as, more importantly, will Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro and their successors.

In fact, the concept of an exclusive Canadian culture or indeed a distinct Canadian identity under threat from America is a fabrication. The roots of it can be traced to the battle of Pierre Trudeau against Quebec, when it was thought necessary to postulate a synthetic Canadian identity to counter the very genuine cultural nationalism of the French Canadians. In truth, there is very little to distinguish Anglo-Canadians from Americans. We are about as different from them as the people of Montana are from New Yorkers or Albertans from Ontarians. Canadians and Americans share a virtually indistinguishable language, system of values, ethnic composition of founding and immigrant groups (with the exception of a sizable black community in Canada), lifestyle, cul-

tural assumptions and expectations. This common North American identity left those wishing to establish Canadian nationalism in a bit of a quandary. It became necessary to invent a “Real Canadian identity,” different from the Coca-Cola and Hollywood culture to the south.

The result was predictable. Canadian nationalism, being mainly political, artificial and synthetic, could express itself only in negatives—the rejection of what it regarded as American values. This is where the economic goals of the nationalists to protect their businesses from American competition happily coincided with their political left-liberalism. To be anti-American was to be against the great American values of individual liberty, limited government and a system based on the economic concept of free enterprise. Canadian nationalism, with Trudeau’s Liberals behind it, turned a cold cheek to those values and a left-liberal philosophy developed in this country that has become the standard approach to cultural and social policy questions by all political parties.

Little of this was apparent to ordinary Canadians, however. They were blissfully unaware of the political thrust of Canadian nationalism. Occasionally, they may have complained when an American TV channel was moved off the dial, but otherwise life seemed pretty much unchanged and, anyway, what could be wrong with a decent dose of patriotism? Meanwhile, the nationalists saw their policies institutionalized in the enormous bureaucracies that sprang up to regulate Canadian content in almost every area of human endeavor.

Ironically, the nationalists failed in the one area that they claim was their real target—the battle against American culture. In spite of all the grants, the incentives and the regulations, Canadians continued to prefer Dallas to The Beachcombers.

Which seems to me to pose little threat to the political entity we all love and know as Canada. Myself, I like pop American culture for my lowbrow times, European ideas for cerebral exercise and the joy of living in a politically independent Canada for peace of mind. But one thing I know, and no Canadian nationalist can persuade otherwise: in the 20th century, when it comes to popular culture, Dallas wins.