She was at it again last week—talking tough, grabbing headlines, infuriating her detractors—and just plain worrying her allies. Less than a year after her public humiliation over the Goods and Services tax, Sheila Copps was back as the perennial political bad girl. There was the threat to “play hardball” with the United States as the war of words over Canada’s cultural trade barriers escalated. There was the lofty promise to protect the CBC from further cuts. There was an internal party kerfuffle over her unexpected attempt to alter the new Copyright Act to benefit artists at the expense of broadcasters. There was her startling suggestion that Ottawa exclude television news and sports from the calculation of Canadian content—a radical step that would force broadcasters to air much more Canadian drama, comedy and arts programming in prime time to meet the 50-per-cent Canadiancontent requirement. And she stunned private broadcasters by proposing to force them to free up funds for domestic programming by putting a cap on the amounts they could bid for non-Canadian shows. Canada’s minister of heritage and the government’s ranking
cultural guru was not just in the middle of the action—for much of last week, she was the action.
That is just where the outspoken, passionate, sometimes outrageous cabinet minister from Hamilton likes to be. Some of her evercautious government colleagues may have another view. Culture was not meant to be a Liberal election issue. But that was before the anger over the government’s sweeping cuts to the CBC and the revival of invasion plans by American Culture Inc. Suddenly the question of whether Canada will have its own voice to tell its own stories is emerging as a hot-button issue. It is the touchiest of problems, one that has bedevilled past governments. But in many ways the culture flap seems tailor-made for Copps, with her flair for the dramatic, her sweeping rhetoric, her defiant just-watch-me attitude. “If you do things you become a magnet,” she told Maclean’s. “If you don’t do things no one’s feathers get ruffled.”
But with an election expected as early as June, ruffling feathers could be costly. As one high-ranking Liberal cautioned: “We don’t know what Sheila’s going to do, her own people don’t know what
she’s going to do—maybe she doesn’t even know what she’s going to do.” Last week did little to calm party nerves. It began in a conference room in Ottawa, where Copps had gathered a blueribbon selection of the country’s cultural elite to search for new ways to defend Canadian culture. The timing of the long-scheduled meeting was fortuitous: it came just weeks after an interim World Trade Organization ruling that could eliminate traditional protections for Canadian magazines from U.S. competitors.
Thus emboldened, the Americans were suddenly making loud noises, foreshadowing further challenges to measures designed to nurture Canadian television, movies and books. And Copps seemed to have lost control of her portfolio to free traders in the Liberal cabinet when Trade Minister Art Eggleton suggested on Jan. 27 that foreign ownership restrictions and Canadian content rules may have to be re-examined.
But Copps subsequently reasserted herself as Canada’s cultural warrior. During the week of Eggleton’s comments, she met with French government representatives and opened lines of communication with Italy and Ireland over forging strategic ties with “allies that fear the Americanization of culture around the world.” And she sounded equally truculent as she emerged from the culture summit, threatening to pursue U.S. restrictions on foreign ownership in broadcasting before the WTO.
On Jan. 16, in a case initiated by the United States, the trade body issued an interim ruling against a Canadian excise tax meant to I discourage split-run publications:
§ U.S. magazines with Canadian I editions printed in Canada that 1 have for the most part, recycled I American content—but Canadian advertising. “If the Americans insist on pursuing their domination of the world cultural community by using all the instruments at their disposal, they will expect the same in return,” she told reporters. “We are prepared to use all the tools in our arsenal to fight the decisions that restrict our capacity to build our own culture.”
Her message was unmistakable—even if the example was a mistaken one. Realistically, experts say there is little Canada can do under the North America Free Trade Agreement or with appeals to the WTO to make the United States loosen its broadcast ownership policy, which limits foreign ownership of television and radio stations to 20 per cent. The reason: the policy is specifically exempt under NAFTA. Washington, meanwhile, feigned indifference. “I can guarantee you that the U.S. trade representative’s office is not looking for an excuse to go after Canadian culture,” says Bill Murkin, a former U.S. government trade negotiator and now a Washington consultant. But Gordon Ritchie, who was a key Canadian negotiator for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, says it is important to occasionally remind the United States that it cannot take Canada for granted on trade matters. “This may be one of those times,” says Ritchie.”
Dealing with the vexing cultural trade problem will take more than empty threats. Copps says that despite the signs of internecine warfare within Liberal ranks, the government is unified on the issue. And she and Eggleton—who just weeks ago seemed at odds on cultural protection—spoke from the same script after the cultural
summit. Their message: the Liberals will continue to support Canada’s cultural industries.
But the big question remains how—especially if the WTO rules against Canada in its final decision, expected this summer. Copps says Ottawa would appeal. In the meantime, she told Maclean’s that Canada is seeking an exemption for cultural protections in negotiations with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and will probably “pursue that with the WTO.” The government, she says, is examining options—for example, the increased use of loans and loan guarantees—that might be a new way to provide support without provoking trade repercussions.
Whatever the answer, does Copps have the clout to carry it off? Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who admires her scrappy, partisan style, remains a supporter. Within the cabinet, though, she has won more than the usual share of detractors who criticize her abrasive style and her unwillingness to act the team player. Her propensity to make enemies has been highlighted by the party debate over Canada’s 73-year-old Copyright Act. Last year, Copps and Industry Minister John Manley reached a compromise agreement on changes to the act, intended to address the complicated issue of how to balance the interests of artists, publishers and broadcasters. But just before Christmas, as a parliamentary committee was studying the proposed changes, Copps dumped 71 last-minute amendments to the act on the committee.
Those new amendments would force broadcasters to pay more to artists for the use of their work, which could, in the process, hurt small broadcasters who can ill afford higher fees. Liberal insiders say that Manley—who favors fewer fees for broadcasters—was shocked by Copps’s initiative. Other Liberals, meanwhile, have publicly taken aim at Copps. In early February, the party’s southern Ontario caucus voted in favor of a series of amendments tabled by Guelph MP Brenda Chamberlain that would neutralize some of Copps’s proposed changes.
Around the cabinet table, her losses certainly outnumber her victories. When she became heritage minister in 1996, her credibility was instantly damaged after she lost a cabinet battle to halt more than $400 million in budget cuts at the CBC—which was promised long-term stable financing in the Liberal Red Book. So large is the stain from that setback that Copps’s announcement last week that the government is now prepared to meet the commitment for stable CBC financing after the current round of cuts ends in 1998—and to reinstate $10 million in funding to the radio service in April—was viewed as little more than pre-election window dressing. “Sheila Copps is desperate and losing respect,” said a dismissive Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the nationalist Council of Canadians. “Her party is just throwing her a bone.”
But the cultural issue will not go away. Questions about the Liberal government’s handling of CBC cuts are not evaporating—to the concern of some Liberal caucus members. Others are worried about the perception among some Canadians that the government might not be doing enough to protect Canadian culture. But action may raise the prospect of a trade war with the United States. And then there remains the most unpredictable element of the culture question—Copps herself. With an election looming, her return to centre stage is an unsettling twist in the plot for some of her Liberal colleagues.
JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa
Sheila Copps turns up the volume to protect culture
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