Now that we’ve found Canadian culture what are we going to do with it?

Martin Knelman May 31 1976

Now that we’ve found Canadian culture what are we going to do with it?

Martin Knelman May 31 1976

Now that we’ve found Canadian culture what are we going to do with it?

Martin Knelman

Critic Robert Fulford remarked recently that a generation of English-speaking Canadians grew up believing that the best and brightest would eventually graduate from Canada: real things happened elsewhere. During the Forties and Fifties, this perception defined what happened—or rather what failed to happen—in Canadian culture. But in the Sixties the assumptions that Fulford and millions of others learned from Hollywood movies—that there was a right way of doing things, and it was generally the American way—began to be challenged. People started putting on their own plays in converted churches and warehouses. Small publishing houses began popping up. Kids who had dreamed of going to Hollywood went out instead and shot movies in their own neighborhoods.

Now we’re at the second stage of development—becoming self-conscious and deciding what to do with what has finally started to happen. As Northrop Frye has observed, it has taken Canadians a long time to get imaginative control of their own space. In the traditional arts, Frye may be right in seeing this development as an accomplished fact, but in mass culture it is just beginning to happen. To create a pop mythology requires not just talent and money but something like an advertising man’s self-promotional confidence—and that may be the definition of what Canada has never had.

How else can one explain the fact that Canadians have been content to exist for most of the 20th century without films of their own while living next to a country whose movies have culturally colonized the whole world? Even now, the few good films produced in this country have to compete with American movies not only for play dates in the theatres but also for the publicity that makes people want to see them—which is most spectacularly effective when it is generated through American television or American magazines. Last year Michel Brault’s Les Ordres, an eloquent film about the October crisis, failed to draw audiences here even after Brault won a prize at Cannes. A more serious problem is that despite the federal government’s investment in feature films, it is infinitely more difficult to raise the money for a responsible project than for such exploitation trash as The Parasite Murders and It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. That’s because the Canadian Film Development Coporation follows the model of the American Commercial industry—at the lowest end of the scale.

I don’t think it was the railway that

allowed Canadians to get a grip on themselves, as Pierre Berton assures us, or even the airplane, as Northrop Frye has suggested. What has given most of us our sense of being Canadian has been the CBC. But the CBC has never before in its history had the fantastic opportunity it has right now. Television is uniquely equipped to gobble up the other arts and bring the energy of our most gifted novelists, film makers and stage actors into our homes. Television alone has the power to give that talent a chance to reach the mass audience.

On the CBC’s The Great Canadian Culture Hunt, the most startling series of the past season, Gordon Pinsent chided that we weren’t doing enough for the arts. Week after week, the cultural politicians trotted out a warning to the public that if we were going to survive as a country we would have to find our own cultural identity. In this climate, it becomes a patriotic duty to read Canadian books, watch Canadian movies and buy Canadian paintings. As for our fond indulgence in the American culture, with which we’ve always been willingly deluged, what we have to do, we were told (like children caught masturbating), is to stop it.

And what are executives of the CBC itself actually doing while this stirring message is going out across the land? Why, they’re busy going to crisis meetings where everyone gets anxious over the latest ratings, which demonstrate (surprise, surprise) that more Canadians watch Kojak than original Canadian drama. The message is that the CBC is desperate for ratings—and will do almost anything to get them. If that means canceling Performance and doing a police series instead, that’s fine with the brass.

The fact that The Great Canadian Culture Hunt got on the air is a sign that finally the arts have come up from underground—making the breakthrough from a minority-interest subject to a mass-audience subject, debated in living rooms all over the country in prime time on Wednesday night. I already know many of the people who showed up on the program, but I knew them privately, not as public figures. To find them on television, almost as a congregation, is like realizing a friend you’ve always taken for granted has become a celebrity. What they didn’t tell you on The Great Canadian Culture Hunt is that the whole thing could go down the drain if the CBC cops out now. If close to a million people are watching something they’ve never been exposed to before, that’s sensational,

even if two million people are watching Kojak. It takes a long time for a pop mythology to be born—but the reason for having a government subsidized broadcasting system is precisely that it should be equipped to take risks and provide alternatives. In the meantime, we shouldn’t have to lie about the quality of what is on the air; when you try something daring, it’s inevitable that there will be some bad and boring programs.

Without perhaps being aware of it, the CBC executives who panic over ratings are accepting the American definition of success and failure. Just as the CFDC has been tainted by administrators who operate as if they were running American-International Pictures, so the CBC is endangered by men who behave and think as if they were working for NBC. It doesn’t occur to them that there might be other, better models—maybe because at some level they feel if they’d really made it they would be working for NBC. The Great Canadian Culture Hunt was a startling manifesto. But is it possible that the CBC is run by people who don’t believe in their own propaganda?