Podium

No guarantees, no culture

Hugo McPherson June 16 1980
Podium

No guarantees, no culture

Hugo McPherson June 16 1980

No guarantees, no culture

Podium

Hugo McPherson

Want to buy a Crown corporation, anyone? I was asking that question in the first months of the Joe Clark government because the rumor was out that a huge and aggressive publisher in the United States (Encyclopaedia Britannica) wanted to buy the National Film Board of Canada and all its assets. The price hinted at was $100 million. I was outraged. As a former commissioner of the NFB, I would value its assets—talent, archives, facilities and potential for profit and cultural enrichment—at well over $1 billion. So the exploratory offer would have been a Kresge bargain-basement steal of one of Canada’s great cultural agencies. (The second is the CBC: sell that, and we might as well sell Canada.)

I had another question: Want to starve a cultural agency, anyone? That was the record of the federal government after Canada’s great Expo 67.

Former governor-general Jules Léger once summed up the situation splendidly after a meeting with the secretary of the Treasury Board: “In times of austerity, the arts are the first to suffer. In times of prosperity, the arts are the last to be rewarded.” I found this a fine summary of one of Canada’s worst habits.

But more vital questions arise because, in the electronic age, public information and even public entertainment, Canadian-style, are central to our national life while commercial interests, of course, are primarily concerned just with what will pay. The big issues now are the riches of cablevision, pay-TV and satellite broadcasting. Who will control and regulate these vast resources? The obvious answer is that our governments must guarantee information services that bring us cultural riches—our own riches. Otherwise, we will land in that dime-store situation.

Let me put it another way. Canada is one of the three greatest land masses in the world, but our politicians fail to realize that information is a leading national resource and that organizations such as the CBC and the NFB—media resources and resources of the spirit—are probably more important for our life than timber or uranium.

I am not arguing against commercial programs. Rather, I feel that the whole tone of our national programming should be set by people who believe in Canada and in a Canadian view of the world. As the distinguished literary scholar and social critic Northrop Frye has insisted, the centre of our reality is here; the circumference is “whatever the imagination can make sense of.” We must concentrate on our own experience and we must make an equal effort to understand our global (and universal) interests and concerns. In all this, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has a central and rather terrifying role to play, since it must strike a balance between the moneymaking motives of commercial media interests and the larger question of “the public interest” which is written into Canadian laws.

In Canada, the tender heart of the whole problem is, finally, education, a provincial domain. As a film commissioner, I tried to bypass that thorny issue by talking about films for “youth”—to be used anywhere, at the discretion of elected authorities. But I knew that the NFB was able to do excellent work in many areas—science, the North, social change, animated film, geographical studies and so on— work that few corporations, provinces or even nations would undertake without dollar returns. In England, the BBC and the British Council undertook such work; and in Canada, the CBC, NFB, and later the Canada Council, were funded to do so—though almost always too meagrely. But Canada had no philanthropic families on the scale of Rockefellers and Carnegies. When some fairly big money did arrive, it came from the death duties of the Killam and Dunn families, and a leader such as Louis Saint-Laurent.

I know that schools and citizens across the nation are starving for first-class work in the many areas of the NFB’s talent. (In this regard, I might mention that schools and libraries depend almost exclusively on the NFB to provide information about Canadian life and achievement. In round figures, Canadian schools own about 90,000 prints of NFB films, and libraries some 40,000 prints. But this is never enough. For example, when I visited the provincial film library in New Brunswick in 1970,1 learned that they could fill only one in nine requests for films; and the situation has since deteriorated. Departments of education and libraries should be spending more for prints. But the NFB’s distribution system needs vast financial support to meet this hunger for Canadian films.) And the outside world, too, is keen to see the work of the NFB. In these terms, the NFB (similar to Czechoslovakia’s great film-makers) made an international reputation. We can be proud of it.

The NFB has won more than enough Oscars from the film industry—the latest, last April for Derek Lamb’s Every Child. We know that Canada can do that, and frequently at about 10 per cent of the cost of “spectaculars” produced in the U.S. and Europe. We also know that the NFB and its governors prize this record as a world achievement. Maybe our politicians will prove with cash that they feel the same way. For if the NFB is to fulfil its mandate in production and distribution, and experiment in the art and technology of film—not to speak of the role it plays in training writers, producers, directors and technicians of all kinds—it must have strong and increasing support from the government. I, for one, assert in the strongest terms that the NFB is not for sale. We Canadians own it and need it more than ever.

A former commissioner of the National Film Board, Hugo McPherson is now professor of communications at McGill University in Montreal.

‘CBC and NFB are probably more important for our life than timber and uranium’