A soldier on the front lines of culture

MARY JANIGAN September 23 1985

A soldier on the front lines of culture

MARY JANIGAN September 23 1985

A soldier on the front lines of culture


As recently as six months ago the English-Canadian cultural community scorned Communications Minister Marcel Masse as an insensitive and interfering philistine. Artists and writers, reeling from his decision to cut $100 million from cultural funding, said that he wanted to take control over such pivotal agencies as the Canada Council. But Masse pleaded for patience and launched a behind-thescenes drive to find more money and more protection for Canadian culture. By the time Toronto’s Festival of Festivals opened two weeks ago Masse’s reputation had reversed dramatically. He was the high-profile darling of the event, wooing the suspicious Canadian film community with his nationalistic fervor and Gallic charm. Declared Toronto film producer Ronald Lillie of Lauron Productions: “He has a grasp of the issues as if he were part of the industry instead of a politician. It took my breath away a little bit.”

That growing appreciation of Masse’s commitment to the arts comes as the minister prepares for the toughest political fight of his career. The self-assured Masse has vowed to keep culture off the bargaining table when free trade talks begin with the United States. According to one insider, he plans to reinforce that position with a strong statement on Canadian cultural sovereignty which he will take to cabinet this fall. On the heels of his announcement last July of a bold nationalistic policy for the book publishing industry, Masse is considering measures to wrest Canada’s feature film industry away from American domination. He is also fending off an attempt by a high-powered Canadian business syndicate to bring out a new domestic edition of Time which would offer tax deduction status for its advertisers. During a recent interview with Maclean’s, Masse declared: “The day that the Americans succeed in making a hole in our cultural system, it will weaken all the other sectors. It is not a monolithic system—it is the domino system.”

For the cultural community, such statements are reassuring. In fact, after months of dramatic clashes with Masse, artists have guardedly come to see him as a defender. He has convinced ministries including Manpower and Immigration to devote a portion of their spending to cultural projects. And although Masse clearly wants to impose better budgeting measures on cultural agencies, he has reaffirmed his support for

the arm’s-length principle. The 49-yearold activist minister has also appointed three task forces to probe arts funding, the feature film industry and broadcasting arts. Said Masse: “Lincoln said that you judge a person’s mandate at the end of his mandate. The headlines at the beginning of my mandate had nothing to do with the discussions I was having.” But his recent outspokenness on cultural nationalism has made the biggest impression on the artistic community.

The first dramatic sign of Masse’s concern with protecting Canadian culture came last July, in the wake of a fierce battle at a cabinet meeting in Baie Comeau, Que., when he announced a policy to review all foreign investment in the $l.l-billion book publishing and distribution industry. The government is now reviewing foreign investment in book publishing with the aim of increasing Canadian ownership to at least 50 per cent from the current 20 per cent over the next few years. Declared Brian Anthony, director general of the Canadian Conference of the Arts: “He is one of the strongest supporters of cultural sovereignty that I have ever encountered at a cabinet level of any party.” Since last spring Masse has been fighting for what he considers to be a

centrepiece of the country’s cultural independence—Bill C-58. The controversial legislation has been an irritant to the United States since it prompted Time Inc. of New York to stop publication of a Canadian edition in 1976—and opened the door for Maclean's, then a biweekly magazine, to become a weekly in 1978. It stipulates Canadian firms can only deduct costs of advertising in magazines that are at least 75-percent Canadian-owned, have 80-per-cent

Canadian content and are printed in Canada. Behind the scenes Masse has held discussions with a syndicate of Canadian businessmen who want to obtain an interpretation of the bill that would allow them to reintroduce a Canadian edition of Time which would be attractive to Canadian advertisers.

The syndicate includes Torontonians Donald Hathaway, a management consultant, John Barrington, chief executive of Uxmal Communications Ltd., and Charles Petersen, president of Investors Finance Corp. Ltd. It agreed two months ago to purchase Comae Communications Inc., Canada’s largest publisher of controlled-circulation magazines, from Bell Canada Enterprises. To fulfil the conditions of C-58, the investors propose that Time Inc. own as much as

25 per cent of Time Canada while the syndicate would own at least 75 per cent—conditions which the U.S. publishing giant finds acceptable, according to Hathaway. Meanwhile, Canadian writers working in Canada would provide 20 to 25 per cent of the editorial content. Canadian editors would dominate the editorial board and Canadian editors could choose and edit articles supplied for a fee from all international editions of Time.

In return, Time Inc. would own as much as 25 per cent of Comae’s holding company and would invest more than $20 million in the Canadian edition of Time, in Comae and in new magazine investments. Hathaway told Maclean’s that the syndicate’s proposal makes sound economic sense because Time Inc. now takes about $6 million in profits each year out of Canada, even though it rarely covers Canadian news and has only two Canadian-based editorial staffers. Said Hathaway: “We believe we can be businessmen and nationalists —and we believe there should be an alternative point of view to Maclean’s.”

The syndicate has a preliminary Revenue Canada ruling that the proposal meets the criteria of C-58 from a technical point of view. But the ruling stipulates that cultural considerations must be taken into account, and Masse says that he is determined to enforce the letter of the law.

Some Canadian politicians, including the powerful regional development minister, Sinclair Stevens, are reluctant to exclude such bargaining chips as magazine legislation from the impending free trade discussions with Washington. But insiders point out that the Conservative government’s move last week to reaffirm Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic means the timing may be right for Masse’s stance on C-58 and other cultural issues. They also stress that Masse has a great deal of stature and influence in cabinet as one of only two ministers on the three most powerful cabinet committees—priorities and planning, social development and economic and regional development. Said one Conservative insider: “Mulroney may lean toward specific measures such as letting Time into Canada, but he will go along with Masse anyway because he sees the political up sides of the broader issue.”

Masse’s streak of cultural nationalism also pervades a departmental discussion paper on feature films obtained by Maclean’s. It indicates that Masse has already taken strong nationalistic measures behind closed doors—and it draws a gloomy picture of Canada’s feature film industry. The document notes that there is a shortage of public and private investment money in the industry. At the same time, the six major American distributors—Columbia, Par-

amount, 20th Century-Fox, United Artists, Universal and Warner Brothers— earn 90 per cent of cinema revenues. What is more, the two exhibitors that control most theatres, Canadian-owned Cineplex-Odeon and American-owned Famous Players, devote only two per

cent of screen time to Canadian films. Declared Masse in a speech during the Festival of Festivals: “It is not enough to produce films if Canadians are not given an opportunity to see them.”

The paper discloses that some sweeping remedies are already under way. Masse’s department is currently holding private talks with the six major film distributors, demanding that they devote 10 per cent of their North American release schedule to Canadian films and invest at least 10 per cent of gross annual Canadian revenues—about $200 million—in Canadian production. It says that if the “majors” do not budge, Masse should urge provincial culture ministers at a meeting in Halifax this month to consider legislation forcing them to comply with his formula.

The document also discloses that later this month a senior civil servant will establish links with other national governments concerned about American domination of the distribution industry “with the purpose of taking a united position in favor of domestic industries—a sort of OPEC of non-American film producing countries.” Meanwhile, it says that the cultural policies branch of its anticombines section will reopen examination of monopoly complaint

against the two major exhibitors if there is sufficient evidence. Masse is also examining a proposal to institute an Investment Canada policy on audiovisual companies similar to the book publishing policy. When Maclean’s discussed the paper with producer Lillie, he lauded many of the paper’s proposals but said that he is worried that Ottawa may hurt the film business with too much regulation and stringent quotas. Declared Lillie: “The public will determine how long a Canadian film runs. What government can do is ensure that the film has a chance.”

That worry about government interference dogs Masse’s quest for a nationalistic cultural policy and it could prompt his fellow ministers to defeat his stand on cultural sovereignty. Canadians must decide if the benefits of a protected culture are worth the risk of investing so much power in a minister and his department. One cultural insider said that Masse is determined to make his mark on history and “talks a lot about Napoleon.” For Toronto writer June Callwood, Masse’s strong Canadian nationalism is commendable but she cautioned that he may abuse his power. Said Callwood: “He could be a terrible adversary for a cultural group at odds with him. I am not going to start being grateful to him until I see if he can leave us alone as well.” It is a concern that the cultural community will ponder as Marcel Masse’s battle to protect the country’s culture spreads beyond the cabinet table and into the leisure time of all Canadians.