CULTURE

A question of identity

January 5 1987
CULTURE

A question of identity

January 5 1987

A question of identity

CULTURE

Although Canadians voiced increased pessimism in The Maclean's/Decima Poll about the fate of Canada's trade talks with the United States, more than two-thirds of those questioned said that they felt their national identity would not be jeopardized by a closer relationship. The rest of the respondents—one in three—said that closer trade ties with the United States could erode Canada’s unique qualities so that Canadians eventually would become “more like Americans.”

Those differences framed a longstanding debate that has emerged with new force on the free trade issue. On one side are those who contend that Canada’s identity is secure enough to withstand closer commercial relations with the United States, including open cross-border competition in the communication and cultural industries. On the other side are those who claim that preserving the Canadian identity depends in large part on protecting homegrown cultural enterprise in publishing, broadcasting and the arts. Michael Walker, head of the Vancouverbased Fraser Institute, said that he was not at all surprised by the poll results. “Culture is a personal thing,” said Walker. “It is absolute nonsense to believe our government can protect our identity.” But Malcolm Lester, former president of the Toronto-based Association of Canadian Publishers, said: “I find it very disconcerting that more people don’t make the link between protecting our cultural policies and our national identity. If there were no Canadian publishing, film or magazine industries, there would be no national identity. I guess we have not been getting the message across.” Decima tilted the question about trade and national identity to test the strength of cultural protectionism among Canadians. Said Decima vicepresident Bruce Anderson: “It is very easy to get data showing Canadians are afraid their culture can be threatened. So we designed a question that pushed against the conventional ‘fear argument’ a little bit—forcing people to listen to the counterargument more closely than they usually do.”

The exact wording of the question: “Some people say they worry that having a closer trade relationship with the United States will eventually make us lose our unique qualities as Canadians and become more like Americans. Others say that other countries have close trading relationships without losing their cultural identity and there is no reason to assume that we as Canadians would lose ours as a result of having a closer trade agreement with the United States. Which one of these two points of view best reflects your own?”

Sixty-eight per cent chose the second option. Kenneth Simon, a 23-year-old audit clerk in Edmonton, told Maclean ’s that he was not worried that Canadian culture would be bargained away. Said Simon: “Artificial trade barriers create an artificial value for things. And subsidies just help more people put out mediocre stuff.” He added that Canadian identity was more than a culture of books, films or television: “They don’t really affect us that much—they are just a break.” But Winnipeg’s Terrence LaFerriere, a 37-year-old Manitoba government employee, was among the 32 per cent of the respondents who said that they were worried. Said LaFerriere: “We are already inundated with American magazines and television shows that don’t reflect Canadian opinions and values. We have much in common with Americans, but not enough to justify merging our thinking processes.”

In the cultural community, some opponents of U.S.-Canada free trade criticized the framing of the question in the poll when it was read to them. Lester objected to its comparison to other countries. “In most cases, you are talking about countries with different languages,” said Lester, “and language is a de facto nontariff barrier preventing a small country falling under a foreign country’s cultural hegemony.”

Other polls have elicited different responses to questions about the vulnerability of Canada’s cultural industries. Last year a Decima survey for the federal department of communications showed that half of the Canadian population believes that American cultural products already pose a serious threat to Canada’s sense of identity. Despite the debate about the role of culture in the free trade talks, The Maclean’s/Decima Poll indicates that Canada’s cultural industries have not convinced a majority of Canadians that there is a direct link between national identity and the trade talks.