BUSINESS WATCH

Defending the Canadian dream

The Free Trade Agreement has made Canada vulnerable to cultural genocide. Only by standing up to the Yanks can we survive.

Peter C. Newman July 8 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Defending the Canadian dream

The Free Trade Agreement has made Canada vulnerable to cultural genocide. Only by standing up to the Yanks can we survive.

Peter C. Newman July 8 1991

Defending the Canadian dream

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

As the Spicer commission so eloquently documented, ours is a putty culture, yeasty yet penetrable. Canadians have tended, for good reason, to spend their national worrying time on Quebec, the Constitution, the recession, the agony of our aboriginal peoples. But there is another arena in which Canada’s future is being debated, with equally significant implications, that the Spicer commission didn’t touch.

It has to do less with defining the Canadian dream than with defending it. The Free Trade Agreement with the United States has made Canada vulnerable to cultural genocide. Only by standing up to the Yanks can we survive.

Before the free trade negotiations with the United States even began in 1986, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, speaking at the University of Chicago, pledged to keep our publishing, film, broadcast and related industries off the bargaining table. That was one of the very few positions Canada retained in the talks that followed.

With the start of the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade talks in Toronto last month, the issue has popped up again. After the first day of negotiations, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills flatly declared that she had no intention of excluding Canada’s cultural industries from any future trade agreement among the three countries. Canada’s cultural industries are still up for grabs, she stated.

Competitiveness Minister Michael Wilson shot back: “She can bring it up all she wants, but it’s not going to be something which will be negotiated. Canada’s cultural industries are the soul of the nation, and won’t be bargained away.”

Wilson feels strongly about the issue, as he should, but the Americans are up to their old tricks, holding up trade carrots to try to achieve what they want in culture. Hills has already dangled the prospect of unrestricted access for Canadian banks and other financial institutions to the U.S. market as one possible incentive for Ottawa to back down on the cultural front.

The Free Trade Agreement has made Canada vulnerable to cultural genocide. Only by standing up to the Yanks can we survive.

The issue goes to the heart of what’s left of Canada’s identity. The problem is that “culture” takes on very different meanings in Canada and the United States. To the Americans, it is their most successful commercial export—an item they market with great flair and success the world over. Their culture has come to be accepted as universal. Most of the television programs and films we watch, the music we hear and boogie to, the magazines we read and even the baseball cards we collect, are American. That won’t change very much, but that’s not what this argument is about.

Canadian culture is a very different and much more fragile commodity. It articulates the way we are and what we want to become. It includes not only the works of our writers, editors, artists, film-makers, actors and broadcasters, but also embodies our sense of values, the social contract, our laws, manners, prevailing deference to authority and the admission that treading water is our national sport.

To protect these and other essential national character traits, the Trudeau government in 1976 reluctantly passed Bill C-58, which at the time was roundly denounced and voted against by every member of the Conservative party, then in opposition, except Flora MacDonald. It

was that legislation which allowed Maclean Hunter, the owners of this magazine, to switch from publishing it as a monthly to a newsweekly. (Having been editor of Maclean’s at the time may rob this column of its objectivity, but that doesn’t subtract from the significance of the issue.)

Only magazines place events in a national perspective and allow Canadians to form comprehensive opinions based not on the fleeting impressions and images so superbly provided by television, but also on the intelligent analysis of trends and opinions. “Our national media are needed today to protect this country in precisely the same way an east-west railroad was needed at the time of Confederation,” Maclean Hunter chairman Donald Campbell told the company’s annual meeting in May.

The most immediate threat to Canadian publishing—and all of our other vital cultural elements—is that the government will dilute the C-58 legislation which was intended to end the tax deduction for businesses advertising in foreign media. After C-58, only ads in Canadian media were to qualify for such tax deductions. As a result, American and other non-Canadian magazines still have free access into the country, but as the foreign publications they are, rather than as pseudo-Canadian ad traps.

Although Time Canada Ltd. is officially unable to offer tax deductions for Canadian companies advertising in Time, it nevertheless enjoyed a pretax profit of more than $6 million in 1989—even after sending a $5.7-million dividend to its home office in New York City. Furthermore, Time, which is leading the lobby to kill C-58, incurs almost no editorial costs in Canada, saving the estimated $10 million annually that a full-fledged Canadian news operation would cost. Although Time Canada had revenues of $36,482,022 in 1989 and presented Time to Canadian advertisers as a “must read,” its Canadian coverage was virtually nonexistent, even in an international context.

In its March 11, 1991, 40-page cover package on the Gulf War, Time mentions the contributions of such minor players as Morocco, Bangladesh and Czechoslovakia (which sent only a medical team), but not a word about Canada. Similarly, the June 3, 1991, story about the North American common market negotiations referred only to U.S.-Mexico free trade, and even though the opening negotiations took place in Toronto, there was not a single mention of Canada even being involved in the talks.

None of this would matter if Time were content to remain what it is: a superb American newsmagazine. While it may sound self-serving for a Maclean’s columnist to attack foreign competition, if Time succeeds in defanging C-58, other U.S. periodicals would also be able to take advantage of the change, threatening the continued existence of nearly all our magazines. More importantly, it would remove the potential for starting up new ones.

The Spicer commission provided a useful psychoanalysis of the national mood. But we should be careful that in the process of examining our collective navels, we don’t lose our soul.