The Nation’s Business

In praise of Sheila Copps, street fighter

Peter C. Newman January 25 1999
The Nation’s Business

In praise of Sheila Copps, street fighter

Peter C. Newman January 25 1999

In praise of Sheila Copps, street fighter

The Nation’s Business

Her magazine policy shows she is one of the few Chrétien ministers who actually does stand for something

Peter C. Newman

Not having had much luck trying to bomb Saddam Hussein into submission, the Americans switched targets last week. Instead of attempting to tame the distempers of the mad dog of Baghdad, the state department decided that a more ominous threat to the American way of life was Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, and let go with both barrels.

Big mistake.

One of the few Chrétien ministers who actually stands for something, Copps’s doggedness makes the Iraqi dictator seem as tame as Andy Scott in a burnoose. She is a believer, a street fighter with smarts, and seldom has she expended her anger and energies in a better cause. Washington’s threat that it will try to shut down the Canadian economy unless Copps allows Sports Illustrated to distribute a split-run edition in this country is typical of the bullying tactics that unnerve even Washington’s best friends. (It was the late Robert Thompson, when he was national leader of the Social Credit party, who defined the roots of American-Canadian relations when he blurted out during a 1963 Commons debate that the Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not.)

Personally, I’ve always admired and liked Americans as individuals, but collectively, they scare the hell out of me. Typical of their bully tactics was Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Richard Fisher’s threat last week to retaliate against the exports of our steel, textile, wood, apparel and plastics industries if Copps proceeds with her magazine legislation. TTiat’s the bill that would make it illegal for Canadian companies to advertise in a parasitic Canadian edition, such as the one Sports Illustrated has been planning since 1993. The issue really dates back to 1943 when Time magazine first launched its so-called Canadian edition, but it is less about magazines than it is about the cultural differences that divide the northern half of the North American continent.

To the Americans, culture is a commodity; their most successful and most profitable export. Just as English has become the global language, American film, music and sports icons have been elevated to a universal groupie status that leaves little room for local heroes.

Canadian culture is a very different animal—a shy, woodsy creature loose in a forest of killer wolves. Although we have thrown up more than our share of world-class artists, writers, film-makers, storytellers, actors and singers, ours remains a putty culture that requires protection from the entrepreneurial excesses of American capitalism.

The Yanks have always taken this issue seriously. When Jim Roberts, Canada’s deputy minister of trade and commerce in the 1960s, was tackled on the issue during a visit to the U.S. state department, he came back shaking his head. There seems to be nothing, he told me at the time, literally nothing, we could suggest that would up-

set the Americans more than tampering with their magazines. “They took it more seriously,” he said, “than if I had suggested selling armed tanks to Fidel Castro.”

Split-run Canadian editions of American magazines are the best example of this form of imperialism, politely known in trade circles as dumping. Simply put, it means that U.S. publications, which already dominate Canadian newsstands by a wide margin, recycle their already-paid-for editorial content, wrap a few shreds of Canadian content around it, and republish these hybrid mixtures as domestic Canadian magazines.

While Canadian readers must continue to enjoy unhampered access to American publications, it’s when these same magazines pretend they’re Canadian that the trouble begins. Because they have minimum editorial expenses—having already absorbed the cost of all but their few token Canadian pages—they can offer advertisers rates that are a tiny fraction of what real Canadian magazines must charge.

Copps’s critics have accused her of sponsoring Bill C-55, the first piece of legislation to be dealt with when the Commons resumes sitting next month, strictly for the benefit of such giants of the Canadian magazine industry as Maclean Hunter, which publishes this magazine, among others. On the contrary, Maclean’s, with its solidly established readership of more than two million per week, would suffer but could survive the unfair onslaught of these split-run imports. What’s really at stake here is the future of the 450 or so smaller and more specialized Canadian periodicals that fill essential niches in the country’s culture. And even more important, the influx of the revenueheavy “Canadian” editions would kill the prospect of young publishers and editors attempting to start up new magazines. That’s not theory. At least 40 American magazines have Canadian circulations in excess of 50,000 and would probably launch their own ersatz Canadian editions.

Copps’s critics make fun of such arguments, proclaiming their Darwinian mantra that market forces alone should decide which publications live and which are doomed to stillbirth. That may be a valid argument in some aspects of life, but it certainly doesn’t apply to Canadian culture. Even now, or perhaps especially now in the Internet age, magazines are essential to illuminating and preserving any country’s culture. Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time, understood that very well when he proclaimed that the whole concept of the American proposition requires Time to exist.

Periodicals do have a particularly strong and effective identification with their countries of origin. Great magazines are woven into the dreams and memories of their readers. But American dreams and memories are not ours. We deserve to maintain a periodical press that’s independent and free to speak out against the kind of silly sabrerattling coming out of Washington these days.