Those of us who are not privy to top-level trade negotiations have developed an unfortunate tendency to look for easy, one-sentence concessions that – we think – are enough to salvage the whole deal. In the midst of renegotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), agricultural supply management has become the most notable example. In recent days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been less strident in his defence of a system that economists, pundits, and grocery shoppers widely view as a Soviet-style boondoggle with which we can easily dispense if it means continued and expanded access to the U.S. market. As I write this, the implications of Trudeau’s more flexible tone remain to be seen.
At the same time, however, he has shifted his stridence to an even more obvious boondoggle: protections against U.S. purchases of Canadian media outlets. According to him, “It is inconceivable to Canadians that an American network might buy Canadian media affiliates, whether it’s newspapers or TV stations or TV networks.” To give up those protections, he says, would be “tantamount to giving up Canadian sovereignty and identity.” Apparently he can think of something that constitutes a Canadian identity, and this is it.
Would Trudeau really sacrifice one of Canada’s most vital economic relationships just to ensure that This Hour Has 22 Minutes keeps making overtired Tim Hortons jokes instead of overtired Starbucks jokes? Let’s be optimistic and assume he’s playing 4-D chess by crowing about “sovereignty” in public and dispatching Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to say something completely different in private. But regardless of where he stands on cultural protections, there are Canadians who are determined to see them remain – and it’s they who need the reality check first.
Consider a recent Huffington Post op-ed by Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector labour union:
Canadians consume American culture every day. For the most part, that’s a good thing. The problem is when we get too much, and it overwhelms our ability to tell our own stories. With their massive home market of some 327 million potential viewers, American media companies are able to dump their products in our market at prices well below production costs here, and without investing in Canadian infrastructure, including journalism.
Ignoring the latest debasement of the word “infrastructure”: Dias is one of many media industry gatekeepers who sincerely believe that Canadians consciously seek out homegrown content, or would if the “ability” to create said content weren’t being hindered left and right. As a rebuttal to this line of thinking, we need only look at the 2017/2018 Canadian Television Report Card. Across the 18 to 54 demographic, no Canadian program ranked higher in terms of viewership than 7th, and the best performer of these was the Canadian version of Big Brother, originally from the Netherlands. Other retreads of foreign reality shows and Hockey Night in Canada were the only other Canadian creations among Canada’s top 20 most-watched programs. #1? The Big Bang Theory. #2? A spin-off of The Big Bang Theory.
And that’s network TV. Last year, Netflix Canada broke down its top-10 most-binged shows, using four different metrics of binging. By all four measures – watched for more than two hours, watched for less than two hours, watched alone, and watched with others – not one Canadian program made the top 10. Not one. Imports from Europe, Mexico, and Japan performed better. Among only one group of Netflix watchers, those who consume as much of a show as possible in the 24 hours after its release, did a Canadian show reach #1. That show? Trailer Park Boys.
And that’s television. The top 5 movies at the Canadian box office in 2017? Four superhero blockbusters and one Disney remake. The top websites in Canada? American social media platforms, Canadian versions thereof, two Canadian banks, and Kijiji, a wholly owned subsidiary of eBay. Some exceptions are in music, where Canadians such as Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber count among the most-streamed artists of 2017, and in literature, where Canadian poet Rupi Kaur was the #2 seller on Amazon last year. She earned her following through shrewd use of Instagram – not by pushing back against U.S.-based competitors.
Why are Drake and Kaur succeeding where The Indian Detective and Adventures in Public School are missing out? They, too, are operating in heavily globalized markets, where the “dumping” that Dias fears takes place every day. Canadians and non-Canadians alike choose them. But if the numbers are anything to go by, if our local CTV affiliates became Cox Media affiliates tomorrow, we wouldn’t notice much difference.
Canada’s cultural protections are a relic of a time when antenna range mattered and the most entertaining thing on the internet was whatever this is. Were Trudeau to lose them for NAFTA’s sake, the only people to complain would be the creators of the very content that Canadians consistently ignore. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but they could learn something from Justin Bieber.
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