Some think that the cultural exemption is only there to support the few. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to stand firm on this.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 10, 2018.
OTTAWA—Culture is a hill that the North American Free Trade Agreement should die on.
And those naysayers who have piled on to criticize the prime minister’s decision to hold firm on culture simply don’t know what they are talking about. The growth in cultural jobs doubled that of the overall economy, accounting for more than 650,000 jobs.
Our intricate system of cultural supports, subsidies, and licence requirements is an economic driver for the country. According to Statistics Canada, the cultural GDP in Canada totalled $53.8-billion in 2016, a 1.5 per cent increase from the previous year.
Culture also accounted for 2.8 per cent of Canada’s overall GDP. The importance of culture varied considerably across provinces and territories, ranging from a share of 1.3 per cent of GDP in Saskatchewan to 3.5 per cent in Ontario.
At the national level, cultural jobs were on the increase in most domains, led by sound recording with an increase of more than seven per cent.
The only decrease was in the publishing of written works which declined for the fourth consecutive year.
The audio-visual sector is certainly an important part of the cultural landscape but it is by no means the only sector influenced by a robust, and differentiated Canadian cultural policy, Canada’s intricate support framework is a job creator. But, more importantly, it is also the only way that Canadians can create and share their own stories.
The biggest cultural fight with the United States had nothing to do with television. The so-called “Magazine Wars” were actually about the written word.
That battle happened when the Americans tried to do an end-run around the cultural exemption Canada had negotiated in the initial free trade agreement with the United States.
The Americans went to the World Trade Organization to accuse Canada of unfair treatment because our tax system offered enhanced advertising credits exclusively for Canadian magazines. The Yanks wanted Time Magazine to get the same support as Maclean’s.
The WTO found in favour of the United States, taking the view that magazines are a commodity just like bananas or pork bellies. It ruled that no country could use the tax system to favour their own creative vehicles, like books, music, magazines, or film.
That decision so outraged Canada that we initiated a new world convention under the auspices of UNESCO. The 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was a direct result of the magazine battle between Canada and the United States. It effectively replaced the WTO as the platform to arbitrate cultural disputes.
The United States was blindsided in their attempt to block the convention. Notwithstanding a full court press that included the intervention of then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the final UNESCO Convention vote was 148 in favour and two against.
The only countries who voted against were the United Nations and Israel. Australia, Liberia, Nicaragua and Honduras abstained.
But the overwhelming majority of countries agreed on an important world precedent. They argued successfully that culture must be treated in a unique and different way from other commodities when it comes to the rules governing international trade.
Trudeau needs to stand firm on this position at the NAFTA talks. To do anything else would be folly for a country that shares the world’s largest border and a common language with the United States.
Can you imagine a Canadian broadcast landscape where Howard Stern and Fox News dominate the agenda? Under our system, Stern’s radio show lasted only weeks in Canada because his brand of misogyny violated our broadcast laws.
The cultural exemption ensures that we will have space and support for our own stories.
Canadians need shelf space for creations in print, music, museology, audio-visual and performance arts.
Each of those elements is an important part in defining who we are. Of course, some stories are universal.
A film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale resonates in the global market. But her strength as a writer and creator was nurtured through multiple Canadian policies that should not be compromised.
Copyright laws, book publishing support, public lending right payments, international travel investment in the arts and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have all played a part in Atwood’s impressive global trajectory.
The Handmaid’s Tale would not have been written without a strong Canadian cultural policy.
Some think that the cultural exemption is only there to support the few.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Trudeau needs to stand firm on this.
A NAFTA without the cultural exemption is not worth signing.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.