When I Hear the Word "Pistol," I Reach for my Culture - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

TV star Peter Keleghan has a Playback piece about how Canadian cultural content has disappeared from Canadian media, and the costs that has.

This has been my rant for some time. Politicians treat Cancon as a jobs issue. Should we protect Canadian TV a l'il bit from American content in order to buy some Canadian jobs? Or are the subsidies too expensive -- not worth it -- Canadians don't care to watch themselves on TV?

Little Mosque ought to have put a stake in the heart of that last argument if Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys hadn't already. (Or, for that matter, The Red Green Show.)

But treating Cancon as a jobs issue is thinking small. Keleghan makes the point that Inuit culture is dissolving because they see North American culture on their TVs but they don't see themselves. How do you keep them down on the icepack after they've seen Paris? When culture dissolves, society follows.

Culture is not just a draw for tourism. That's just a bonus. Culture is what binds society together.

To take an obvious example, how many billions does Ottawa pour into Quebec every year to persuade French Canadians that they benefit from being part of Canada? How much effect can those billions have when French Canadians watch only two kinds of TV -- French Canadian, and American? Now, how much does a movie like Bon Cop / Bad Cop do to make French Canadians feel like, yeah, we have our differences, but we belong together?

It doesn't have to do very much at all to justify its expense. Bon Cop / Bad Cop cost the Canadian taxpayer $7.5 million (probably less now that the movie was such a success). If it makes the Québecois even .5% more patriotic about Canada, it's a bargain.

Ditto Une Dimanche à Kigali, which reminds people how Canada stands for peace and decency. Or even Maurice Richard: The Rocket, which might have reminded some anglos of how much humiliation the French used to swallow, and might remind some francos that Canada has come a long way since then.

(As a side note, how awesome is the new Canadian Armed Forces Ad, with the slogan: Fight Fear / Fight Distress / Fight Chaos / Fight with the Canadian Armed Forces. Makes me proud. Makes me wanna sign up.)

Without Cancon on our TV and movie screens, what is there showing people that their country is worth saving? What tells people what we stand for?

In the rest of the world, Cancon, when it's supported and promoted, gives Canada clout by giving foreigners a sense of the country. It promotes the Canadian brand. When people see Une Dimanche à Kigali in the US, or in France, or in Russia, it gives people there a sense of who we are. That may sound mushy. But so are ocean currents. In the long term, they have a powerful effect. Human beings feel more comfortable with people they know. They prefer to agree with people they like. When the nations are picking sides for the next Cod War between Canada and Spain, there are economic issues, sure. But people have trouble grasping large abstract numbers. They tend to side with the people they know and like.

When the question of who owns the Northwest Passage comes up, or softwoods, does it matter whether Americans think of Canadians as their nice friendly sidekicks, the would-be 51st State, or as a real nation? You bet it does.

(Especially when some extremely powerful Americans make their most crucial judgments entirely without reference to pesky facts.)

You think culture doesn't matter? Look at the Mideast. Is there any conflict there that couldn't quickly be resolved on rational grounds except for culture?

Never think culture doesn't matter. You can't point to that many life-altering decisions that are decided on purely cultural grounds. But every major political decision is affected by it, whether it's something decided by millions of individuals voting, or by politicians' personal prejudices. And affecting people's prejudices -- the feelings they bring to the negotiating table, rather than their reasoned opinions -- is the best, and cheapest way to win the argument.

Culture is not a luxury good. Culture is what creates society. And culture is the cheapest clout any government can buy.

UPDATE: For Bill C's sake, when I say "Canadian culture," I mean "anything in the arts made by Canadians." Not just "worthwhile" projects. It doesn't have to be drenched in maple syrup, or be pro-Canada. Les Invasions Barbares was about the crappy Québec health system, or about a guy and his cranky old dad. It is not calculated to increase tourism to Montreal. But it went up for an Oscar. If you just tell stories set here, or about people from here who are somewhere else, they will be Canadian stories by that very virtue. And a culture that stops telling stories about itself stops being a society. And then it gets eaten by a culture that still does.

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10 Comments:

Without Cancon on our TV and movie screens, what is there telling people that their country is worth saving? What tells people what we stand for?

I think you just hit the problem Alex. Culture doesn't "tell" people anything it "shows" them. If you want to "tell" people they are important, worth it, etc... then you're in the arena of propaganda.

My point being is the imperative needs to be ENTERTAINING shows SET in the culture they are telling the story. If you entertain people first then they will be interested in the culture the stories inhabit. You can't effectively create something to feed culture to the masses - it doesn't work that way.

BC/BC is an entertaining movie first. It is a cultural commentary second (or possibly even third). If it wasn't entertaining, then it wouldn't communicate the culture.

This is why CanCon doesn't register with most Americans (or possibly just me. Okay just me)-- How can it NOT be Canadian content if it is made by Canadians in Canada?

This is my (personal) bias against governments legislating "culture". Why not instead make it easier for private investment to come into play and make more shows to sell? It would certainly create more jobs for everyone. Certainly there used to be a climate of entertainment industry entrepreneurism (read Jim Henshaw's post over at Legion of Decency). What happened?

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:52 PM  

In France, they voted soemthing called Exception Culturelle Française.
In essence, it imposes quotas on production, music and programs. This was to protect the french industry against the American industry. It worked to a certain extent. France is one of the only European countries with a living cinema and not a too bad one at that. What it also enabled is protecting other european cinema like the UK's. They helped a lot in producing British films.
However, if this worked for the cinematorgical industry in a positive way, it had the reverse effect on tv programs and music. What is produced as french programs / songs is real bad entertainment, whether it's event programming (selling music, reality tv programs) or shows. They're only starting to try do good stuff for TV because American shows have changed so much that it shows how bad french programs are. Same goes for music. When you think that a radio station dedicated to rock (and french rock is pretty much inexistant) has to air 40% french songs out of his playlist over a 7 day span, you can imagine how it can have a negative effect like i don't know playing a real bad Celine Dion song.

Protecting culture by legislation might be the only way to avoid the American Roller Coaster ; however there are bad side effects and in France, we've hit all the bad ones. I'm not so sure about Canada. From what I've seen in terms of programs, it's usually pretty good, whether it's québécois or not. I think there should be a balance and i really thought Canada had found it, maybe it's not working anymore or there's a loop hope somewhere that really needs fixing.

By Blogger Skyfleur, at 1:13 PM  

Martine Pagé made me discover your blog. It is wordy and have a meaning. I love it. But on martine's page, I was brainstorming and here's the result:

- Concerning your analyse of bon cop/bad cop (that I didn't see yet...): Hey I am a ‘’separatist'’. Now if they would give me like a tenth of this 7.5 mil, maybe me too I would grow a .5% canadian nationalist fiber in my body. I suggest that patrimoine Canada make the investment, and I promise a will make a report on it a year later.

PS. like any experiment, it could go wrong and I turn .5% more ‘’separatist'’. Come on, it is worth trying anyway, no? :-)

By Blogger King of Space, at 4:14 PM  

Making people stupider with pandering, unoriginal material--and reducing complex problems to simple, digestible solutions--is not “creating culture.” Or at least not a culture I want any part of.

By Blogger lug, at 11:21 PM  

Propaganda thru the culture...it reminds me the nazis and the cummunist party in USSR in some movies...

By Blogger Lavoie, at 9:10 AM  

Zounds. these comments sure took a turn toward smug and crazy town.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:40 AM  

Ayup. Seems like.

By Blogger Dwight Williams, at 8:21 PM  

Alex: I pointed to your post on my blog and though I'm encouraging people to post comments here, an interesting discussion is developing on my side. Could be that people feel more comfortable talking about the issue in French, I'm not sure. I encourage you to read/translate the comments, if you haven't done so yet.

I hope this won't come out as condescending, but I feel like you still have some misconceived notions about the cultural divide in Canada. Any Canadian tax money (which includes taxes paid by people from Québec) being used to convince francophone québécois that "we all belong" is perceived here as a type of propaganda that is insidious and clumsy.

A friend of mine gave me a book for Christmas which I think you'd be really interested in. It's called "Sorry, I don't speak French: confronting the Canadian crisis that won't go away", by Graham Fraser.

By Blogger Martine, at 10:29 AM  

I should probably precise that I very much agree with your ultimate conclusion: a culture that stops telling stories about itself stops being a society.

By Blogger Martine, at 10:41 AM  

I realize that some people are going to be angry if the Canadian government funds anything except separatism. But the fact is that any Canadian movie that isn't pure péquiste propaganda helps bind us together as a society. Just as French Canadian movies help bind French Canada together as a society.

Again, I'm not proposing that government fund message movies. BON COP (which, Martine, you would not have turned down, I think) was hardly a message movie. I'm proposing that government fund homegrown movies -- fresh artistic visions and pure popcorn entertainments both -- on the theory that they WILL inevitably create and cultivate our homegrown culture... and that IS a message.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 3:24 PM  

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