Putting Canadian culture on U.S. radar

Heritage minister to meet with online media giants to ensure Cancon shines

Toronto Star, 19 Apr 2017


MONTREAL— Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has only just begun the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, so she’s running several years behind on television-watching trends.

But the Montreal MP is already deep into the task of trying to carve a place for Canada on the hazy horizon of a cultural, entertainment and media landscape. She’s been at it for a year now and still has several months to go before presenting a reworked federal cultural policy that is plugged into the digital age — the first since 1991.

While work is in Ottawa and official business takes her around the world, Joly said in an interview in her hometown of Montreal Tuesday that her mind is in California, where she will be travelling this week to meet with social media and internet giants like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google.

The trip is partly a promotion and celebration of Canadian film in honour of the country’s 150th anniversary. There are also political meetings with the Los Angeles mayor. But the crux of the trip is the face time she has booked with the U.S. online media mavens.

All the more important because Joly’s plan to ensure Canadian content flourishes and Canadian cultural jobs don’t disappear in a milieu that zips across borders on cables and screens seems premised on cajoling these companies. She gives the strong impression that the percentage-point approach to content quotas and regulations is a distinctly unworkable, 20th-century solution to the cultural puzzle of today and tomorrow.

That’s in contrast to her European counterparts, who last year proposed that streaming services like Netflix be required to devote 20 per cent of their titles to European content.

“The legislation is one thing. The enforcement of the legislation is another,” she said. “We think that by having a tough conversation, but a conversation, that we will be able to make sure there is a diversity of voices, or cultural-diversity principles that are embedded in their own business models.”

Joly said part of that comes from promotion — from making sure industry players know that Canada is not only film crews reliant on a low Canadian dollar and generous tax credits — but also the quality and merit of content that is produced here. She points to the Netflix series Frontier, a historical drama about the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company that is filmed in Newfoundland, and CBC’s Anne, a remake of Anne of Green Gables, which will stream on Netflix internationally.

“When I say we have an industry that is mature and we can export, I think that resonates with people in L.A. and in Silicon Valley. What we need to do is make sure that they understand that this is Canadian content. These are people that can really bring value to their entire offering,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re able to support our entire industry and the jobs that are related.”

Companies can do their part, too, such as by incorporating equations into their algorithms that favour Canadian cinema, music, videos, websites or information sources to consult.

But another part involves financial contributions. This might be a tougher sell, even for a politician who marketed herself all the way to second place in Montreal’s mayoral race in 2013 before winning her seat in the House of Commons two years later.

“There is very important funding that comes from the government of Canada, but there is one that comes from private broadcasters as well. We want to make sure that we have platforms contribute and promote by having Canadian content in their algorithms,” Joly said.

ACTRA, the Canadian union for 23,000 professional performers, wants Ottawa to require moviestreaming services like Netflix to be taxed on Canadian revenues and be forced to contribute to a Canadian programming fund, which are both not currently required.

It also wants Internet Service Providers to be licensed under the federal Broadcasting Act, which is to be modernized over the next year, since they are increasingly being used to access the types of entertainment that was once the sole domain of TV cable providers.

Funding deals that Google has signed — first in France and then across Europe — to assist news media trying to adapt and innovate at a time of rapid change in the industry suggest there is precedent and room for a discussion, Joly said. But those contributions were only negotiated under threats of punitive legislation against the search-engine giant.

Whatever comes out of her meetings this week, Joly said she is there with the awareness that while she speaks for Canada, she’s also working alongside allies in other countries who are also seeking cures for the cultural industries — and the struggle is not only for reasons of art and national identity.

“We’re the third-biggest exporter of video games in the world, the thirdbiggest exporter of musical talents in the world. We did $8 billion in film and TV production just last year,” she said. “It’s more than agriculture, fisheries and forestry and how many regions around the country live off of agriculture, forestry and fishery? I don’t think it can be underestimated.”