Future Concerns: CRTC and CanCon

After decades of domination by the baby-boom generation, Canadian politics will soon be the domain of Generation Xers and Millenials. Future Concerns is a regular column that investigates the political issues that are, or will soon be, emerging in Canada’s mainstream debates, as the inevitable passage of time moves the boomers off stage left.

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In a great bit of fantastically ironic grovelling, Sun News TV — on the verge of economic ruin — has asked the CRTC to make it a mandatory channel on Canadian cable services. There is certainly a conversation to be had here about bias and the representation of differing opinions in mainstream media, but to me the more interesting question lies in the magical/arbitrary voodoo formula that represents the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s rules on Canadian content and mandatory carriage.

To deal first with Canadian content, a common question: If Canada has produced so many successful comedians, actors, screenwriters, directors, TV personalities, documentary filmmakers and newscasters — among others — why is our domestically produced TV content so consistently piss poor? It’s horrendously depressing to think that the CBC’s current original lineup, which features such bland, boilerplate content as Arctic Air and Republic of Doyle, is possibly the strongest and most diverse programming we have to offer.

So, what is Canadian content? Is it content that is produced by Canadians? Is it content that somehow captures the essential essence of what it is to be Canadian? Jeebus help us if it’s the second one. Attempting to define what it is to be Canadian is like trying to catch a catfish with your bare hands. Attempting to justifiably regulate various expressions of this elusive national identity is like trying to catch a catfish with your bare hands and dignity intact. In a word: impossible.

Just as difficult as it is to define Canadian-ness, however, is determining what most Canadians “need” in terms of mandatory programming. Current required channels include the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, CTV News and the CBC — paragons of Canadian culture that they are.

However, much like Canadian content, any attempt to do decide what’s mandatory is based on an arbitrary and likely antiquated view of necessity. Plus, with modern advances in technology it’s easier than ever to acquire exactly the content we want without having to be stuck with anything in particular. Cable subscriptions will continue to die off until all content is delivered on demand over the internet.

So, what are we left with? It is impossible to define and essentialize Canadian identity, and even more impossible to find consensus on how to promote particular views on such definitions through regulation. Furthermore, we are losing the ability to mandate that particular content be purchased on things such as cable subscriptions, as these systems are dying off. The solution? Let go, and take a hint from the youth: support the supply side of the equation as opposed to attempting to mandate the demand.

The great irony in the background of all of this is that Canadian artists — from painters to writers, musicians to actors — continue to struggle in a comparatively unsupportive system. If we stopped trying to limit forms of expression, and instead directed resources towards promoting the diversity of perspectives and options, people would find the depictions of Canada they love, and would consume them.

A modern approach would produce as many expressions as possible, then promote mediums to disseminate these expressions. It would organize opportunities to discuss culture nationally, without limit or circumscribing. Given the impending death of the very mechanisms that reinforce Canadian content, this seems the inevitable direction things will go. The only question is the degree to which the creation of art and culture will be supported.

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Iain W. Reeve is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University. However, in his free time he is a musician, armchair political commentator and pub enthusiast. He will occasionally make time to tweet.