The mantra that our cultural creators are essential to the soul of Canada is doing double duty these days. Not only is it invoked in connection to the pending copyright review, but it has provoked a public consultation regarding Canadian content in a digital world. Melanié Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, caught the attention of many when she publicly supported the claim that the internet is only a vehicle for consumption of culture with, as Michael Geist writes, culture being confined to “movies, television or music.”
— Mélanie Joly (@melaniejoly) October 29, 2016
It seems that on Minister Joly’s internet, worldwide networks only function in service of those industries that make an obvious contribution to GDP, be it in Canada or in another country. On her internet, there is no plethora of public domain content collected by volunteers and posted (legitimately) at Project Gutenberg or IMSLP. There is no impetus to share knowledge in the selfless manner exhibited by Sal Khan (founder of the Khan Academy) or John Page (a Silicon Valley software engineer who sought a better solution to mathematics instruction than the weighty tomes inflicted upon his son). There are no scholarly repositories, managed online, such as those pertaining to Emily Dickinson or L.M. Montgomery. There is no growing array of open-access quality-textbooks like those found at BC Campus or OpenStax. And there are no individuals who facilitate the development of creative effort by sharing well-written, well-researched, and well-curated material. Maria Popova’s site BrainPickings comes to mind; it deserves to be declared an international treasure.
Those clamouring for Canadian content do not appear to give much thought as to what goes into developing that content. Financial well-being is as far as they go. Yet creative effort does not occur by the presence of money alone. Creativity needs knowledge, awareness, skill, diligence, luck, and something that lacks capture in a single word; loosely speaking, this indefinable element is a capacity to envision that which others may not.
That aside, the insistence on the importance of Canadian content invites the question – what is Canadian content?
My current assortment of library books includes two contenders. Dal and Rice is a memoir written by Wendy M. Davis describing life in pre and post-independence India. Davis was born in England, but resides in Edmonton; as best as I can tell, the work was written in Canada. Moreover, Dal and Rice was published by McGill-Queens Press. I will tentatively say that this is Canadian content.
But I am less certain about the second book; Eleanor Wachtel’s compendium The Best of Writers & Company. I am sure it would be declared Canadian content, given the unimpeachable fact that Wachtel is a Canadian citizen by birth, and has remained here throughout the development of her admirable career. Published by Biblioasis (the regional press that commands national acclaim), the Canadian qualifications appear unassailable.
And yet, the majority of the content is the handiwork of others. The book is a compilation of the transcripts of fifteen interviews conducted by Wachtel. True, Wachtel writes the introductory text that prefaces each interview, and Wachtel shapes the dialogue by posing the questions. But it cannot be said that she wrote the responses. Those words are (presumably) the independent creation of her fifteen subjects, only three of whom are identified as Canadian (Ann Griffin, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant).
Perhaps the hint of Canadian’ness lies in the front matter. Both books acknowledge contributions from Canadian taxpayers through the Canada Council for the Arts and the Book Publishing Industry Development Program. It sounds crass, to reduce the dialogue of Canadian letters to a matter of money, to have the temerity to ask: who paid for it? But it cannot be ignored that the patriots of Canadian content are expressly concerned with a similar question: who pays for it?
The answer, in terms of the consultation, is pointing towards a levy on the revenues of internet service providers. This mandatory contribution would be channeled towards continued development of Canadian content. In October, writing for the Financial Post, Josh Tabish of Open Media reminded all Canadians that our internet services fees are among the highest in the world. (It is no exaggeration to say that for Canadian families living in poverty, internet service already competes with food.) Three weeks later, Tabish and Denise Williams (a Coast Salish member of the Cowichan Tribes) writing for Motherboard, offered a further reminder that heightened internet service fees would hit indigenous communities the hardest.
No government should be so naïve as to believe that fees imposed on internet service providers in Canada will not be passed on to consumers. Whether it is called a levy or a tax will make no difference. As to whether the dollars accumulated will translate to more Canadian content, we will have to wait and see. The only assured outcome is less money with which even to purchase our much-vaunted Canadian content, creating the peculiar paradox of less content for Canadians.
Fortunately, the fact is that the internet will still provide delightful, educational, thought-provoking, and endearing content for everyone, from everywhere.