Meera Nair

now what?

In Posts on July 1, 2017 at 9:00 pm

The Day is done; candles have been blown out in some quarters, tears continue to be shed in others. 150 years of something–whether it is the lifetime of Canada or a chapter in millennia of a First Nation–has been duly marked/celebrated/decried. Now what?

In terms of copyright, we can expect continued calls for stronger copyright to better support Canadian writers. Ignored will be the detail of copyright deficit–that more control invariably means more Canadian dollars going to non-Canadian entities. Also omitted will be any hint that such calls have been in existence for the entirety of Canadian autonomy with respect to copyright, with no appreciable denting of that deficit to show for it. That copyright alone cannot be the salvation of Canadian culture (assuming that our culture is under threat) will also be absent from discussion.

Perhaps we could set aside copyright for a moment and think about that word: culture. Described by Raymond Williams as one of the most complicated words in the English language, it spans the entirety of our collective lived experiences.

Through the past 150 years, Canada has only too often demonstrated narrow-minded thought. Beginning with an unapologetic objective to rid the country of indigenous people,* followed by the Chinese Head Tax, the Komagata Maru, the internment of Japanese Canadians, the rejection of Jewish refugees, … . The situation for visible minorities improved somewhat in the later 20th century, with racism taking on a slightly more polite tone. (Although, children of colour attending school in the ’70s will likely have evidence to the contrary.) And it is difficult to forget the national indifference to the tragedy of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

Yet Canada has developed a credible capacity, not merely to mouth the importance of protecting minority rights, but to actively encourage the virtue of diversity. The underlying theme for the last 30 years or so is that we are all in this together and we all do better together. Some pride is warranted; it has been possible to find unity without imposing uniformity. But can this be sustained, or is the best of Canada behind us?

Paula Simons, writing for the Edmonton Journal, reminds us not to rest on our laurels. That systemic racism is still part of our landscape, and extremism is on the rise: “for all our lauded tolerance, this was also the year when six peaceable Canadians, at prayer in a Sainte-Foy neighbourhood mosque, were shot in the back and killed in the midst of their devotions.”

With an eye to building on the effort of our prior angels, to what extent are we aware of our collective history? Is that history within reach of all Canadians? In this regard, copyright cannot be ignored. Two proposals come to  mind; one is already underway, the other I offer as an idea.

1) For years, Amanda Wakaruk (copyright librarian for University of Alberta) has publicized the challenges inherent to maintaining accurate information about Canada as a whole, due to the archaic practice of Crown copyright. In her capacity as a private citizen, she has introduced a petition Fix Crown Copyright:

Decades of stakeholder requests to abolish or at least update the Crown copyright provision in the Copyright Act have been largely ignored. This has resulted in a barrier to the re-use of government publications prepared for and paid for by Canadian taxpayers. For example, the refusal of government departments to allow for the copying of content made freely available on their web sites, and then deleted from those same sites, resulted in the loss of countless digital government works in recent years. (Note that very few government publications continue to be produced in paper.)

Removing copyright protection from government works made available to the public will allow individuals, corporations, and other organizations to make better use of these important resources. It will also allow librarians to continue their role as stewards of government information in a digital world. …

The petition will remain open until 23 September 2017.

2) Volumes of scholarship about Canada are, for the most part, confined to the university community. Painstaking explorations that uncover the past, both its pain and glory, are not easily available to the Canadian reader who wishes to learn more.

For instance, I recently sought two books published by University of Toronto Press: (i) The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister (1985) by P.B. Waite; and (ii) Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian law and politics (1977) by Frank R. Scott. Both are rich in their contribution to understanding the past, both could be staple reading for anyone interested in the idea and existence of Canada. But neither can be easily purchased (the odd copy may exist in a few select used-bookstores) and both have limited visibility in university libraries.

We cannot fault any publisher for letting production lapse when there is no market. And yet these are quintessentially Canadian books; written by Canadians, issued by a Canadian press, and intended without embarrassment as expressly for Canadian readers. Which raises the question: when such books are no longer actively produced or peddled for sale, can they not be made widely and freely available via an open license?

A requirement of an academic appointment is to engage in scholarly effort; to that end, scholars enjoy publicly funded salaries and research grants. With respect to publication, university presses are eligible for support from the Canada Book Fund. University libraries then pour more money into the purchase of information resources; data collected for 29 university libraries show aggregate spending in 2014-2015 as $305,046,488 (see page 4 here). Between government provision of public money, and university spending thereof, could some funds be set aside to convert old printed books into ebooks?

This does not require a change to the system of copyright–it requires consent from copyright owners of existing content, and, cooperation from institutions  If consent is given, and if institutions would share the necessary costs of labour and money, more Canadian content could reach more Canadian readers.

Copyright maximalists constantly tell us that Canadian culture is near death–that Canadian themed content will cease to be written unless copyright is strengthened. They neglect to point out how much existing Canadian content cannot be read at all.

* Roberta Jamieson, featured on CBC Ideas for 30 June 2017, pulled no punches in her telling of the past 150 years. And yet, offers much optimism for the road ahead.

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