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Cultural imperialism isn't threatening Canadian identity — and cultural nationalism can't save it
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Cultural imperialism isn't threatening Canadian identity — and cultural nationalism can't save it

Écrit par
Andrew Coyne
Publié par
Ottawa Citizen
06 février 2019

Columnist says that the Canadian culture that nationalists wish to defend is inextricably shaped by our exposure to and absorption of American culture.

“There was a time,” Catherine Tait was saying, “when cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.”

The CBC president was musing, at an industry conference in Ottawa last week, about the heyday of the British and French Empires, when if “you were the viceroy of India you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India.” Or, “if you were in French Africa, you would think ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them.’ ”

The comments have since come back to bite her, not because many people have a kind word for imperialism these days but because she was comparing those colonial empires, which invaded and conquered territory by force of arms, to the “new empire” of Netflix. As more than one commentator has objected, none of the six million Canadians who subscribe to Netflix was made to do so at the point of a gun.

Neither is it evident what comparable “damage” is done by a service that gives willing viewers in this country access to well-made television programs from around the world. It was, in short, an altogether silly line of argument.

And yet it seems wrong to heap such particular scorn on Tait. For in truth she was only giving voice to the sort of thinking typical of her generation and class: middle-aged cultural bureaucrat/subsidized private producer, of a kind found in particular abundance in the Montreal-Toronto corridor. The same defensive attitudes, what is more, have for decades formed the foundation of much government policy on culture, even if they are largely incomprehensible to a generation raised on Netflix and YouTube.

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There was a time, that is, when cultural nationalism was absolutely accepted — when it was taken as a given among the educated classes that it was the responsibility of government to protect and defend Canadian culture, if necessary from Canadians themselves. Hence the whole apparatus of CanCon, most of which is still with us today.

But of course these assumptions themselves rest on a whole host of other assumptions, of which the cultural nationalist may not even be aware, namely:

• That there is such a thing as a “Canadian” culture, as opposed to an “American” one, rather than the complex mix of local and micro-cultures of which any nation is inevitably composed. In this age of diversity the homogenizing notion of a single national culture must seem quaint — though the “diversity” of identity politics, with its focus on a handful of markers of difference, is itself crudely reductionist.

• That these national cultures are meaningfully different. The flinty insistence of cultural nationalists on the vast dissimilarity between what are arguably the two most similar nations on earth — outside the Quebec and Southern outliers, almost indistinguishable — is a particularly noteworthy example of Freud’s observation of “the narcissism of minor differences.”

• That we can meaningfully define these differences, at least in policy. The absurdities that result from the regulators’ attempts to define what is or is not a “Canadian” movie, television program, or musical recording — Bryan Adams was famously not “Canadian” enough, but a Blue Jays broadcast from New York is — are legion. They are also inescapable. What is a “recognizably Canadian” theme? Is a Canadian setting enough? What if it’s a story about Canadians abroad? What if it’s by a Canadian author, but about people in another country — or an entirely fictional one? How do we even define a Canadian author: residence? birthplace? citizenship? Now add in producers, directors, key grips, gaffers and all the rest, and you have a recipe for arbitrariness and confusion.

• That these differences are threatened. It seems contradictory to believe, on the one hand, in the profound innate differences between Canadians and Americans, and on the other that they stand in constant danger of disappearing. Surely if we are so different, our cultural choices will naturally reflect it. The counter-argument, that American productions, by virtue of their country’s much larger population, enjoy economies of scale not given to our own, comes with its own embedded assumptions: among them, that the two are, notwithstanding all that rot about difference, essentially the same, such that consumers can compare them on price or quality; and that Canadian cultural products are restricted to the smaller Canadian market. But of course Canadian television is increasingly enjoyed around the world, not least via Netflix, and as such has access to the same scale economies.

• That preserving these differences should be the objective of cultural policy. The first question to ask of this is: why? Is it about art, or politics? No principle of aesthetics dictates that a work of art should be judged by whether it successfully indoctrinates members of a particular nation state in the belief that they are different from others. Even as a political project, mere difference seems an arid argument for national existence. The second question is: how? You can force the networks to put a Canadian show on television, or subsidize producers to make it, but you can’t force Canadians to watch it. And the third question is: huh? What’s the point? The (Canadian) comedian Martin Short once defined Canadians as “the people who watch a lot of American TV.” The Canadian culture that nationalists wish to defend is inextricably shaped by our exposure to and absorption of American culture — much of it created by expat Canadians. There’s no use trying to take that out of us. It’s who we are. We would not be more authentically Canadian if that exposure were reduced, nor would we be less Canadian if it increased. We would just be that new version of ourselves. But whoever we were then, you may be sure that that’s who we would be.

© Ottawa Citizen

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