Symbolic Tokenism in Canada-U.S. Cultural Sector Trade Relations

By Bristow, Jason | Canadian-American Public Policy, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Symbolic Tokenism in Canada-U.S. Cultural Sector Trade Relations


Bristow, Jason, Canadian-American Public Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

On July 1st 2002, the Globe and Mail ran an article under the headline, "Dominant U.S. Culture Worries Canadians," reporting that 61 percent of Canadians "defined the threat [of American culture] as very or somewhat important." Indeed, for years some Canadian leaders had been saying as much. On January 27th, 1997, then-International Trade Minister Art Eggleton posed the question "Can Canada Maintain its Cultural Identity in the Face of Globalization?", acknowledging that Canada's "need to remain open to the world while continuing to champion Canadian culture has long proved a tricky balancing act." Referring to the tension between free trade and cultural policy, Eggleton went even further, declaring that the "survival of a strong, distinctive Canadian voice is closely linked to the survival of a strong and distinctive Canada," and "[t]he global economy will have an impact on national cultures at least as great as its impact on national economies." (1)

Maintaining political existence and cultural survival against the perceived threat from American culture have deep and well-developed historical roots in Canada. Different eras reflect various reasoning, though concern perpetually focuses on viewing media as special in order to create a distinctive Canadian culture during the 1920s, to shape a Canadian self-image consistent with post-World War II national pride during the 1950s, and to preserve Canada's ability to chart a sovereign political course in the face of economic integration pressures from the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. At that time the Canadian-born, Harvard-based economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, had observed that "If I were still a practising, as distinct from an advisory, Canadian, I would be much more concerned about maintaining the cultural integrity of the broadcasting system and of making sure that Canada has an active independent theater, book publishing industry, newspapers, magazines and schools of poets and painters." Residing in the collective Canadian psyche shaped by the mythical, historical fact of a long, shared border that made themes of survival, unity, and independence omnipresent, the need for Canadians to demonstrate cultural distinctiveness remains remarkably strong. More than a half century ago, the Massey Commission asserted a direct link between political independence and cultural autonomy. More recently, the Caplan-Sauvageau Report on Broadcasting Policy stressed that "there can be no political sovereignty without cultural sovereignty". (2)

The burden of fortifying Canadian culture falls, for the most part, on what Canadians now call "the cultural sector," a policy issue which Americans, by contrast, have long referred to merely as "entertainment"; that is, motion pictures, TV and radio programming, books, magazines, and sound recordings. Conceivably, such cultural products possess the ability to influence tastes and morals, shape the opinion and self-image of a people, to strengthen national bonds, foster what used to be referred to as "national spirit" and is now called "national identity", to nurture or erode the critical faculties necessary for democratic societies and, ultimately, to play a role in defining and consolidating a nation. Despite such supposedly pervasive influences, few authors specifically or concretely explain how cultural policies shape national identities but instead argue by assertion and appeal to abstractions. By contrast, this essay will explore the relationship between culture and cultural products by drawing on evidence in the research record to evaluate specific cross-cultural influences. (3)

Esoterics aside, the commercial dominance of U.S. entertainment in the Canadian marketplace also influences the Canadian policy responses. U.S. cultural products have long commanded an overwhelming market share in Canada. By the 1920s, for instance, U.S. magazine circulation north of the 49th parallel exceeded comparable domestic publications by an eight-to-one ratio.

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