Cultural Sovereignty, Identity, and North American Integration: On the Relevance of the U.S.-Canada-Quebec Border (1)

By Gagne, Gilbert | Quebec Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Cultural Sovereignty, Identity, and North American Integration: On the Relevance of the U.S.-Canada-Quebec Border (1)


Gagne, Gilbert, Quebec Studies


Present means of communication, new and emerging technologies and, more generally, the specifics of cultural goods and services confer on the Canada-U.S. border a virtual character to a great extent. Such technological developments, in addition to growing economic continentalism and the application of existing international trade rules, all combine to render more problematic the maintenance of a distinctive Canadian culture and identity on the North American continent. If, overall, the benefits for Canada of an international rules-based system cannot be questioned, it is clear that specific rules are required to ensure the conditions for the viability of national cultural policies.

For Canada, the reality of living next to the United States, its powerful neighbor, has proven a source of concern about the viability of the Canadian polity. In response, there have been initiatives to help sustain a genuinely national culture and identity in the face of pervasive U.S. influence. Yet, policies to protect and promote national culture and identity entail restrictions that contravene principles of liberalization, which a trade-dependent country such as Canada has otherwise benefited from and strongly promoted.

At the international level, national cultural policies provoke differing responses depending on whether culture is seen primarily as an integral part of a nation's life and character, as is the case in Canada, or as an economic sector, as in the United States where it has a central role in the national economy. As the views on the northern side of the border are diametrically opposed to those from the south, the Canadian government insisted on exempting its long cherished cultural policies from the purview of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 1988, that exemption having been incorporated in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993 (Canada 1987, 1992). (2) Yet the United States has continued to use its leverage to oppose almost any public initiative in the cultural field. In fact, cultural policies have proven one of the main "irritants" in Canada-U.S. relations and one of the main issues over Canadian sovereignty.

A constant in Canada's history and in its foreign policy has been the quest for unimpeded access to the huge U.S. market with a guarantee that, save for an increase in prosperity, nothing will change on the Canadian side, or at least not owing to U.S. influence. Today's variant of this problem could be referred to as the globalization dilemma, i.e., how to pursue further liberalization while not losing what makes for a Canadian polity. For Jacques Attali, a prominent French intellectual and advisor to former President Francois Mitterrand, states should keep sanctuaries, i.e., areas outside the leveling market logic, in order to preserve some meaning as reflection of their respective communities (w.p.). As far back as the 1940s, economic historian Karl Polanyi warned about the danger of leaving the self-regulating market to decide the fate of human beings, which would result in the destruction of society in the absence of "the protective covering of cultural institutions" (73).

The essential challenge for Canada in the cultural field is to ensure the relevance of the Canada-U.S. border through the exercise of national cultural sovereignty, primarily understood as the formal and effective ability to promote and protect cultural industries. We will see in the case of Quebec that the "border," at least in the cultural field, is not so much with the United States as with English-speaking Canada and North America. Cultural issues are to be analyzed here with reference to cultural sovereignty and identity, taking into consideration both English and French-Canadian perspectives. The article also discusses the cultural policies of Ottawa and Quebec, relations with the United States, the impact of NAFTA, and the multilateral setting. In conclusion, the main elements of the article are summarized as I return to the broader question of the U. …

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