Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Sovereignty: U.S.-Canadian Cultural Relations

By Mulcahy, Kevin V. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Sovereignty: U.S.-Canadian Cultural Relations


Mulcahy, Kevin V., American Review of Canadian Studies


Canada and the United States, like most nations, engage in a variety of bilateral and multilateral activities that promote international cultural cooperation. Although admittedly of lesser importance than military or economic force, cultural relations--including the exchange of professors, students, and various professionals, as well as tours of performing arts companies and visual arts exhibits and informational services (both print and broadcast)--are important in promoting international understanding and good will. (1) The particulars of the cultural exchange programs between Canada and the United States are not, however, the subject of this discussion. Important as such exchanges are, cultural relations between these neighboring nations have been dominated by international trade agreements as these affect their respective cultural industries. To a degree that is highly unusual considering the typically arcane provisions of such agreements, the details of U.S.-Canadian understandings governing the cultural sector have been the subject of highly emotional political debates. These debates have been especially vocal in Canada where demands for a "cultural exemption," as protection against the onslaught of U.S. "cultural imperialism," are a staple of discourse for many intellectuals, artists, and lobbyists, as well as among the general public. For Americans, these issues are less noticed except by those in the entertainment industry and the trade negotiators in Washington.

It should be noted that Canada is not alone among nations in its contentions with American cultural imperialism. Figure 1 represents some generalized observations on cultural policies that are related to a broader four-nation study of public patronage with which this writer is involved. (2)

With a liberal political culture that is characterized by limited government, internationalism, and an open society, Canada stands somewhere between France and the United States in its degree of cultural protectionism and overall intensity of cultural politics. Norway, like other small-language and social-democratic societies, pursues a policy of English-language telecommunications and support for highly localistic and folkloristic cultural expressions. Canada, on the other hand, lacks both the millennial-old culture and territorial isolation of Norway and the French tradition of a hegemonic culture and the national government as l'etat culturel. The United States, of course, is the great cultural exception, with a regnant popular culture that is able to indemnify its costs over a populous and prosperous society that is largely immune to cultural expressions that do not project an American sensibility. In effect, the United States can afford to have a "cultural open-door policy" because it has little to fear from foreign competition. For Canada, however, cultural free trade raises the spectre of standing unprotected against the forces of American cultural annexation.

This discussion will survey the debate over U.S. cultural imperialism and Canadian concerns for cultural sovereignty, with particular reference to the international trade agreements of the past decade. The emphasis will be on the Canadian response to the commercial prerogatives asserted by the United States for its cultural industries which, in the view of many Canadians, have already achieved a cultural hegemony so powerful as to threaten their national identity. That this is an understandable, if debatable, proposition is the subject of the first section on the "Small Nation, Big Neighbor" syndrome. The second section will discuss the issue of cultural identity and Canadian demands for cultural protection. An overview of the Canadian assertion of a "cultural exemption" in its international trade agreements with the United States will be discussed in the third section. Sections four and five will focus on the two major cultural industries affected: publishing (periodicals, books, bookstores) and the audiovisual (movies, television, radio). …

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