Northern Exposure: Canada Fights Cultural Dumping

By Wilson, Carl | The Nation, May 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Northern Exposure: Canada Fights Cultural Dumping

Wilson, Carl, The Nation

Suppose 97 percent of the movies being shown in Dallas or Cleveland came from Russia or Japan, and radio stations would play American pop music only if required to by law - that the only American TV programming was news and low-budget PBS drama, U.S. magazines got only 20 percent of the space on the newsstands, American films were stocked as "foreign" in video stores and works by Updike, Mailer and Didion were shelved at the back of bookstores as Americana."

Such a dystopian fantasy isn't pulled from the pages of a cold war thriller about a Sovietized America. Its simply a version of everyday life in Canada, where between 60 and 95 percent of the film, television, music and publishing markets are controlled by Americans. Its as if a massive U.S. film festival were going on in every theater, and a tribute to American genius were running perpetually on radio and TV. ("In Canada there is a fear that we are on our way to being functionally annexed," says Dan Johnson, president of the Canadian film distributors, association.)

Canadian artists argue that U.S. domination would be even more dramatic had governments not created subsidies, trade barriers and tax policies to protect some small piece of their own cultural marketplace - and by extension, Canada's identity and voice as a distinct nation. Since the mid-1960s, Canadian culture has been transformed from a nonentity to the country's fourth-largest employer.

This year, however, cultural industries have become the focus of a rash of trade disputes. In March, then-U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor requested a World Trade Organization reversal of Canadian tax measures against Sports Illustrated's "Canadian" edition. Kantor also put Canada on the hit list of a new "trade enforcement" task force over issues like cable TV licensing, satellite transmissions and book distribution. In late April, acting trade representative Charlene Barshefsky signaled she would take the same tough line against copyright reforms intended to bring extra royalties to the Canadian music industry.

In Canada, the public television network (CBC) has announced it will cease carrying U.S. programming in prime time, and other cultural sectors are lobbying for greater regulation and protection. Such sentiments may seem to run counter to Canada's 1987 bilateral trade agreement with the United States, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement, but in fact Canadian artists demanded and got an exemption for cultural industries in both deals. In every negotiation since 1987 - including current talks to bring Chile into NAFTA - the United States has demanded that the culture issue be reopened, and Canada has refund.

In part this is a problem of perception. "For them its the entertainment industry. But for us, it is national cultural identity," Keith Kelly of the Canadian Conference of the Arts told the Toronto Globe and Mail in January. "They can't accept that. Its like were speaking a strain of Mandarin." Canadian cultural advocates say that U.S. media corporations, inability to admit any link between cultural industries (as defined in NAFTA) and cultural life is highly self-interested. "To the U.S. entertainment industry, the U.S. domestic market includes Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada," says Johnson. "This is a sixty-year standing insult."

At least NAFTA is bringing this clash to the surface. Sandy Crawley, president of Canada's Association of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, says his American counterparts are beginning to get the picture. "People have had to start acknowledging that cultural industries exist, because they're defined in the agreements. The Screen Actors Guild is starting to understand what we mean when we talk about cultural development. They used to say, `Culture? What culture? This is showbiz!'"

In the halls of cultural power, however, that recognition has yet to dawn. In 1991, U.S. trade representative Carla Hills infuriated Canadians when she tried to soothe fears about NAFTA by assuring that Canada could still have "fairs . …

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