By Sarah Pittman
Published in the Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun, The Province

October 6, 2017

When Minister of Heritage Mélanie Joly recently launched “Creative Canada,” it was a crucial re-orientation towards the digital realm. While it has been denounced for lack of support for the news industry, satellite, and cable, and for traditional Canadian media, the critics are missing the point.

The purpose of culture funding is to enable Canadians to tell their stories, and for Canadians to see themselves in music, film, TV and written products however they are distributed. The purpose is not to support industries challenged by changes arising from new forms of distribution.

Not surprisingly, the incumbents are complaining.

Most of the policies contained within the strategy are aimed at bringing Canadian cultural products into the modern age. For example, the Canada Periodical Fund, the main funding body for the news industry, is being revamped to focus on media innovation and start-ups.

Much was made about Joly’s comments about not bailing out “non-viable” industries, referring to failing news companies. This should not be viewed as an abandonment of news companies. There’s no doubt that journalists in newsrooms across the country continue to do essential work in increasingly challenging circumstances.

Joly said the government would no longer support industry models that are no longer viable. Why would anyone think supporting non-viable business models is a good idea? Think of the federal government supporting the production of tapes or CDs over online streaming, and using taxpayer money to do it. Canadians would be livid, and rightly so.

But the most contentious part of the Creative Canada strategy is what is being called the Netflix deal. It is a promise that Netflix made to spend a minimum of $500 million on production and distribution of Canadian content, as well as opening a production centre in Canada.

Before this deal was announced, there were calls for Netflix to be taxed by the federal government, which supporters claimed would help lessen the disadvantage that Canadian digital suppliers face. In the choice that the government faced — taxation or investment deal — both result in Canadians paying for it (recently, Netflix increased subscription fees in Canada $1, which will generate more than $70 million in revenue more for Netflix each year).

But with an investment, we get more content, whereas a tax just goes right back into the government’s pocket, and likely back into the Canada Media Fund. One way to look at the Netflix deal is it gives Canadians more options to choose where they get their Canadian media; they can stick with the traditional realm, or they can turn to new, digital options.

Both the Netflix deal and the lack of focus on traditional media companies indicates that the culture strategy of the federal government is finally geared towards the digital age, increasing the accessibility of these culture products for all Canadians.

According to a comScore study conducted in January, 30 million Canadians are active internet users; in contrast, last year, according to Boon Dog Professional Services, more than 200,000 Canadians cut their cable or satellite subscription, representing two per cent of the total market.

Of course, Creative Canada needs to be further developed. One area for this is the lack of detail provided in some of the major policy changes. For the Netflix deal, it has not been specified what will constitute Canadian content. Will it be the traditional level of Canadian content — featuring most of the key roles of the creation and production being filled by Canadians — or will it simply be so-called “service productions” which only use Canadian crews, and have no real “Canadian” content? This is critical, and needs to be addressed. Similarly, few details have been provided on how major culture-related policies are going to be revamped, only the promise that they will be. This includes major policies like the Copyright Act, the Broadcasting Act, and the Telecommunications Act.

Overall, the Creative Canada strategy has potential to improve the amount, quality, and accessibility of Canadian cultural products. The policy is aimed more at helping artists and creators, and is less focused on corporations. If the goal is to help Canadian cultural products become more original and diverse, then the focus on innovation and the digital sphere means that the Canadian government is trying to move with the times.

Sarah Pittman is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation.