Symbolic tokenism in Canada-U.S. cultural sector trade relations.

AuthorBristow, Jason

    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. For many years Hollywood has controlled about 95 percent of the Canadian cinema market. Since World War II American TV programming similarly has dominated Canadian English-language viewership. Whatever else may be observed about conflicts between Canada and the United States over cultural policy, the persistence of the problem can be explained by its two irreducible features: the relationship between cultural products and national identities, and the longstanding U.S. dominance of the Canadian market for these goods. (4)

    "Americans dismiss Canadian complaints of U.S. cultural domination," John Thompson and Stephen Randall observe, "and do not understand, much less sympathize with, Canadian policies to achieve cultural sovereignty." To American audiences, Christopher Sands argues in a similar vein, "the idea that Canadian culture is under threat is difficult to accept." Americans find such claims problematic nowadays partly because of the rising consumption of Canadian cultural products in the U.S. Such notable Canadians as Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Peter Jennings, James Cameron, and Atom Egoyan are only a few of those Canadians who have acquired an appreciative American audience. In some cases the levels of their commercial and critical success have been truly meteoric. Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion sold a combined 155 million albums in the 1990s; Celine Dion has become the most popular North American female singer in any genre. Alice Munro, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, has been favorably compared to Anton Chekov, the great Russian master of the short story. Writing in Slate magazine, the economist Paul Krugman turned the tables on the usual direction of cross-border cultural incursion when he observed that Boston-area "residents who indulge their tastes for Canadian divas ... undermine the prospects of local singer-songwriters." With the cross-border tide in cultural products apparently flowing from North to South in some cases, it is easy to understand why American trade negotiators condemn Canadian cultural policies as disguised restrictions on trade. The sharp difference between perspectives must be highlighted because American commentators are just as correct in pointing out individual and sectoral success stories in U.S. markets as are Canadian analysts who point to the overall U.S. dominance of the Canadian market as a rationale for cultural policies. (5)

    At the political level, dissonance between free trade and Canadian cultural policy has been of increasing relevance to Canada-U.S. trade relations for some time, a situation described variously as "a quandary," "a paradox," and "contentious" or even "intractable." Cultural sector relations have moved from being episodic irritants to emerging as a systemic problem for further North American economic integration. Resolution through litigation has replaced diplomatic negotiation, and despite Canadian trade measures having changed (they have become more promotional and less protectionist), the tenor of commentary has grown more pessimistic. "There are indications that U.S. tolerance levels are not as high as they were a few years ago, "Roger Frank Swanson observed in 1976, concluding that "indeed, in a bilateral context, the cultural sector might best be regarded as symptomatic of future trends in the U.S.-Canadian relationship. Amenable neither to clear definitions nor to definitive solutions, these problems will persist and, in all probability, increase." A generation later, Dennis Browne described the cultural sector as "a burr under the saddle of Canada-U.S. trade relations." And with the wounds inflicted by the WTO's Canada Periodicals decision still fresh in 2000, Ivan Bernier believed that "unless something is done in the coming years to solve the problem, chances are that the existing tension between trade and culture will increase rather than decrease." These warnings suggest a need for better diplomatic management or carefully crafted policy solutions that are equal to the magnitude of the problem. (6)

    Given such longstanding Canadian concerns, the absence of a cross-border consensus on the legitimacy of cultural products, and the increasingly practical problems posed by free trade and cultural policy, this essay raises two big questions: What influence does foreign entertainment have on national identity and culture? Given the answer, how should the current international policy initiative to reconcile open trade with the promotion of national culture be interpreted? The first question raises an empirically accessible puzzle about the relationship between culture and cultural products and will minimize the appeal to abstractions, generalities and arguments by assertion. The second question tackles the chief current international cultural policy initiative, an International Convention under development at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that is designed to reconcile the tension between cultural policy and trade liberalization.

    The arguments offered in this essay proceed as follows. Part II will describe how the international trading system treats cultural products, thereby establishing the legal and regulatory framework for assessing policy proposals. It is the necessary starting point, separating what is reasonable and possible from what lies beyond any realistic horizon. Part III argues, against convention wisdom, that media content has little influence on national identity and culture. It reviews the research record into cross-cultural effects, the concepts of "culture" and "national identity," and the empirical evidence for continued Canadian value distinctiveness. This section also argues, however, that promotional cultural policy deserves safeguarding because such policy is concerned with reflecting and expressing...

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