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Free advice for Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly

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Photo: flickr/Eva Blue

Mélanie Joly, the Canadian Heritage Minister, is about to launch a national consultation with an ambitious goal: to rethink policies governing Canada's broadcasting, film and other cultural industries.

The minister told The Globe and Mail that everything is on the table, from Canadian content rules to the mandate of the CBC.

It is an exercise full of promise, but also fraught with peril.

For instance, when Joly evokes her own youth that could be promising. She is 37 and says she "thinks about digital technology first and foremost, that's how I consume information and music, I'm a product of my generation". The minister will likely be open to questioning some of the archaic, pre-digital-era attitudes that bedevil some cultural agencies, notably the CBC.

In many respects, CBC's senior managers often seem to operate as though the Internet and all it entails for new ways of distributing content did not exist. They seem to labour under the illusion that the main role of their corporation, today as in the past, is to distribute content made by others. YouTube, Netflix, et.al. make that notion absurd. What Canada needs, now, is not a public agency devoted to acquisition and distribution of content. It needs an agency -- or, better yet, more than one agency -- devoted intensely to the fostering, development and creation of Canadian content.

Given her digital orientation, Joly might be sympathetic to that notion.

On the other hand, a single-minded preoccupation with all that is digital could lead to policies and practices of the sort we reported in this space not too long ago, whereby content is only deemed valuable if it can generate big volumes of hits and page views. Such a policy would mean an emphasis on stories that feature animals, celebrities, and other (usually) silly-stuff-that-goes-viral.

That would not be a recipe for getting important Canadian stories told in a compelling way.

Consulting Canadians online

Joly's department has gotten the ball rolling with an online survey entitled: "Strengthening Canadian content creation, discovery and export in a digital world." Here is the link: http://pch.sondages-surveys.ca/s/dwc/langeng/

This writer participated in that exercise. Mostly, it consists of multiple-choice questions, many of which betray an odd and disturbing preoccupation with the (online) distribution and export of cultural product, as opposed to its creation. There were, however, a few opportunities for participants to express their own thoughts freely, in 250 words or less.

Here are this writer's answers in two of those cases. The first, answer one below, is in response to a question about whether or not there is a need to support the creation of Canadian cultural product. The second, answer two below, responds to a refreshingly open-ended question, to wit: What other questions or issues as they relate to the goal of strengthening Canadian content creation, discovery and export in a digital world should we explore?

Answer one:

To have a country that works, that fosters its talent of all kinds, that is prosperous, that provides aid and opportunity to the disadvantaged, and decent services to all, we need to be able to TALK to each other.

Media of all kinds facilitate those national conversations.

But the digital world is dominated by trans-national corporations, by a kind of mindless star/celebrity system, and by the major economic/cultural powers, especially the USA. It is easy to foresee a future in which Canadians become less and less aware of their own country, its promise and its challenges. Years ago, most Canadians would watch the same TV program on Sunday night and make it their water-cooler talk in Monday morning. In the fragmented, digital world of today, that does not happen any more -- and will not happen again.

But that does not mean we should become defeatist and allow our very sense of ourselves as a people, a collectivity, to atrophy. It means we have to find creative ways to, first, fund and nourish and foster great Canadian content, and, second, get that content distributed on the variety of worldwide digital platforms that exist.

Answer two (which deals with "other questions or issues as they relate to strengthening Canadian content creation and export in a digital world"):

1. Revive the documentary, especially the independent, questing, challenging documentary. Canada invented this great form, and has recently almost abandoned it.

2. Consider the proposition that public cultural entities such as CBC/Radio-Canada should be less "corporate" and top-heavy, less focused on an archaic model of being primarily in the distribution business (which developed during the pre-Internet era, when having transmission facilities meant controlling distribution) and more focused on being incubators of creativity.

3. Consider funding for independent film and television production more on the arts council model and less on the model in which broadcast network executives are the arbiters of what gets produced. Media funds should be there to encourage and finance novel, creative, well-formulated ideas, directly. Creators should not be obliged to have broadcast licences and, more often than not, international co-production deals in order to access public funds.

4. Recognize that talent and good ideas can be found throughout the country, and, ergo, pursue a highly decentralized model. Put differently, foster production everywhere in Canada, not almost exclusively in Toronto, Montreal (and, to a much lesser extent, a few other large cities).

5. Be wary of allowing the export tale to wag the creation and production dog. What is needed, urgently, is Canadian content that tells Canadian stories to Canadians. All the better if others also want to see/hear those stories. But we should not dilute the Canadian-ness of our content to make it palatable to foreign audiences.

Photo: flickr/Eva Blue

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