Commentary: Does Canadian Culture Need This Much Protection?

Canada's cultural claims to fame go well beyond hockey and Titanic director James Cameron. Authors Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler and singers Celine Dion and Neil Young, among many others, prove that Canadian stars can shine brightly worldwide. But to some nervous Northerners, Canadian culture is too fragile to survive without government protection. The big threat: American cultural imperialism.

To keep the Yanks at bay, Canada has long maintained some curbs on sales of American publications and textbooks and on the reach of American radio. But Canada lately has been pushing the envelope of cultural protectionism. One of the most blatant examples: a 1994 law that levied an 80% tax on Canadian ads in Canadian editions of U.S. magazines--in effect, an effort to kill off the intruders. After the U.S. successfully protested to the World Trade Organization, Canada now is trying to develop rules that will pass muster with the WTO and still maintain the level of Canadian content the government seeks.

Without protections for Canadian media, the cultural nationalists fear, American magazine interlopers--such as Time, Sports Illustrated, and yes, even business week--could soon deprive Canadians of the ability to read about themselves in Maclean's, Saturday Night, Canadian Business, and other favorites. American music and rude Yanks such as shock jock Howard Stern will dominate the airwaves. And Americans will sell the textbooks shaping young Canadian minds, possibly sans Canadian content.

RAID ON RADIO. The nationalists managed to exempt these areas from the North American Free Trade Agreement, but their battle against free trade in culture continues. This time the Canadian cultural police struck radio first. Federal regulators on Apr. 30 handed down a requirement that at least 35% of music played on local radio stations after January must be Canadian, up from 25% to 30% today--and officials aim to hike the Canadian share to 40% in five years. This rule was helped along by public reaction to Stern, who has been a huge hit on Toronto and Montreal stations for the past 10 months or so and whose foul-mouthed ventings have prompted calls for censorship and the rescinding of radio licenses.

Then, in early May, ideas for new magazine restrictions were leaked to Toronto newspapers. The proposals include a stiff new magazine tax to replace the 1994 levy, this time with a subsidy for Canada-based products, or a ban on Canadian ads in publications with less than, say, 60% Canadian content. Meanwhile, a plan that could permit American textbook publishers to provide books for grades 1 to 8 in the province of Ontario--with appropriate Canadian content--is meeting with fierce opposition in the legislature. Ottawa must assure "a dynamic forum for the expression of Canadian ideas and interests," says Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.

Encouraging Canadian content is fine. And it's O.K. to provide support, such as tax incentives or even grants, to industries that a government wants to promote. It's another thing, however, to hamstring foreign companies so they cannot even try to compete. If the public wants Canadian content, they'll show that in their purchasing and listening habits. Artificial restraints can only deny consumers choices.

BIG LEAD. The worries of the cultural nationalists, moreover, seem overwrought. Despite the popularity of Time Canada, Maclean's outsells its rival nearly 2 to 1. And while Woman's Day has been appearing on Canadian newsstands for over a quarter century, for years it has lost readers in Canada to Canadian Living.

Canadians have no reason to be so insecure. Their fellow citizens are thirsty for domestic news, as proved by the popularity of such newspapers as The Globe & Mail and the promise of a forthcoming national daily from publisher Conrad M. Black. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal remain mere curiosities north of the border. If Canadians prefer Canadian goods, let them make that choice on their own. After all, open competition for their attention will spawn the best products.

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