Trudeau’s Arts Chief Heads to China in Pivot From Protectionism

  • Canada to focus more on pitching its culture sectors abroad
  • New policy to include ‘vision’ of newspaper sector, Joly says

Melanie Joly

Photographer: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s culture chief is visiting China for the first time in over a decade as his government pivots from protectionism to promotion in the arts.

Melanie Joly, who as heritage minister oversees the arts and media sectors, begins a five-day series of meetings in China on Tuesday. Her office said it’s the first such visit in 12 years and comes as Canada prepares a new cultural policy to roll out later this year.

Joly’s trip follows a visit by Trudeau to the Asian country, where he revealed the first markings of a new Canadian trade policy that includes a shift in focus away from bulk resource exports toward consumers. Joly, who’s traveling with Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board, will also meet with companies including Cirque du Soleil Inc. and Walt Disney Co., according to a statement from her office.

“It’s a change of vision we have. We believe that in the digital age we have to depart from protection to promotion of our own cultural content,” Joly said in an interview. Because of digital disruption driven by the web, “we need to make sure we help our creative sector seize new markets, and we need to support quality when it comes to content.”

New Toolkit

To be sure, Joly and Trudeau aren’t abandoning support for Canadian culture in what she deemed a “pivot” from protectionism. Their debut budget last year pledged C$1.9 billion ($1.4 billion) over five years in new cultural funding, an investment the heritage minister hails as historic.

However, there are signs of a changing tone as Joly stresses quality and global competition. The government has also, for instance, so far declined to intervene in a Super Bowl advertising spat that loosens the grip of protectionist policies that fund Canadian television programming. The government held consultations last year on the future of Canadian content in a digital world. Joly is pitching change.

“I want to bring in a new model,” she said, adding Canada needs a new “policy toolkit” for its cultural sector. “We can really be ambitious and help our creative sector to grow and create good jobs in Canada by making sure we have strong ties with other markets, and China is our first target.”

Joly’s trip is an “important statement,” said Gordon Esau, a partner at Dentons LLP who specializes in film and television and advises clients in China. Joly will have to make return visits to maximize impact, he said.

“We could well see the U.S., under Donald Trump, pull back in their interaction at a time when there’s great growth there, so it could give Canada a unique opportunity to jump forward,” Esau said. “How do we capture some of that economic benefit? The first step is to establish the connections.”

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Trudeau traveled to China last year, visiting Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and agreeing to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While the prime minister praised China’s economic potential, the visit was not without tension. The countries resolved a canola dispute and Trudeau raised human rights concerns with Chinese leaders.

As Joly focuses on championing Canadian content abroad, part of her new model will include a decision on whether or not to directly support traditional media companies at home, including newspaper chain Postmedia Inc. and others facing steep declines in revenue.

The government is “concerned” about ensuring “Canadians have access to reliable and credible sources of information” through news media, Joly said. The minster said she will receive a report on potential options for newspapers from Canada’s Public Policy Forum think-tank this month before deciding how to proceed.

“We’ll be coming up with our vision of the model later this year in the context of the 150th anniversary,” she said, referring to the country’s national celebrations this year of its founding in 1867. “We believe in the importance of journalism, that’s for sure. And therefore we’re looking at all scenarios that have been presented.”

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