CYCLICAL PUBLIC ATTENTION
Concern with cultural policy issues goes through alternating cycles of public and political attention. At different times in Canadian history there have been widely varying levels of interest in culture as a subject of policy concern. I use the term ‘culture’ in a wholly inclusive manner to mean all aspects of expression that communicate social identity and creativity. We can readily identify periods of high interest in culture when issues were very visible and voluble. Some of these periods date back to the early years of Canadian modern history, while others are more recent.
In the mid-1860s, for example, when the terms of Confederation were being negotiated, the issue of language was very sensitive. For representatives from Quebec, the right to use French in the Dominion’s Parliament and in the courts was essential. And for Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a non-French member of the Quebec delegation, culture represented an idealistic opportunity to shape a national character that would suit the new country. McGee, who eloquently promoted an inclusive, tolerant Canadian identity, was silenced in 1868 with a bullet to his brain from an assassin who felt his views on political cooperation betrayed the cause of militant Irish nationalism.
The tragedy of McGee’s violent death was never repeated in Canada’s political life, but his quest for defining a unique national approach to cultural expression has been echoed on many occasions. In 1929, for example, the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting chaired by Sir John Aird concluded that the country required a publicly-owned broadcasting system to enable Canadian voices to be heard over the airwaves. Aird was the President of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and his recommendations led a Conservative government under Prime Minister Bennett, followed by a Liberal government under Mackenzie King, to create the forerunner of today’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A mere twenty years later, in 1951, another Royal Commission, this time led by Vincent Massey, recommended many additional initiatives to promote cultural undertakings under state patronage. The Massey Commission laid the policy basis for the Canada Council for the Arts and for public support of many other cultural activities.
Issues of cultural policy have repeatedly surfaced in modern history as sensitive and controversial, often leading to new program or regulatory initiatives. In the early 1970s, following intense debates around bilingualism and biculturalism, the first Canadian content (Cancon) rules were adopted for radio broadcast license holders, specifying minimum requirements for air play of Canadian music. Ten years later, after extensive hearings at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC), licenses were issued for the new medium of PayTV, with the requirement that a small quota of Canadian films be offered to subscribers. At the same time, a parallel decision was made by the federal government to support more output from Canada’s emerging commercial film industry.
There have also been periods when the cultural sector was not successful in the competition for government attention. In essence, political interest in cultural programs ebbs and flows, sometimes growing stronger and other times becoming weaker. At present, Canada is going through a phase of lessened interest in activist cultural policy. This is apparent in the federal sphere, extending over several recent governments, but it is also the situation in many provincial jurisdictions. We might speculate as to the reasons for this lower interest. We should certainly recognize that even in low-profile periods the ongoing administration of cultural programs may spark occasional controversies, but this is not the same as engendering debates and public expressions of support that galvanize initiatives for new directions.
Political interest in Canadian culture is cyclical in nature; this is one of our ‘verities’. We can anticipate that cultural issues will return to prominence in a number of years, much as Canadian environmental concerns returned to the public agenda after a quiet period during the 1990s.