An Open Letter to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly

Part 2

KONELINE: our land beautiful (Nettie Wild, 2016)

TV platforms: a vast wasteland with few heroes

So, the platforms available to authentic documentary in English Canada are now very few. In recent years our strongest commercial supporter has been Superchannel – the scrappy Canadian challenger to HBO – which commissioned dozens of interesting feature documentaries. Alas, Superchannel has a habit of slipping into receivership. It recently did so for the second time, creating an unprecedented crisis in our community. Dozens of independent doc makers have suddenly been stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In some cases their films are unfinished. In others, owing to Superchannel’s outrageous payment terms, completed shows have already aired and producers have not been paid. Many are facing bankruptcy. I suppose I don’t need to add that the owners of Superchannel are apparently secured against the liability. So it is the small creators who are getting screwed. As is normal.

Then there is Vice, which, being a Montreal creation has, I know, a special place in your heart, Minister. There’s a lot to like about Vice. Most of its programming is not really documentary but is edgy documentary-ish, factual-ish journalism that covers the tough subjects – the environment, civil rights, youth culture and inequality – that most other channels won’t touch with a ten foot cable. On the other hand, Vice is now owned by giant media corporations and, let’s just say, it operates in the same way they do. Its programming is controlled from New York. Its interweaving of editorial and advertising interests would be considered unacceptable by any professional journalist. Its working conditions are such that its employees are already unionizing. And its contracts with independents are more rapacious than most, demanding 100% copyright. So, while it makes some super fun shows, Vice offers no real hope for the future of Canadian documentary.

What may be most instructive about Vice for you, Minister, is what it says about platforms in the digital age. Vice went from a radical zine to a rebel website to a TV channel. That trajectory was deliberate. TV execs want the sort of scrappy content found online because it seems edgy enough to draw the young. Online content companies crave nothing so much as being on TV, because that’s still where the money is. Despite both the consumer convenience of internet VOD and the wild diversity of online content, the fact is that big media companies still control screen culture – its creation and promotion — through the mass bullhorn that is television.

In English Canada, TV and conventional distribution gatekeepers still control the content system. There are public funds that support independent television documentary – the Ontario Media Development Corporation being the most prominent — and private ones — the Rogers Group of Funds being the most generous – and others that support online work – the best known being the Bell Fund. But all require the prerequisite “market validation” by a TV gatekeeper. And since most of those will not commission documentary, well, it’s a chicken and egg thing which leaves real documentary makers hungry all the time. Starving, in fact.

In English Canada today, documentary has three real champions: the provincial public broadcasters — TVO in Ontario and Knowledge Network in British Columbia — and the NFB. TVO and Knowledge are models of what public media should be. They are dedicated in equal measure to entertainment and education, they provide programming for the whole population, they program across digital platforms (and, in TVO’s case, directly into schools), and they commission, among other genres, real factual programing and documentaries. Sadly, both are also poor as church mice. If they didn’t have dedicated supporters mailing in $25 checks, they would die. And since both TVO and Knowledge are not considered “national” broadcasters, they cannot access many supporting funds. Their imaginative ambitions are limited only by their circumstances, whereas most of their competition has ample circumstances but teeny-tiny imaginative ambitions.

Pour la suite du monde (English Version), Michel Brault & Pierre Perrault, National Film Board of Canada

I’ve co produced a few films with the NFB and, in my experience, the producers there instinctively embody and consciously uphold the ideals of creative excellence and public service that John Grierson insisted upon. That’s true despite some perplexing paradoxes in the place. Administratively the NFB has the agility of a brontosaurus yet, creatively and technically, it’s addicted to risk and infused with a faith in intuitive virtuosity. In recent years, some of its negative quirks have been overcome, like its old tendency to make brilliantly provocative films and then refuse to let anyone see them. And from Grierson’s day to ours, no other player in the Canadian screen trade has matched the NFB’s record of artistic achievement. One of the delicious ironies in our business is that none of the English Canadian players who worship American success and disdain public funding could dare to dream of having 73 Oscar nominations and 12 wins. Yet, somehow they don’t deduce the lesson that acclaim comes only to those brave enough to be true to themselves.

At any of these three institutions – TVO, Knowledge or the NFB – a documentary creator can make an honest pitch. In their offices, you may speak about your project’s artistic goals, national significance, civic importance, aesthetic beauty, intellectual provocation, democratic value and entertainment potential for the curious viewer. There was a time when you could use those selling points in any English Canadian gatekeeper’s office. Try them today, in most, and you will find yourself talking to the hand.

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Being Canadian (Rob Cohen, 2014)

How Canadian TV is colonised

Buying American has always been a smart economic strategy for English Canadian TV. Not only is it easier and cheaper than producing at home, it comes with the free benefit of relentless American promotion. The Globe and Mail critic John Doyle has written that the two great skills of Canadian media executives are negotiating profitable purchases of American products and lying about that to the CRTC. If they could, they would be as ‘Buy American!’ as any Detroit auto worker. Where they cannot buy directly, they commission shows that feel as American as possible, under the circumstances (of skimpy budgets).

Since you announced your review of Canadian content policies, the nation’s conservative “think tanks” have been arguing for its practical elimination. I can’t prove their authors are proxies for broadcast owners, but their interests are congruent. There are two parts to their argument, a public one and a not-for-public one. In public they argue that, in a world where anyone can choose to watch anything, Canadian content regulations are pointless. In private, they also make the case that regulations and subsidy are just job creation schemes that produce mediocre content. They echo the DJs of the 1970s who resented being forced to play Canadian music and dismissed it all as “the beaver bin”. No DJ today would have the nerve to say that to Drake or Robert Charlebois or Gord Downie or Régine Chassagne or even to her husband and band-mate, the American immigrant Win Butler. But Canada’s screen culture is not yet as mature as our music, literature or theatre scenes.

So, where to begin with these anti-Canadian content arguments? Firstly, cultural subsidies, as is clear by now, don’t produce jobs, they produce gigs. No sane person would respond to a want-ad for a job promising no security, no pension, no benefits, lots of unpaid work on nights, weekends and holidays and a crappy salary which disappears for months or years at a time. Nonetheless, documentary makers do cherish our unprofitable work for all the reasons I’ve stated. So I admit that we do promote Canadian content regulation and subsidy partly out of self-interest.

The quality argument is another sort of fish. It takes sophistication to refute but one rarely gets the chance, because it’s spread by trolls, invisibly corrosive, like a political whisper campaign. It is particularly dispiriting to our colleagues in drama, because it proceeds from comparisons to Hollywood which are unfair for many reasons. One is that creating make-believe worlds, staffing them with commodified stars and promoting them on soda cans is fantastically expensive. Another is that Hollywood’s cinematic grammar is a local language that’s been forced on its conquered cultural colonies – like when the Soviets forced the Poles to speak Russian. Its success is such that its grammar now seems “natural” while every original, national cinematic vision seems “weird” to an audience force-fed Disney from birth. Notwithstanding their many achievements, I sometimes wonder how our drama creators have the courage to face the day.

Canadian Famous, Kevin McMahon, National Film Board of Canada

The power of documentaries

Canadian documentary makers have no such problem. We cannot be made to feel inferior to those from anywhere else. Our confidence in the depth of our tradition, command of our language and sufficiency of our resources – when we have any at all — is bullet proof. We know that our art form is Canadian by virtue of both its history and its nature, shaped by the country’s emotional and political constitution. Every nation produces great art. There is no other nation whose history has taught its creators to honor diversity, egalitarian values and critical thinking above all else. That’s why Canada disproportionately produces great documentarians, journalists, diplomats and comics.

Doing our work also teaches us that it is needed. For one thing, we travel often to the edges of this country. We talk to a lot of people who live far from the centers of power. We see the Canada that most Canadians cannot, because this land is so big and so costly to traverse. A recent poll asked Canadians what made the country unique and just one per cent chose the North. Since only Russia compares to us in this regard, almost nothing makes Canada more unique. But so few Canadians see the Arctic, it’s not top-of-mind. That’s true of most of rural Canada, which comprises most of Canada. Since media executives share the general urban bias, doc makers have to really fight to tell rural stories. So we know that a lot of what is incredible, distinctive and important about Canada lies perpetually in the dark.

All the Time in the World (Suzanne Crocker, 2014)


Even more important is what we learn about Canada from travelling abroad. There’s no part of this planet — however physically remote, politically-closed or conflict-ridden — that is not known to some of my colleagues. And everywhere we go we see that it is culturally acceptable to hate some Other; there is an inherent homogeneity and/or factionalism that breeds hostility toward some group or many. In the poll mentioned above, the majority of Canadians said that what makes our nation unique is multiculturalism. That is absolutely true and it’s why those of us who spend a lot of time on the ground elsewhere understand, at a visceral level, that the world really does need more Canada.

That is more true, not less, in a world where “anyone can watch anything anytime”. Cyberspace (a term coined by our William Gibson for a reality defined by our Marshall McLuhan) is an ephemeral reflection of real physical space and real economic, political and military power. Its like a mirage — a real object refracted by light that floats above the desert. The elements of cyberspace emanate from a specific place and then blend with the global currents of the system. It’s the cultural equivalent of weather. Hot spots can throw the whole system out of whack, just as calm voices can cool and refresh. Canada, with its deep embrace of diversity, can be that calming, cooling voice. The argument of those who disdain Canadian content creation is that weak, little Canada cannot substantially contribute to the emerging global discourse. To them, I say: ‘Grow up!’ Canada’s documentary creators know we have much to offer our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth. I’m sure other Canadian artists feel exactly the same way. Right now the marketing heft and the algorithms of giant corporations direct much of the flow of online chatter. But we’ve only just begun. Nobody can say where the strongest voices in 21st century cyberspace will originate. Why should they not be Canadian?

Culture in English Canada hits a brick wall

What I find curious in all this — and what I suspect that you, Minister, coming from Quebec, must find incomprehensible — is the instinctive lack of support for Canadian culture among so much of the English Canadian elite. Of course, they will all be wearing maple leaf ties and baking birthday cakes next year, just as they were all swooning over The Tragically Hip this summer. But, deep in their hearts, they ceaselessly long for American approval. The economic arguments we can understand. But the admiration of Canadian media executives for American products runs deeper than that. How many Reality shows, made here, are titled Blah Blah Canada, to lightly distinguish them from the original, American Blah Blah? If we are going to make tawdry crap appealing to base instincts, one would think we could at least invent our own, original tawdry crap.

I don’t get it. Maybe, if you aspire to be a powerful media executive, nothing less than Hollywood validation has meaning. Maybe, if you’re stuck in pokey and chilly Toronto, it hurts your self-esteem. And maybe, therefore, you just automatically validate any junk that comes from America and reflexively denigrate everything Canadian, however great. But that must seem suicidal to a Quebecois or Haida or Inuit or gay or black or orthodox Muslim or anybody else who has had to fight for their cultural freedom. The English Canadian elite have it but they don’t want it. They suffer from a self-imposed Stockholm Syndrome.

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Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)

The Great Paradox

So, Minister, when Canadian documentary makers look at “issues of importance surrounding the creation, discovery and export” of our work in a digital world, we see a paradox. After decades of effort, and hundreds of millions of dollars in government support, our community has reached a moment of great strength and acute danger.

On the plus side, documentaries have never had a more enthusiastic audience, especially among the young. As Reality has taken over television, documentary has gotten hotter in movie theatres and online. The mainstream embrace of a fraudulent worldview only makes the authentic complexity of documentary sexy. As I write, there are seven documentaries playing in Toronto commercial movie theatres, and all have higher audience ratings than most competing dramas. Online, the streaming services prominently include feature documentaries and social media is filled with all sorts and sizes of docs. As Virtual Reality explodes, only gamers are embracing it with the same gusto as doc makers. For many of us, VR is a dream come true because we have long tried to push our form beyond linear narrative, toward immersive environmental experiences. For our young audiences, it’s natural to experience documentaries through mobile screens or VR headsets. They take documentary as it is offered: as a liquid digital window on to the world.

When I made my first feature documentary, 26 years ago, I labeled it a “non-fiction movie” to dodge the dowdy reputation documentaries used to have. How happily amazed I am to see this day! Back then, film studies programs were few and none specialized in documentary. Now there are dozens of dedicated college and university programs, with thousands of graduates annually. I have them knocking on my door every week, looking for a way into our craft. What’s truly gratifying to me is their genuine interest in the form. It used to be that young cineastes looked at docs as a stepping stone on the journey to making “real movies”. Today, perhaps owing to the world in which they were raised, many young people yearn to bear witness and to do it in true Griersonian spirit. Their motivation is public service through whatever media are exciting and handy. But what, Minister, am I to tell them when they come knocking? I can’t lie. But neither do I want to discourage them with the truth. So our discussions turn less on grand ambitions, more on survival strategies.

Ryan , Chris Landreth, National Film Board of Canada

Financing films in a vacuum

Experienced creators, like me and my aging colleagues, can, ironically, go abroad for support. We are veterans of international film festivals and markets, thanks to years of aid from provincial and federal trade programs. That investment has given us relationships with foreign broadcasters who seriously support documentaries. Dismissed at home, we are hailed as masters abroad. Isn’t it always the way? We’ve learned how to take an offshore license fee, get Canadian TV to buy in for the price of a coffee, and flow the paper through the system to magically create what looks like a genuine co-production. Ridiculously, that’s how we get the support these days to tell Canadian stories. It’s sort of reverse-gaming the system; tricking it into doing good despite its cynical inclinations.

This is how, for example, my colleagues and I were able to provide TVO and Knowledge with the first long-form documentary series on English Canadian television, a project they could not have otherwise afforded. Called The Polar Sea, it used a story of amateur sailors crossing the Northwest Passage to explore climate change, showcase Inuit artists and grasp the ramifications of industrial colonization of the north. The project included a 10 hour television series, an interactive web experience, four 360 video apps for smart phones and the world’s first full Virtual Reality documentary. For this thoroughly Canadian subject, created by two Canadian production companies and staffed with 100% Canadian labour, 90% of the budget came from Germany and France (where the project was heavily promoted and drew an audience of more than 2 million people). There’s lots of stories like that. My last project was a feature documentary financed by Germany and Japan, with a pittance tossed in by Canadians. My work over the next three years will mostly be funded from Europe and Asia and will be filmed all over the world. I have colleagues with similar funding connections in Australia, Scandinavia, England, Latin America, South America and the Middle East. But gaining trust abroad and managing the legal and financial complexities of these productions is not for greenhorns.

So the young people flowing out film schools favor a home-made, digital strategy: crowd-funding. Like most web-based financial strategies, it’s a pyramid scheme that works brilliantly for the first person, pretty good for the next few, okay for the bunch after that and so on, downward. At its best it is staggeringly inefficient. And that’s saying something in the arts, which is the model sector for wasted potential, since we all spend 80% of our time raising the resources we need to do our actual jobs. Crowd-funding requires multiple layers of marketing materials, constant social media promotion and lots of money and time for souvenir fulfillment. It ups the standard inefficiencies of artistic financing exponentially. If you are very clever and very lucky you can get the crowd to give you money, but the effort costs a significant part of what is raised.

The other funding sources drawing young Canadian doc makers are American charitable foundations. Foundation funding is not really a thing here, but American arts foundations are important documentary funders. Now they are being joined by advocacy groups willing to pump astonishing sums into the production, promotion and distribution of documentaries that promote their point of view. In recent years, Canadian filmmakers have made several docs this way. That requires another kind of good-gaming of the system: to pass IRS muster, the money has to flow through an American charity, which will take a cut for its trouble.

The bigger problem with crowd and advocacy funding is that both require appeals to crowds and advocates. The most successful vow to save something, fight somebody or otherwise promote a cause. Both encourage “activist” films. The relationship between documentary and activism is a complex subject, worthy of much consideration itself, but for our purposes it’s enough to say that creators can only serve their subjects properly and their audiences honestly if they are free. The pressure to skew a story is the same whether it comes from a saint or a sinner. One can make Reality or propaganda under such conditions, but not documentary.

But the young have few choices. The only other money available to them are the scraps broadcasters throw into little contests, online challenges and other phishing expeditions that earn civic brownie points for pennies on the dollar. The young always buy in, of course, because they aren’t motivated by money. They believe, passionately, in the truth and will do whatever is required to get at it. I recently came across a heated forum discussion in which a young filmmaker was mocking an older one for complaining about funding levels. “It’s a privilege” to be able to make films at all, said the callow youth. The exchange sent me back 30 years.

Wise words at a Grierson Seminar

I was at the Grierson Seminar, the precursor to Hot Docs. I was not yet 30. Someone made a comment about inadequate documentary funding and I rose to dismiss it as bourgeois whining. I got schooled that day by the great feminist documentarian Laura Sky. She was around 40 then, famous for pioneering documentaries about working women, and a true believer in the social responsibility of art. She said, in so many words: ‘we serve the public with our work, which has no less validity than that of any teacher or nurse; but we have no salaries, no dental plan, no pension’. She was only slightly admonishing in her tone. I, an arrogant little jerk, shrugged, while smirking. Only old folks needed pensions and I was not planning to get old. My interlocutor eventually dropped out of the TV scene. She went on to create a charity that makes documentaries with communities, helping them tell their stories. I see her on the streets of Toronto occasionally, still lovely and fiery, but aging, as one does, and walking with some difficulty. Seeing her makes me properly ashamed of my younger self. And it makes me mad to work in a system specifically designed to exploit youthful enthusiasm in order to make middle men and shareholders rich, while discarding creators like old husks.

Now, having raised a family and approaching old age myself, I understand what it means to go through an entire adult working life with no security and no support. I look at the young, eager to give their all for art, and know the ways it’s going to cost them, about which they have no clue. You know, Minister, it’s one thing for a nation to create the conditions to produce flashes of brilliant art. It’s quite another – much more challenging and worthwhile — to create a culture of creativity that sustains a mature artistic sector robust enough to promote the wider goal of strengthening enlightened democracy, inspiring innovative solutions to our dilemmas and infusing the national economy with the pioneering spirit required for Canada to thrive in a world where survival, if we achieve it, will depend not on endless dumb exploitation but on brilliant invention and clever recirculation.

Among the many resources Canada has at its disposal in the 21st century is an infrastructure for capturing actuality that is second to none, globally; that bristles with talent, technology, social dedication and organizational skill. It’s the collective creation of thousands of people who make documentaries — researchers, writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, designers – as well those who back them — the gatekeepers, producers, coordinators, lawyers, accountants and publicists – and those who support the whole enterprise – the curators, programmers, teachers, librarians, film festival volunteers, critics and, ultimately, audiences. We have spent our lives building this infrastructure. But we understand that it exists only because of I can’t guess how many millions of dollars, invested on behalf of taxpayers, by provincial and federal governments. Together, we have erected a mansion Grierson could never have imagined. It is, I believe, a structure of great facility and beauty that has enormous potential to do good in Canada and for the wider world. But, of course, if we are careless, something built by many generations can be demolished overnight.

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Grass (Ron Mann, 1999)

A new cultural ecosystem

As you reimagine our screen ecosystem, your range of options is wide, but the voices that would constrain them are powerful. We all know there are many lobbyists preparing briefs to argue the opposite of what I’ve said. They will portray big media companies as patriotic populists and even victims of foreign companies and rabid technologies. Those foreign companies will ignore your process altogether, serene in that hypocritical Silicon Valley smugness that proclaims itself above the law, yet good for society. And both old and new media will feign to forget that a nation’s airwaves, its cyberspace, is, by law and tradition, public property, like crown land, theoretically reserved to benefit the national interest.

Every big media corp that does talk to you will, I wager, boast of their generosity to the Canadian cultural community while suggesting that creators are “entitled”. They love that word. It implies that creators expect corporations to provide something for nothing when, in the digital world, the case is actually just the opposite.

Creators don’t feel “entitled” to do their work, they feel compelled. The very nature of being an artist – whatever your medium – is that you have no choice. It’s a yearning as powerful as for food or sex and it can only be denied by destroying part of your self. The cliché of the starving or suffering artist are two aspects of the same thing. It is not genius that makes one suffer – there’s lots of jolly Nobel scientists. Rather, it’s the compulsion to follow an artistic road that’s often blocked by censors, thieves, loved ones and poverty. Creators will struggle down that road, whatever it takes, because they are placed on it by something larger than themselves. That sounds crazily romantic to the rational mind, but it’s true. I know documentary makers so driven by responsibility to their subjects that they will work second jobs or mortgage their homes to pay their crews and get films made. You can imagine, Minister, how easy it is to take advantage of people under such circumstances.

The imbalance of power

The power imbalance in cultural production surely dates back to when the first Athenian promoter pressured the original tragedian to include more sex scenes and then stole his cut of the gate. Broadcasters selling out our cultural heritage or ISPs profiting off creators’ work for free are differences of technology and scale, not of kind. There’s only so much you can do, Minister, about such ancient habits. My prediction is that, regardless of your best efforts, the game will not really change because the nature of the players will not. It’s a Frog and Scorpion thing. But if you could just put your thumb on the scales, even a little, we might all be surprised at the beneficial results.

In my opinion, the weight of that thumb will not come from money. There’s lots of public money in the system. What is needed is a vision of Canadian screen culture that looks beyond money as the reason for producing culture. My hope is that as you sift the arguments laid at your door in the coming months, you evaluate all of them by asking, first: why should government have any role in creating culture?

A dual mandate

For the four decades I’ve worked in Canadian culture, the clumsy answer has always been that government initiatives have “a dual mandate”: to make jobs and make art. It’s easy to argue that, as motivations, those are opposites. Nevertheless, everyone in the system has been forced to measure both their needs and success in terms of money. Every arts advocate learned long ago to appeal for public support by highlighting the spin-off benefits of each subsidy or donation. It’s not just about us, they say, its about the lady who rents cars to the production or the guy who sells hot dogs outside the theatre. Canadian creators have gamely argued that our industry is just as worthy of government subsidy as the makers of jet planes or crude oil, because we all fabricate jobs. It’s an argument born of the neo-conservative era, when everything was measured in dollars. I don’t fault creators for making it. I used numbers myself earlier, to demonstrate the doc community’s commercial prowess. We do this because we feel we must. But it’s a rhetorical trap.

The economic argument sees profit as the ultimate validation for creation. That’s sensible in Hollywood, which makes money by nature and art by accident. Everywhere else in the Western world where that argument is used, I suspect that it’s fallacious. I doubt Western governments have reaped tax dollars commensurate with what they have poured into cultural creation. I can’t prove that and wouldn’t bother to try because it’s not what’s important. What really matters is that justifying cultural subsidy – or content regulation – as economic development ignores the much more important spiritual, intellectual, emotional, political, social and civic functions of art. I’ve argued that creators need help in making a living, which is true. But it does us no good to seek that by lying about our true motivation or the real measure of our success.

What’s ironic is that the architects of the neo-conservative era did just the opposite, using culture to achieve their economic goals. It’s now widely understood that the “culture wars” of the past few decades, with their vicious stoking of the flames of fear and hatred between communities, have mainly been an attention-deflection tactic. It is by these means that The One Per Cent have puppet-mastered the discourse and turned so many people, who have so much less, against their own self-interest.

The Price We Pay (Harold Crooks, 2014)

Fearing fear itself

Our screen industries, and especially Reality culture, were eager to fan the discord, as long as the resulting fears remained improbable: terrorism, exotic disease, girls gone wild. They weren’t interested in real problems that faced the world—-debt, unemployment, climate change, war’s aftermath or social polarization. Once, as I was being tossed from her office for pitching some “earnest” documentary, a senior commissioning editor smiled sympathetically and said: “Our viewers want scary, but not real scary.” To understand the truth of that, substitute viewers with bosses. Or, perhaps, advertisers (or media buyers) It’s no wonder, as journalists often remind us, that fear of crime in North America rises while actual crime drops. No wonder, either, why a key cultural trope for the young is zombies.

The nadir of this era in Western culture, hopefully, is upon us, with Brexit, the candidacy of Donald Trump, fascists stirring in Europe and all the other flowerings of intolerance. Maybe we’ve hit bottom. In Canada it feels we’ve crossed that dark finish line and begun something new, as shown by the outpouring of optimism attending your government’s election. And that came, I can’t help note, by changing the script, and offering not promises of wild financial prosperity, but of civic and cultural renewal.

There has never been a time in human history when it has been so obvious that our survival is a matter of conscious choice. The greatest challenges we face – climate change, inequality and its discontents, tribal and resource wars and the resulting refugee crisis – are technically complex but their only lasting solutions are cultural. “We shape our tools,” McLuhan liked to say, “and thereafter they shape us.” Many of our problems are the result of technologies gone awry – the wrong kind of engines, the wrong use of guns – and most can be solved by technology we already have. What blocks those solutions are ignorance, bad attitudes, misguided beliefs and their impacts on economics and politics. That’s what’s hard about changing our course. But it’s also what’s so incredibly encouraging. It’s like John Lennon said: the war is over if we want it. The culture we shape dictates the world we can imagine and the world we imagine is what we will create.

Preserving Canada’s identity

The people who established Canada’s cultural regulatory and subsidy system did not argue in terms of job creation. They argued in terms of preserving Canada’s identity in the face of British and American hegemony. And they argued in terms of public service. Again, I quote Grierson, speaking about documentary: “[This] was a new idea for public education: its underlying concept that the world was in a phase of drastic change affecting every manner of thought and practice, and the public comprehension of the nature of that change vital… Our job specifically was to wake the heart and the will.”

It seems to me that the ambition behind that sentiment is very close to the goals you have set for Canadian culture. If documentary makers, so steeped in Canadian tradition, so blatant in our civic mission, and requiring so relatively few resources, can no longer do our job of waking the public heart and will, I wonder who can.

So I, for one, hope that, when you ask yourself why government should be involved in culture, your unequivocal answer will be: ‘to serve the public good’. All the disputes will be about the details, but my experience tells me that the minutiae of what you are doing is less important than a clear declaration of why you are doing it.

Canada’s creators have a deep understanding – shared by many around the world — of how and of why publicly-motivated culture produces enriching, crowd-pleasing excellence. But it’s been a long time since anyone with authority declared that to be our goal. If you do that, Minister, you might see mountains move. Certainly, you will find people of good will, at all levels of the system, lining up behind you. They are just waiting for permission, from the top, to declare their true love for Canada and to be able to openly admit their hidden belief in the power of art to save the world.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this.

I wish you great luck on your courageous endeavor.

Sincerely yours,

Kevin McMahon