What exactly is Canadian content in the age of the web?

Last week, around the height of the occupation of Ottawa, a small but symbolic clip went viral on Twitter in which an angry Ottawan stood on a balcony, swearing up a blue streak at the protesters below.

“This should be a new Canadian Heritage Moment,” quipped more than a few people, referring to the classic commercials.

It was a tiny thing. But then, these little in-jokes about what it means to be Canadian are part of life here. In a country far less defined by a national identity than its neighbour — that’s with a u, by the way — finding the small things that feel familiar are one of the ways we make sense of our place in the world.

It’s also ostensibly why we have Cancon laws — those familiar rules that dictate that a certain percentage of shows on TV or songs on the radio be Canadian, and the source of much Canadian content.

Of course, the web upended the neat and easy boundaries around Canadian media. Not only did it massively expand what we as Canadians could experience, it also gave Canadians a platform to broadcast themselves to the world.

What then is Canadian content in the age of the web? And what — if anything — should we do to promote it?

It’s that question that has animated Bill C-11, a new piece of legislation reintroduced by the Liberal government that, among other things, attempts to bring some of the online content we consume under the purview of the CRTC, which currently only oversees traditional broadcast. At least part of that was that Netflix and other tech giants should have to pay to fund Canadian content.

The bill was formerly known as C-10, but proved so controversial and problematic, that it was squashed by the Senate.

Alas, the current Bill C-11, which does not differ drastically, is being criticized for much the same reasons. As prominent critic and lawyer Michael Geist has argued, C-11 may still be far too broad in terms of how it defines online content, and too vague in defining what is actually Canadian content or a Canadian content creator.

There should be rigorous debate about the potential consequences of the bill, paying particular attention to the rights of Canadians to consume and produce as they see fit.

All the same, the specifics of Bill C-11 aside, perhaps there is still a case to be made that tech giants should in fact fund the creation of Canadian content.

Cancon laws emerged for the simple reason that Canada has had a historical tendency to be culturally overrun. First, it was Britain and the lingering effects of its Empire. Later and still today, it is the enormous influence of America where American TV is still the most popular in the country.

One would think that the internet would upend that tendency to be swamped by others. By lowering the barriers to entry and distribution, both ordinary Canadians and creative outlets can push content out to millions across the globe — no Cancon or government funding required.

On the surface, this is true. Take YouTube, for example. Canada has produced a significant cadre of online talent with huge, global audiences. Torontonian Lilly Singh even parlayed her YouTube fame into an American late-night TV talk show.

Similarly, on tech and gadget YouTube, Canadians are so popular they almost dominate. Popular channels like Linus Tech Tips, Dave2D, Unbox Therapy, and Rene Ritchie amass massive views, with subscribers in the millions and views on some channels in the billions.

So how one might possibly make the argument that Cancon funding is still warranted in the 21st century?

Quite simply, if you take a look at those popular Canadian channels, all of them cater to an American audience. Prices are in American dollars, availability is about America, and the assumed audience is American.

Far from the web promoting a more Canadian version of our culture, it has produced a more American version of it because creators must orient their channels to where the eyeballs and money are.

On the part of creators, that is understandable. But those small, uniquely Canadian things that allow us to recognize ourselves in the media we consume? Those are lost in the globalized Web because money talks more than culture.

That is the reason that Canada needs to fund Canadian content — because there is inbuilt imbalance of population, capital, and influence. Far from an open playing field, the web’s very openness risks further homogenization.

Traditional Cancon laws likely have no place online. They are too rigid, and too difficult to enforce. But funding Canadian stories made by Canadians for Canadians still seems like a noble endeavour — and who better to pay than the tech giants who created this new world?

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

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