Stursberg describes the winning formula as a garden of Canadian culture, walled off by Canadian media ownership rules and supplemented by laws that only allow American content into the garden if it’s purchased wholesale by Canadian radio, television and satellite outlets, then retailed to eager Canadian audiences. To this day, the profits from this retailing of American culture go straight into financing Canadian news, sports and entertainment.
Stursberg maps out the undisputed success of the walled garden through the eras of radio, over-the-air television, cable and satellite distribution. The Canadian ownership and retailing model adapted with ease to each succeeding technological revolution. The main delivery platforms — privately owned newspapers, radio and television — delivered the goods largely without public subsidy.
What watered the garden, says Stursberg, was bipartisan support from Conservative and Liberal prime ministers from R.B. Bennett in the 1930s until Stephen Harper scorned it.
Stursberg recounts how Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker and Trudeau Senior repaired and renovated the garden wall each time a new technology emerged. Brian Mulroney’s culture ministers Marcel Masse and Flora Macdonald maintained the walled garden and even tried to annex the book, music and theatre industries into it. Their efforts stalled in the face of hostility from powerful cabinet ministers and sensitive negotiations with the Americans over the first Free Trade Agreement.
Jean Chrétien gets an honourable mention for applying Canadian ownership and distribution rules to satellite technology the moment the first so-called “death star” appeared. Stursberg favourably compares Chrétien’s speedy dispatch to Trudeau Junior’s inaction in the face of disruption by internet media.
Still, it was on Chrétien’s watch that the internet got into the garden. At first, the flow of American culture into Canada through the internet was no more than a pinhole leak. In the late ‘90s, very few media and technology insiders saw, or wanted to see, what was coming. The CRTC dismissed any threat to the walled garden, granting a “digital media exemption order (DMEO)” to all media traffic over the internet in 1999. Meanwhile, newspaper publishers began giving away their high-priced journalism for free on websites in the naïve hope that they would maintain digital market share of audiences and advertising revenues. They got the first, but not the second.
Harper was elected in 2006 and Stursberg marks the next nine years as a crucial era of “malign neglect” of the walled garden. The lucrative specialty television market — its profits underwriting local news operations — was undercut by Harper’s “pick and pay.” The DMEO was extended yet again, allowing Netflix to run riot in the Canadian garden. Harper even appeared before cameras touting Netflix, granting them unregulated freedom in the garden and vowing there would never be “a Netflix tax.” In Opposition, both the Trudeau Liberals and the Mulcair NDP, bereft of any cultural rudder, fell in line.
You get the feeling that Stursberg takes for granted the Harper Conservatives’ hostility to cultural nationalism but is disgusted by the passivity of the Trudeau Liberals.