Given the sensitivities of our time, one might assume the recent comments of Catherine Tait, president of the state-sponsored Canadian Broadcasting Corp., would provoke calls for her resignation. It is not every day, after all, that one spouts analogies as historically callous as hers.
In an admitted “off-script” aside before a gathering of Canadian TV industry representatives, Tait chose to wax about the apparently obvious parallels between 19th-century European imperialism and the contemporary success of American television in Canada.
“I was thinking about the British Empire,” she said, “and how, if you were there and you were the viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. Or similar, if you were in French Africa, you would think, ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them.'”
Proceeding to evoke the grim specter of “what happens after imperialism and the damage that can do to local communities,” she implored her audience to be “mindful of how it is we as Canadians respond to global companies coming into our country.” The ubiquity of American entertainment in Canadian homes is just another form of colonialism, in other words.
The British and French did indeed colonize India and Africa, and many of these colonizers comforted their consciences with beliefs in the inherent nobility of the “white man’s burden.” This helped alleviate guilt when, say, at least 20,000 Africans died building France’s Congo-Océan Railroad, which was imagined as a benevolent project to improve a backward continent. Or when millions of Indians starved during the Victorian age in part because the British believed handouts built bad character.
But here’s the shocking twist that makes the comparison between European empires and American entertainment in Canada collapse: The Africans and Indians did not want to be colonized. There was no consent; Europeans conquered the global south because they alone decided it was morally permissible to do so.
America’s “cultural colonization” of Canada, by contrast, is entirely driven by Canadian demand. American television shows, movies, music, plays and video games are not being imposed upon Canadians by a paternalistic foreign power at the point of a bayonet — they’re being voluntarily, voraciously consumed by free citizens in a competitive marketplace. American entertainment has taken over Canada simply because it’s good, and Canadians like good things.
The guardians of Canada’s domestic entertainment industry cannot handle this reality, however, which is why Tait’s use of an appallingly ignorant slur like “imperialism” to describe Canadians’ love of Disney, Netflix and HBO has caused barely a ripple. As the Globe and Mail report on the Tait comments noted, basically all of Canada’s modern cultural-telecommunication regulatory regime “was built in part as a bulwark against American influence," and one presumably does not build bulwarks against the benign. Since bureaucrats like Tait cannot demagogue against the tastes of a public whose interests they imagine themselves to be serving, the phantom menace of an imperial America conspiring to conquer Canada must be created instead.
In that sense, it’s the self-proclaimed guardians of Canadian cultural sovereignty who bear the most psychological resemblance to the imperial do-gooders of yore. After all, it is they, not the Americans, who are forcing things like Canadian content broadcast quotas on an unwilling public on the pretext of “helping them.”
In a Toronto Star column defending Tait, Heather Mallick prattles off a list of supposedly quintessential American character flaws (“they laugh at foreigners’ funny ways, abhor hearing other languages on their own soil,” etc.) as part of a justification for erecting walls of cultural protectionism. Civilization, not savagery, in other words.
Yet there’s never been much hard evidence that when left to its own devices, the Can-con cultural industrial complex produces anything visibly un-American. “Kim’s Convenience” and “Schitt’s Creek,” the supposed crown jewels of the Canadian television industry at the moment, are both hackneyed sitcoms that are easy to imagine American minds producing. This is entirely predictable, given that Canadians and Americans share the same cultural tastes, and that Canada and the United States aren’t culturally distinct nation-states as much as two slight regional deviations of a single continental community.
The Heather Mallicks of the world may claim they can tell a Canadian product by all sorts of subtle patriotic clues (“I recognize the pavements, the architecture, even the cast of light”), but on a continent as vast and diverse as North America, it is impossible to make such generalizations. When a North American tells a story on screen, it can either be a narrowly particular portrait of a specific regional culture — think “Breaking Bad’s" New Mexico — or a blandly generic depiction of Anywhere, USA, which is indistinguishable from Anywhere, Canada. Are on-screen depictions of Winnipeg and Mississauga missing from American TV? Sure, but so are on-screen depictions of most American cities outside New York.
To manage their shared culture, the United States and Canada have peacefully established a remarkable piece of continental infrastructure. It’s called Hollywood, and it is the means through which countless Canadian actors, directors, script writers, film editors, special effects technicians, makeup artists, set designers and others fulfill creative dreams of providing their countrymen with high-quality, relatable content.
I’m sure the millions killed by European colonialism would have liked to have been so lucky.