Culture an essential part of a new NAFTA

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A country and its culture is distinguished from another by the stories it tells – about itself and about its place in the world.

Those are stories told through books and magazines, television and film, through broadcast and printed journalism, through music and live theatre, and more.

In Canada, we are lucky to have rich source of storytellers across this country, telling incredible stories. We can be proud of this, but pride is simply not enough when you live next door to the largest producer of cultural goods in the world.

Canadians consume American culture every day. For the most part, that is a good thing. We get some incredible movies, TV shows and more from south of the border. We are better off as a nation by having such easy access to American media.

The problem is when we get too much, and when it overwhelms our ability to tell our own stories. With their much-larger production and marketing budgets, American cultural industries have a great advantage over Canadian media companies.

With their massive home market of some 350 million viewers, American media companies are able to dump their products in our market at prices well below production costs here - and without investing in infrastructure here, including journalism. 

It is for this reason that federal and provincial governments have for years helped to sponsor Canadian cultural content through funding, minimum content requirements and regulatory measures. The market alone cannot ensure an even playing field.

Because of the vital role they play in defining our national character, cultural industries were exempted from the original North America Free Trade Agreement. With that deal now being renegotiated, it is imperative that the exemption stay in place.

Certainly, the world has changed since the original NAFTA came into effect in 1994. Back then, there was no Netflix and no Internet as we know it today. In 1994, the idea that you could stream TV, movies or the nightly news through your computer sounded like science fiction. Today, it seems like everybody is doing it.

To me, all that makes the need for a cultural exemption even greater, because the threats to our cultural industries have never been greater.

No one knows for sure what the future holds in terms of new technologies and new ways to consume media. The only way we can hope to react in an effective way is to maintain a clear and wide-ranging cultural exemption in NAFTA like we’ve had for the last quarter-century – one that allows us to support and promote our cultural industries, free of US interference and influence.

Despite the uncertainly of what new technologies might be coming, there are strong measures Canada can take now, and which I am pushing for as I return to Washington for the ongoing NAFTA talks this week.

First and foremost, no NAFTA deal can get in the way of supporting local news, sports and entertainment. We need to be able to tell our stories from communities across Canada, large and small, and that means standing up for local news.

Nationally, we need to support the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC and Radio Canada play a vital role in keeping Canadian informed about other parts of the country, and giving a Canadian perspective on news from around the world.

More than that, as a national broadcaster committed to reaching every corner of Canada, the CBC plays a vital role in stitching together our ever-evolving sense of what it is to be part of this country. 

Because our private broadcasters also play an important role in telling Canadian stories, NAFTA must not contain anything that would leave them exposed to being purchased by American media conglomerates.  

We need to have a level playing field between Canadian broadcasters and media streaming broadcasters such as Amazon, Netflix and Disney. Canada is still debating how to best achieve this, but we cannot allow any trade deal – NAFTA included – restrict what governments can do to protect Canadian interests.

Similarly, the alarming growth of offshore pirate broadcasters, who peddle in media they have not paid for, demands action to ensure the creators of that content are properly supported. NAFTA cannot impede this.

Culture doesn’t always grab the headlines at trade talks the way auto or agriculture does, but it’s a big industry employing thousands of Canadians – including thousands of Unifor members at newspapers, broadcasters, and on TV and movie sets.

We cannot afford to simply assume that culture will continue to be exempted in an renewed NAFTA. After all, U.S. chief negotiator Robert Lighthizer has been quoted as saying that “the cultural exemption is very often just cultural protectionism.”

The Canadian negotiating team remains committed to defending Canada’s right to promote our identity though a homegrown culture industry. This is good to see.

As these trade talks reach their conclusion, as they seem to be, we must all support that stand.