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What's Canadian? Minister to modernize definition of a Canadian film and TV program

OTTAWA — Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is set to review what qualifies as a Canadian film or TV program as part of a move to modernize the country's broadcast laws.
Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez delivers opening remarks to the National Culture Summit at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is set to review what qualifies as a Canadian film or TV program as part of a move to modernize the country's broadcast laws. 

The definition of Canadian content is at the heart of a bill before Parliament that would make streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ feature a certain amount of Canadian programs and invest in "Canadian stories," as traditional broadcasters must do.

Once the bill passes through Parliament, the heritage minister plans to give a "policy direction" to the broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, indicating how to modernize the definition of Canadian content. 

Critics say the current rules need updating and some programs about Canadian issues — including Amazon's series on the Toronto Maple Leafs — have not ticked enough boxes to be counted as Canadian.

Disney’s “Turning Red,” which tells the story of growing up as a Chinese-Canadian teen in Toronto and stars Ottawa-born Sandra Oh, did not count as Canadian under the rules. Nor did the much-feted adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale," based on the novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. 

In an interview at the National Arts and Culture summit in Ottawa, Rodriguez said "we have to modernize" the definition of Canadian content and he is "open to all kinds of suggestions and ideas." 

Some experts warn that if the definition of Canadian content is not broadened, it could create a disincentive for studios to invest in Canadian talent if their work doesn’t officially qualify as Canadian.

Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa's Canada Research Chair in internet law, said "the current rules are woefully outdated, resulting in policies that do little to truly "advance Canadian stories.” 

Geist said the current system was "little more than a tick-box exercise" which meant that "works by Canadian authors may not count as certified Cancon, whereas productions with little connection to Canada such as 'Gotta Love Trump' somehow count as Canadian."

"Gotta Love Trump" is a film featuring supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump, including an ex-photographer for the president and a former contestant on "The Apprentice."

Marvel’s “Deadpool" starred Canadian A-lister Ryan Reynolds and was filmed in Vancouver. Canadian Paul Wernick co-wrote the screenplay based on a Canadian comic book character. Yet the film did not qualify as Canadian under the rules of the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office.

Those rules require a Canadian producer and a Canadian director or screenwriter. Points are awarded for the number of Canadians in leading roles or other key creative positions. Canadians must also feature prominently in production and post-production.

The heritage minister said he is speaking to arts and culture ministers in other countries "to look at what they do, and of course we have to adapt it to our country." 

"I will be meeting with the minister of culture of Germany Thursday and this is one of the things I will be discussing and I will do the same with other counterparts," Rodriguez said.

The United Kingdom has a broader definition of British film, including works focusing on a British theme such as the life of William Shakespeare.

The Canadian Media Producers Association says the rules must ensure that Canadians continue to own the intellectual property rights to their work.

It also wants streaming platforms to be obliged to give Canadian film and TV makers a greater slice of profits if their work is a success.

"Our Broadcasting Act must ensure that Canada’s independent producers have a fair opportunity to negotiate with content buyers, including streamers, to own, control and monetize the intellectual property that they develop and produce," said Reynolds Mastin, president and CEO. 

Rodriguez said at the summit he plans to equip the CRTC with more tools to regulate online streaming platforms and digital platforms such as Twitter. He said a "priority" is to "make sure we have a modern regulator." 

The minister is shepherding two bills through Parliament in which the CRTC will play a key role as a regulator. The online streaming bill, known as C-11 in Parliament, would modernize the broadcast laws to regulate streaming platforms including Amazon Prime.

The online news bill, C-18, would make tech giants such as Facebook and Google pay for reusing news produced by professional Canadian news organizations. 

"Some critics argue that the CRTC is not responsive to consumers and creators, that it lacks the expertise and resources to deal with the new legislation. Basically, they say that the CRTC doesn’t get the internet," Rodriguez told the summit. "I hear these concerns."

"Government and technology haven’t always worked together so well. But let’s not forget that the CRTC has a long history of supporting Canadian culture," he added.

He said in an interview he did not think there was a better body than the CRTC to do the job. 

"Do they have all the tools they need? Probably not," he said. "And that’s our job to provide them with the tools and resources they need."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2022.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press