"The U.S. invades Canada." Go ahead, laugh it up. Lots
of Americans did during Canadian Bacon, a recent film by
Michael Moore (of Roger and Me fame), which depicts a fictional
American invasion of Canada. In the wake of recent events in the
book industry, however, it appears not only that fiction might
be fact, but that the move might actually be spearheaded by fiction.
American fiction. Mega-book chains Borders and Barnes & Noble,
seeking new conquests after capturing 44 percent of the U.S. independent
bookstore market, are actively pursuing plans to extend operations
into the land of hockey and national health care. While the Canadian
government rejected Borders' initial bid in early February for
failing to meet strict requirements of Canadian "control
in fact," many feel the corporation is merely regrouping
before its next offensive. Canadians, predictably, are not amused.
The impending bookstore blitzkrieg, they say, would strike
on three fronts: publishing, retailing, and, ultimately, new Canadian
writing itself. Currently, Canadian publishers distribute American
books on an exclusive basis to Canadian bookstores. These profits,
in large part, help to support less lucrative publishing projects
by Canadian authors. Bookstore owners participate in the present
system out of a commitment to fostering their historic culture.
But an American chain such as Borders, acting in the interests
of market culture, would presumably continue its existing relationship
with American wholesalers, who effectively underprice any Canadian
publisher. This advantage would force Canadian bookstores to turn
in kind to American sources, upsetting the fragile agreement between
publishers and book stores, thereby threatening the revenue base
that allows the publication of new works by Canadian authors,
poets, and dramatists. In short, the entry of U.S. superchains
could weaken if not destroy the Canadian distribution system,
run many Canadian independent booksellers out of business, and
ultimately make it more difficult for Canadians to get their work
Advocates of the expansion argue that the move is simply a logical
outgrowth of the comprehensive free trade agreement signed in
1989 by Canada and the United States. When the great wall of Berlin
came down, they argue, so too did the walls of economic protectionism.
Out of the rubble has arisen a brave new world-the global market
economy-unencumbered by messy and misguided government intrusions
defending this and discouraging that. In such a context, the current
resurrection of trade barriers around Canadian cultural industries
is interpreted as nothing more than old-order economics thinly
veiled as patriotism.
The Achilles heel of this argument lies in its assumption that
all traded commodities are value-neutral: The particular content
of a product is not worth any more or less to the public good
than the content of any other commodity. If this is true, then
imported, unprocessed wood pulp should be given the same cultural
weight as a production of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
But the sad irony is that many individuals and groups benefiting
from government subsidies produce art that is the aesthetic equivalent
of wood pulp. The current flurry over the French government's
imposition of strict quotas for French music on radio is evidence
of this debate. Good art just doesn't grow out of the barrel of
a gun. The fruit of heavy-handed government policy can be cultural
kitsch just as easily as it can be the creation of a small breathing
space, amidst the jungle of the market, where new and original
voices can be encouraged.
THE GOAL, OF COURSE, is a happy medium, where government policy
acts effectively and responsibly, fencing and pruning where necessary,
rather than using legislation as a pesticide to remove all foreign
weeds. But relying on the "invisible gardener" of the
market to protect cultural concerns can only result in the grotesque
triumph of a global Euro-Disney. Spooky.
There are clear reasons for wanting to see the question of cultural
sovereignty as possessing a spiritual and ethical core. The story
of a nation is a journey of collective self-definition. In all
cultures, national identity is elusive and dynamic, fought out
in the arenas of political and artistic life. In the modern age,
film, television, and the magazine industry have assumed a leading
role with literature and the fine arts in this endeavor. This
truth cannot be more clearly glimpsed than in the case of the
United States itself. Where would America be without Citizen
Kane, or The New Yorker, or Saturday Night Live
Ironically, however, many Canadians now recognize these cultural
monuments more readily than their northern counterparts. Presently,
a scant 3 percent of films seen in Canada are Canadian made (even
Canadian Bacon was made in the United States), compared
to 35 percent in the case of literature. A nation whose artistic
life is controlled to such extent is eventually doomed to colony
status, forever reliant upon an imported identity. Its deepest
dreams, wishes, and desires remain unspoken.
Countries such as Canada that find themselves on the edge of empire
must invest government with the ability to amplify the voices
of its own citizens. The recent Borders decision shows that this
is still possible, global market or no. But the war is far from
over. With sales last year of $1.6 billion, the book empire of
Borders is more than two-and-a-half times the size of the entire
Canadian retail trade book industry. Against such juggernauts
it's understandable that the Canadian Booksellers insist that
any expansion by these giants be curtailed by a mandatory level
of Canadian ownership sufficient to ensure that Canadian cultural
interests are protected.
An unstated factor in the current crisis of Canadian federalism,
I believe, can be found in the difference between French-Canada's
willingness to go to the mat over cultural issues versus the relative
nonchalance of English-Canadians. Québec's mission has
always been to survive as a French lifeboat in a sea of English-speakers.
If there is to be a future for a united Canada, it will be essential
for English-Canada to enunciate a similar commitment to preserving
its own "distinct society."
Despite all sane economic sense to the contrary, such a society
clings on. Indeed, as Margaret Atwood has written, survival has
been the central theme of Canadian fiction. One hopes that Canadian
literature can withstand this latest test of its endurance.
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