IN QUEBEC, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S cultural policy announcement has landed with a decisive thud. The province’s governing Liberals were as scathing in their denunciation of the “Creative Canada” policy as the sovereigntist Parti Québécois and the left-wing party Québec Solidaire. Highbrow left-wing daily Le Devoir accused the federal government of nothing less than “excusing injustice,” while right-wing sovereigntist columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté, writing in the Journal de Montréal, accused Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly of “dereliction of duty.”
The opinion pages of the centre-right tabloids Le Journal de Montréal and Le Journal de Québec, usually skeptical of all things Trudeau, lit up, with one columnist calling the minister “Mélangée Joly” ( all-mixed-up Joly). Columnist Richard Martineau, who depending on one’s point of view is either the voice of the voiceless suburban masses or the casually sexist, filter-impaired uncle you’d rather not have at Thanksgiving dinner, said Joly sounded “like a living answering machine having a nervous breakdown.” The habitually sober centre-left Montreal daily La Presse joined in the outrage, attacking the substance of the agreement rather than its unsettling style: Columnist Nathalie Petrowski called it “the beginning of the end of our cultural sovereignty.”
Joly announced the policy last Thursday, and at first, it seemed like good news for Quebec, although there were few specifics. She said the the federal government planned to invest more in the $349 million Canada Media Fund, to compensate for the decreasing revenues of cable operators, who contribute to the fund, and $125 million in the promotion of Canadian productions abroad. She also promised, without going into detail, that the government would revise the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications act to “ensure that we have French-language, Québécois digital platforms.”
Controversially, Joly also announced an agreement with Netflix whereby the movie streaming giant would invest $500 million in the production of Canadian content over five years, and $25 million over the same period for “market development” for French-language content. In exchange, Canadians would be exempt from federal sales tax on Netflix products.
That was the aspect of the policy that sent cultural and media figures in Quebec into a flutter. While Quebec voters are eternally divided on the question of political sovereignty, people across the political spectrum emphasize the importance of cultural sovereignty. North America’s seven million francophones, they say, are struggling to have their stories told in a cultural market dominated by 300 million anglophones. Viewership of homegrown cable and over-the-air programming is falling as people choose on-demand services like Netflix, and that scares many Quebecers. “With Netflix,” La Presse’s Petrowski observed, “we’ll no longer be the masters of our own stories.”
The Quebec Media Production Association denounced that “the one-time engagement made by Netflix to produce [shows] in Canada is a fair exchange to get out of paying taxes…for a company that makes more than $750 million per year from Canadian subscribers,” adding, “we would have hoped for more solutions to the chronic underfunding of French-language productions.” Despite being repeatedly pressed by journalists, Joly, a francophone self-described “proud Québécoise” and one-time Montreal mayoral candidate appointed by a francophone prime minister, did not announce a French-language content requirement for Netflix.
“We are alarmed as francophones because there is no guarantee that a part of this [investment] is going to francophone content,” says Gabriel Pelletier, head of the province’s producers’ union, the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec. “Cultural questions are definitely more sensitive and obvious in Quebec, but my colleagues in the rest of Canada have similar priorities. We need to be able to see ourselves and our own stories in cultural content. Our own distributors play by very strict rules, but here we are giving Netflix a red carpet and an open market.”
“It could lead to the disintegration of our entire regulatory system, because Rogers and Bell might say ‘Why do we have to pay when Netflix doesn’t have to?” Pelletier worries.
Quebec’s culture minister, Luc Fortin, laid into Joly’s policy announcement in a press conference. “How can we abdicate when we know very well how precarious our identity is in the digital world?” He added that the agreement “legitimizes a fiscal inequity which grants preferential treatment to a foreign company over Canadian companies.” Fortin also announced that the province plans to apply its own sales tax to Netflix.
Joly defended the policy in a painful interview with centre-right radio host Paul Arcand on Montreal’s 98.5 FM Friday morning, playing to his fiscal conservative base by emphasizing that her decision not to tax Netflix was rooted in a campaign promise not to raise taxes. “[ICI Radio-Canada streaming film service] Tou.tv is taxed. [Vidéotron streaming service] Illico is taxed…we’re not talking about adding a new tax; we’re talking about taxing a product that already exists,” objected Arcand. “Are you ready to remove the taxes for those two comparable [Canadian] companies?” Arcand also pressed Joly on the percentage of the new investment that would be devoted to French-language content, without receiving an answer, as Joly moved on to pouring generic praise on Quebec producers who had succeeded abroad.
“You have a nice tape, but I’m asking a simple question,” Arcand said. “You didn’t negotiate a minimum of investment in French-language production?” Joly, for her part, seemed convinced that Netflix would invest in francophone content of its own free will, an assertion that as Chantal Hebert pointed out in the Toronto Star, is not at all backed up by Netflix’s current “French-Canadian” offerings.
The minister also had a tough time on Radio-Canada, appearing on the closely followed talk show Tout le monde en parle (“Everyone’s talking about it”) on Sunday night. While host Guy A. Lepage and his panel weren’t as outwardly confrontational as Arcand (they rarely are, preferring to keep guests as relaxed and candid as possible), they methodically poked holes in the minister’s argument. The studio audience, which had applauded Joly warmly, looked increasingly bewildered as the grilling went on, and the minister only stayed on script. “We know that you’re devoted to [Canadian TV programming], we believe you on that. But the elephant in the room is Netflix,” Lepage said.
Joly didn’t help herself, repeating the $500 million figure many times and bizarrely asserting at one point that Videotron, the province’s largest TV distributor with over 1.6 million cable subscribers, was not a cable company. Former Quebecor CEO and former PQ leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau chimed in on Twitter: “It looks like [Joly] unfortunately doesn’t understand. Vidéotron, which is among other things a cable company, does invest in culture,” he tweeted. Ouch.
Mélanie Joly can’t escape the fact that she is a tall, blond, photogenic 38-year-old woman wading into a media landscape dominated, particularly on the right, by cantankerous middle-aged men. Male columnists in the Quebecor papers repeatedly refer to her as “the majorette.” Would the backlash have been quite so virulent if Joly was an unremarkable-looking, 60-something male technocrat? Quite possibly not. But Joly herself matches the perception of her government in many Quebecers’ eyes: More style than substance, more selfie than self-assertion.
Guests on Tout le monde en parle traditionally receive a card — a one-liner summarizing their appearance— at the end of their segment. Joly’s card read “It’s amazing that with all the digital media available, our politicians have stayed faithful to the cassette.” Reading the card aloud on air, Joly replaced the word “cassette” with the word “innovation.”
Dany Turcotte, TLMEP’s coproducer and designated “court jester”, failed to see the joke in Joly’s editing job. “When someone changes the meaning of my cards, ça me met en t****,” using an expression that roughly translates to “that makes me f***ing angry.”
He’s not the only one.
Journal de Montreal editorial cartoon from Saturday, September 30, 2017 is reprinted with permission.
All Quebec media comments referenced in this story were originally made in French.