Radio / Television

COMMENTARY (part two): What doesn’t make content “Canadian”

This is the second in a three-part series. For part one, please click here.

By Neal McDougall

IN THE FIRST PART of this series, I described the foundationally important role of screenwriters in the creation of serialized television, and how Canadian screenwriters must be central to the definition of Canadian content.

Yet when it comes to the debates about broadcasting policy in Canada, and how to define Canadian content under it, there have been a number of arguments that would have us look elsewhere. These arguments typically misunderstand how such content is made, can be self-contradictory, and ignore the unique qualities of the English-Canadian market.

Canadian subject matter

One common argument about what defines Canadian content is that it should focus on telling “Canadian stories.” This seems to make sense at first glance, but unpack it a bit and some problems arise.

Firstly, what is a Canadian story? Is it simply a story told by a Canadian? If so, then we’re back to my earlier point from Part 1: art is made by artists, and Canadian art is made by Canadian artists.

Or, is a Canadian story about Canada and/or Canadians? Does “Canadian story” mean Canadian subject matter that is identifiably Canadian on screen? If so, then what does that mean?

Defining certain subject matter as “Canadian” would seem to be a no-brainer. A documentary about the history of Canada would clearly be Canadian subject matter. A dramatic biography of Terry Fox would be Canadian subject matter. A political satire of the PMO set in Ottawa would be Canadian subject matter.

But move beyond those kinds of clear examples, and things become fuzzier. What about a police procedural set in contemporary Toronto, but with few references to the location, the story instead focusing on the characters and their struggles? What then? The creators of the successful Canadian show Flashpoint, Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, made just such a show. What set it apart as Canadian? For one thing, the treatment of firearms. In a genre rife with gunplay, often to the point of fetishism, the police officers in Flashpoint made every effort not to draw their weapons. This was a conscious choice by the writers that regularly expressed itself in the show’s storylines, and an example of a Canadian perspective that works at a deeper level.

The distinction may be subtle, yet these subtleties lay at the heart of the issue. The Canada Media Fund used to have, as one of their core eligibility criteria, a requirement that, “The project speaks to Canadians about, and reflects, Canadian themes and subject matter.” This was part of four “essential requirements” for funding, and it was listed as #1. As time went by, however, debates emerged as to what “Canadian themes and subject matter” truly were. Too often, they risked devolving into simplistic tropes or tokenism in practice, with some arguing that putting maple leaves and hockey sticks in the backgrounds of shots was enough, whether it made sense in the context of the story being told or not. By 2010, the CMF had changed Essential Requirement #1 to, “The project speaks to Canadians and is primarily intended for a Canadian audience.” Finally, in 2014, they dropped the requirement entirely.

This debate about Canadian subject matter can be had, yet we cannot pretend that it is a new one. We have been down this road, and it is long and winding. What do you do, for example, about science fiction and fantasy? Stories set in fictional worlds can’t be visibly Canadian or non-Canadian because they inhabit an imaginary universe in which nations don’t exist. If all Canadian content must be set in Canada, involve identifiably Canadian characters, and/or tell visibly “Canadian stories,” does that mean that Canadian fantasy or science fiction, as an entire genre, is an impossibility?

Surely, we can do better than that. Surely, it is not appropriate to circumscribe what stories Canadian creators can tell, but rather we should let them do what they have always done, which is to help define what Canadian stories themselves are.


Another argument for what is a “Canadian story” is that it is based on underlying source material created by Canadians, be it factual or fiction. Recently, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been discussed at great length in this context.

Margaret Atwood is a national treasure, and people can make the argument that source material matters. But in film and television, source material is always adapted into script by a screenwriter, and when judging that film or television show, that adaptation matters more. No producer or director hands out copies of a novel to key cast and crew on the set to shoot from. Adaptation is as much a creative act as “original” writing, since audiovisual content differs fundamentally from other media. What works creatively in a novel, for example, may not work on the screen. Emotions that were evoked in prose must now be rendered visually or with dialogue; an “interior monologue” on paper must be externalized in action and performance; or, a book that takes 20 hours to read must be condensed to 10 1-hour episodes.

That is why they give Oscars and Emmys for adaptations. That’s why 2020 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit, and not to Christine Leunens for the novel it was based on. That was why the HBO television series Game of Thrones was able to continue to its conclusion – unsatisfactorily, some might add – despite George R. R. Martin not having finished the books it was based on. If all that mattered was the source material, then Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of Stephen King’s The Shining would be virtually the same as the 1997 ABC miniseries of the same novel starring Rebecca De Mornay and Steven Weber, instead of the former being a film classic and the latter being so forgettable that you probably didn’t even know or remember it even existed until just now.

In the discussion around Bill C-11, these concepts of Canadian subject matter and adaptations from Canadian source material have intermingled, sometimes in patently ridiculous ways. For example, Professor Michael Geist has long suggested that the definition of Canadian content needs be addressed before – or instead of – passing legislation like Bill C-11. Here is one example. There, as elsewhere, Professor Geist argues that “Canadian stories” should be the benchmark for the definition, and not the creators who make the (television) content, and suggests that the U.S. version of The Handmaids Tale should be certified Canadian content because it’s based on a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

As I’ve just argued, that doesn’t make sense, but even if you take it at face value, you suddenly run into contradictions with Geist’s other arguments. On May 24, for example, before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Michael Geist insisted that “local [Canadian] production” was already being made by Netflix, and that we need to “ensure that the regulations…reflect those Canadian stories”. And what example did Geist then use of such a “Canadian story”? A film on Netflix called In the Tall Grass. It is based on a story by Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill. It is set in the United States. It is based on American source material and has no visible connection to Canada whatsoever.

Michael Geist claims that The Handmaid’s Tale TV show is Canadian because of Margaret Atwood. Except it’s set in the fictional Gilead, and not Canada. But also, In the Tall Grass is Canadian, because never mind Stephen King and the American setting. In addition to being inconsistent, all of these claims ignore the basic element of the work of Canadian creators of the audiovisual work in question. And it is the audiovisual work that the Canadian broadcasting system is designed to support and promote.

The simple fact is that novelists are the creators of their novels, but not of the adaptations from them (unless they also write those adaptations). Different media are different, as are the artists who work in them. The incoherence of claims like those of Professor Geist reveal themselves when this basic fact is recognized.

International comparisons

Some commentators have pointed to the national content certification systems of other countries as guides for what Canada should do. Commonly cited, for example, is the points system used in the United Kingdom, which is an 18-out-of-35-point system that includes “cultural content,” such as the settings and nationality of the characters. The systems of The Netherlands and France are also sometimes mentioned. Should these be used as a model for Canada?

Firstly, you really cannot compare English-Canadian production with that in countries of almost any other spoken language. Language is a barrier, for good or for ill. If you’re The Netherlands, and your national audience speaks Dutch, and you want to support content for them, it will be in Dutch. It will be written in Dutch, acted in Dutch, and everybody on the crew, from the director on down, will have to communicate to the actors and to each other, and that most likely will be in Dutch. Those fluent in Dutch will tend to be citizens or permanent residents of The Netherlands, and they will also tend to be creating “Dutch stories.” You don’t really need the “protection” of a different system of defining Dutch content if your language is doing a lot of that work for you.

As for the U.K., there is not space here to do an exhaustive comparison between the British and Canadian certification systems for audiovisual content. It is worth noting, however, that funding and regulatory support for national content exists in an environment of scarcity. These supports exist because of a market failure – the market alone is not providing the goods, services, or investment to produce the goods or services desired.

Government support is needed to rectify this market failure, and this support, such as government funding or mandated investment, is finite. The more limited this funding or investment is, the more crucial it be targeted to those most in need. Compared to Canada, however, the U.K. is awash in support for U.K. content. The BBC receives nearly $6 billion CAD through its licence fee, with billions more flowing from a combination of regulation, tax credits and funds, and other initiatives, all to produce content primarily in English only. The Canadian support system is a fraction of that, and must be split between two official languages, among other things. Given the size of this market, combined with the longstanding influence of British culture and institutions, the U.K. can afford to be “flexible” in ways that Canada simply cannot.

Canadian art is made by Canadian artists

Given all this, it remains most sensible for Canadian content to be defined predominantly, if not exclusively, in relation to the Canadian creators who make it. Quite possibly, no definition will ever satisfy everybody. We’re talking about defining culture, after all, which is a notoriously slippery concept. But a cultural policy that supports creators – and in serialized television, that means screenwriters above all – makes the most sense.

Neal McDougall is the acting co-executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada.