This year’s Walter Gordon Symposium is co-hosted by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance, and explores the oft-overlooked subject of public policy in the arts. In the week leading up to the March 26-27 event, the PPGR will be featuring writing on the subject of the arts, cultural policy, and the ‘soft’ power of civilizations.
When I moved from Montreal to Toronto four years ago, I was startled by the contrast of assumptions in each city regarding what Canada stood for, its history, and what issues were most important.
My personal experience finds an echo in the “Je me souviens” project, a recent study showing the enduring gap of historical consciousness between Anglophone and Francophone youth, in spite of increasing bilingualism in Quebec. This gap is built into us, as the study shows, long before formal history courses, which provide more facts while doing little to change our broader perspective on Canada. How we think about our country derives not from our actual knowledge of its history, but rather from the general public sphere in which we are immersed.
At the source of Canada’s modern media culture, the 1951 Massey Report offers a lens into an important paradox. On one hand, the Report recommends that the Canadian government invest in communication, culture, and the arts to solidify national unity. On the other hand, it supports Canada’s biculturalism and duality. The Report essentaily ndemands that the Canadian public sphere be divided, but also unified.
Fast forward to the current context: the Toronto-based CBC and Montreal-based Radio-Canada coexist, but don’t cooperate very well. The CBC has never been able to include bilingual programming in its schedule, given anti-French pressure from its audience, and it broadcasts few original features from Quebec. Meanwhile, Radio-Canada underfunds original production from other provinces and territories.
Private media has also followed in the footsteps of the Crown Corporation since the Massey Report, with similar results: up to this day, Quebeckers are rarely exposed to original content from other regions of the country, and vice versa.
This isolation is illustrated in the media analysis firm Influence Communication’s annual report. According to the 2013 report, Quebeckers are exposed to half the federal politics news coverage, eight times less news from other provinces, and 18 times less international news than other Canadians. In exchange, they are exposed to two times more local news and three times more crime news than other Canadians. Food and restaurants are more covered in Quebec than the House of Commons, while traffic and home decoration gather more attention than the rest of the world, or even the rest of Canada.
From a Quebecois perspective, the subliminal message is that Francophone culture is a Quebec, not a Canadian thing. Many Quebeckers have no idea that Francophone communities are alive and well across the country, to the understandable exasperation of other French-Canadians (often welcomed in Montreal as the last of the Mohicans).
Mass media, as Benedict Anderson explained in the now canonical Imagined Communities, are instrumental to the fashioning of modern nationalism. Being exposed to the same images and texts as millions other people creates a sense of collective identity and shared future. Reversely, a media wall like the one built around Quebec does more to isolate a population than the more conscious strategies towards secession. Erasing other regions of the planet from the daily political consciousness is the best way to ensure a population’s solidarity will not extent beyond its borders.
The positive retroaction between separate media and separate identity has created a self-validating logic hard to reverse. Despite their attempts to foster national unity, the CBC and Radio-Canada were quite possibly instrumental in thickening the wall between the two solitudes. Perhaps the corporation’s functioning illustrates the endurance of the biculturalism/duality framework in Canada’s official discourses.
We need to reflect back to the Massey Report for the unity it sought as much as for the division it made possible, and reflect on what we can do now to draw Canada back together rather than further apart.
Emilie Nicolas is a Junior Fellow at Massey College.