Canadian content - Part 3

America's hegemony in the film industry is global. Because of our country's proximity to the USA, and because they both share a common language, most of Canada is considered part of the American domestic market. When it comes to movies, the country faces an even more formidable rival than it does with music and television production.

Theaters aren't regulated for Canadian content. Still, there is a concern for providing adequate opportunities for Canadians to appreciate the country's film production. Established in 1939, the National Film Board of Canada may be cited as the first effort at addressing this concern. Other federal measures to foster the development of a feature film industry in Canada have been put forward as early as 1954.

In an effort to stimulate domestic production, Telefilm Canada was established in 1968. In Québec, the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) pursues the same goal; it was established in 1994.

2001 marks an important shift in support for Canadian film making. The Department of Canadian Heritage gives Telefilm Canada specific funds to help develop the Canadian film industry with the goal of having Canadian feature films obtain 5% of the domestic box office by 2005.

The epitome of Telefilm's goal is achieved in 2006, when "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" grosses more than $12M, a Canadian record for a domestic film about unmistakably Canadian innuendos. The former record holder was "Porky's", written, directed and filmed by an American in Miami. The movie had earned $11.2M in 1981. Many question the new record holder's feat; "Porky's" domestic gross in 2006 dollars is almost twice what "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" generated. Others question the legitimacy of the former record holder; the only thing Canadian about it, is its funding.

Since 2001, the domestic box office has been doing rather well in Québec. In its 2007-2008 annual report, Telefilm Canada outlines that French-language feature films saw their share of independent film market increase from 52.7% to 57.5%, while their share of the global market went from 17.1% to 16.2%. Canadian English-language films saw their share of independent cinema increase from 11.7% to 13.1% while their share of the global market went from 1.7% to 0.9%.

The performance of "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" at the box-office illustrates the contrast between English and French watching habits rather well. Of its $12.6M Canadian box-office performance, $1.3M was generated outside Québec.


Canadian content - Part 2

In a similar fashion to music on the radio, the CRTC regulates television programming. When it comes to private television, Canadian stations must achieve a yearly Canadian content level of 60% overall during the day (from 6AM to midnight) and 50%, measured during the evening broadcast period (from 6PM to midnight). CBC must ensure that at least 60% of its overall schedule, measured during the day (from 6AM to midnight) is Canadian.

Unfortunately, much of these requirements are being fulfilled by low-cost news, current affairs and talk programs in off-peak hours during which it is unlikely to attract a large audience, freeing up other time-slots for American network programming.

Based on bbm measurements, for the week ending May 17, 2009, only four of the 30 most watched shows in Canada were Canadian. These shows included two NHL playoffs games (ranking at #14 and #27), the CTV Evening News (#20) and the CTV National News (#23).

In contrast, 23 of the top 30 watched shows on Québec's French television were local productions. "America's Got Talent" was the first of the seven imported American productions dubbed for French television; it ranked at #4. It was followed by "Desperate Housewives" (#10), "The Biggest Loser" (#19), "So You Think You Can Dance" (#20), "Monk" (#21), "Criminal Minds" (#25) and "Dr. House" (#26).

Based on the number of viewers, the top three French shows fall within the top 30 most watched Canadian shows. If national ratings included French programming, Canadian shows in the top 30 would have increased from four to seven. This startling contrast between English and French watching habits has been consistent over the years.

On March 20, 1995, 4,098,000 people watched "La petite vie". That's more than half Québec's population and the Canadian record for the most viewers of a homegrown production. The program was unsuccessfully adapted by Télévision Suisse Romande, but other original shows have experienced success abroad. "Surprise sur prise" has had an important success in France where it ran from 1989 until 1998. More recently, "Les Bougon - c'est aussi ça la vie" has been adapted for French television as well. Its success or its failure remains to be seen.

Of all the original shows exported to other countries, the most successful has been and remains "Un gars, une fille". Created in 1997, the show has been exported to more than thirty markets around the world. In English Canada, CBC, CTV and Global Television refused the concept for being too audacious, according to the producer. The show ended up on Women's Television Network (WTN, now known as the W Network) and lasted two seasons.


Canadian content

In 1971, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) implements the Canadian Content Regulations. When it comes to music, 35% of the musical selections aired between 6AM and 6PM, Monday through Friday, must be Canadian. The intent is to provide adequate opportunities for Canadians to appreciate the country's cultural production. Without such regulations, the country would be submitted to the market reality of a neighbor almost ten times its size.

Caught in an English-speaking ocean of 332 million people, Québec's cultural production faces an even more challenging situation. Its population seems dismal in terms of market potential for local production. Still, Québec marches to a different beat.

The Québécois are a creative bunch and they love their artists. Bridging European influences with North American knowhow, the province's music scene is vibrant and permeates the country's music sales. Based on Nielsen SoundScan, for the week ending May 7, 2009, five of the top ten selling albums in Canada were by Québécois artists.
  1. Mille excuses Milady, Jean Leloup (Québécois)
  2. Fais-moi de la tendresse, Ginette Reno (Québécoise)
  3. Ailleurs - volume 1, Éric Lapointe (Québécois)
  4. Together Through Life, Bob Dylan (American)
  5. Hannah Montana Movie Soundtrack (American)
  6. Wooden Arms, Patrick Watson (Québécois)
  7. Annie Villeneuve, Annie Villeneuve (Québécoise)
  8. Quiet Nights, Diana Krall (Canadian)
  9. Only by the Night, Kings of Leon (American)
  10. Passione, Paul Potts (British)
These figures are obviously not typical, but it's not uncommon to find Québécois artists selling as many albums in a market of 7.7 million people as Canadian artists do in a market of 33.6 million people.

One might dismiss it as some sort of language-based chauvinistic reaction. It probably is to a certain extent, but Patrick Watson doesn't sing in French. Yet, his album found its way to numerous Québécois households that week. It was at number two in Montréal and at number three in Québec City. At the same time, it was in the top twenty in only three other major cities, Vancouver (#17), Toronto (#13) and Ottawa (#19).

The way I see it, the popularity of Québec music is a demonstration of the privileged relationship the province's population maintains with its artistic scene. Some artists produce mainstream music. Others have their own very distinctive sound, Beast, Daniel Bélanger, Daniel Boucher, Champion, Coeur de pirate, Richard Desjardins, Mes Aïeux and Pierre Lapointe to name a few.

Radio stations in search of homegrown variety to fill their Canadian content quotas have a lot to choose from.


National media suffice

Canada is a tolerant country. From its own perspective, it has allowed the sovereignty movement to prosper to a disturbing proportion. Whether one likes it or not, the sovereignty movement is a very important component of the Canadian political landscape. For the majority of Canadians however, the sovereignty movement is a parade they can only witness and must rely on a third party to understand.

English and French media have different characteristics, heritage and culture. English media have larger audiences, have more revenue potential, are more independent in producing their own in-depth stories and have more North American news wires to choose from for "broadcast ready" stories. Editorials are often the result of a consensus between several individuals and are often unsigned. The political spectrum in English media mainly goes from left to right.

French media have smaller audiences, have less revenue potential, have less means to produce their own in-depth stories and must rely on European news wires for "broadcast ready" stories. Each publication has its own editorial board and its own editorial line, but each editorial is the opinion of its author. The political spectrum in French media mainly goes from sovereignty to federalism.

In French media, journalists are roughly split half and half over separatism and federalism. They all work on a daily basis with colleagues who pledge to the other conviction. Their incentive to make more balanced and documented reports on any of the two options is significantly higher than their peers' of English media. In terms of variety of opinion over Québec's sovereignty, mainstream national media simply don't cut it and most of their rationale is shallow.

Positions on the sovereignty movement such as Diane Francis' of the National Post have no equivalent against federalism. In his 1997 book, "The Antagonist: Lucien Bouchard and the Politics of Delusion", Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail calls Lucien Bouchard "Lucifer of our land". Sovereigntists have never demonized federalism in a similar fashion.

In national media, the debate over Québec's sovereignty is too often reduced to a caricature where good faces evil. George W. Bush used this simple approach to promote his operation in Iraq. It sells news, but it's detrimental to a unifying dialog. Montréal's daily English newspaper acknowledges this and lends its pages to Josée Legault, well known for her sovereigntist convictions.

Simply put, both Québec's sovereigntists and federalists have a more articulate opinion on their respective option than Canadians of other provinces. Jean Charest sums it up rather well [Google translation] in his reaction to Stephen Harper's address against the Liberal-NPD-Bloc coalition on December 3, 2008: "I live in a society in which people can be federalists or sovereigntists and respect each other. The same thing should prevail in the federal parliament. One can't condemn anyone for defending one option or the other."


The Québécois don't really speak French

While studying at Bishop's University, I was bemused by fellow students from outside the province who believed French Canadians didn't really speak French. I didn't think much of it at the time, but I later found out that this belief was shared by a somewhat representative minority of Canadians.

There's obviously no denying the fact that French in the Americas is spoken differently than in Europe. So are English, Spanish and Portuguese. Are today's American variations faithful to how each language was spoken 500 years ago? Most probably not, nor are their European counterparts. The centuries have left their mark. Still, to imply that these American variations have no bearing on their European counterparts is rather simplistic.

I've had several encounters with Francophones of different origins here and abroad over time. Of course, there was the occasional sterile encounter, but most of them were agreeable; some were downright amusing. While traveling in deep Brittany, France, I met with a few locals who had never experienced the Québécois accent. We didn't have any real problems understanding each other, but they just couldn't get over how weird my accent sounded to them. They really didn't know what to make of it and were laughing their heads off. We ended up exchanging quite a bit.

Going back to my university years... some fellow students were complaining that they couldn't learn French because of the way it was spoken in Québec. Well... learning a second language isn't easy and shedding the burden of a failure is a lot easier than facing your own limitations. While on vacation in New-York City with my family, we stumbled on a young Mexican couple who noticed our accent. They instantly identified it and engaged in a conversation. Having taken French lessons in school, they had spent a whole summer in Lac Saint-Jean to perfect it. Hearing Québécois regional expressions spoken with a light Spanish accent in a New-York train was truly an eye-opening experience.

I've witnessed a few situations where Québécois were being intimidated for not pronouncing words the "right" way. I've also witnessed some Québécois making fun of French tourists who were having a hard time pronouncing some English words that our North American reality has rendered so familiar. One could take such incidents personally and build resentment... I don't. Anecdotes like these simply give me an indication of the ignorance of the parties involved. The way someone speaks simply tells you a little bit about her/his background, origins and education. It says nothing about her/his opinions and values.

There's no doubt that Canadian French sounds quaint to the European ear and that it may occasionally require a little getting used to. Similarly, a Texan and an Irishman may have to work a bit to communicate. But above all, overcoming these slight differences is nothing that cannot be tackled by educated individuals with an open mind and a taste for sharing differences.