Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television

Richard Collins

Much of the effort, intellectual, legislative, bureaucratic, surrounding Canadian television has been concerned with the issue of Canadian content. In Culture, Communication and National Identity, Mr. Collins, a lecturer in British and Australian universities, presents a piece of "foreign" content which provides great food for thought for all those exercised about the issue of Canadian content and a clearer perception of the role and potential of the television medium in a state as large and complex as Canada.

After an opening sketch of the development of broadcasting in Canada, the author embarks upon an in-depth analysis of subjects as diverse as nationalism, the market economy, dependency theory, the intellectual and his relationship to television, the television audience, and the concept of national culture. In each area, having examined the general case, he turns to the Canadian scene with a detailed view of both English- and French-Canadian experience. These are followed by analyses of two types of Canadian television drama. All this scholarship is directed toward support for the underlying theme of the work, that the Canadian case "challenges the assumption central to nationalist theory and to the media imperialism thesis, that polity and culture are strongly interdependent" (p. 111).

Nationalists around the world have equated political sovereignty and national culture, assuming that a congruence in the media between the two is crucial. Collins demonstrates that in the Canadian case, even though the bulk of programming consumed, in English Canada in particular, is of foreign origin, the polity is relatively robust. He suggests that this "notionally debilitating incongruence" should be of interest not only to Canadians but also to Europeans facing the changes and challenges of 1992.

Collins questions the utility of both dependency theory and much of the nationalist writing on Canadian content. His propositions include the suggestions that Canada is not a nation-state, that it is a state called into being not by geography but by politicians, that Trudeau's language policies delinked political institutions and culture, that the congruence demanded by nationalism between polity and culture is not necessary, and "that nationalist cultural policies in Canada are based on a false premise" (p. 140). Nationalist writing sees nationalism as a political movement depending on a feeling of collective grievance against foreigners (p. 111). Those responsible for shaping television policy may feel that grievance against foreigners, but the mass of Canadians continue to show a marked preference for the programming produced by those same foreigners.

Throughout the book, differences in attitudes between English and French Canada to most of the subjects discussed are evident. Nowhere is the difference in societal styles more evident that in the French and English academic communities where, in Collins's view, the Francophone intellectual is deeply engaged in the life of television production, providing television producers and the community a foil with which to interact. In the Anglophone community, with the exception of the pioneering work of Mary Jane Miller, he sees little of the intellectual-producer dialogue, leaving the community to fall back on the work of journalists. Collins portrays the dominant stream of intellectual thought in English Canada as one which sees television as a threat to Canadian nationalism and culture, whereas in French Canada, the intellectual and the community see it as a liberating experience and an agency for national integration. Collins perceives French-Canadian nationalism to be more fully developed and self-confident than that of English Canada, but not yet realized in a state. This will challenge the numerically stronger but culturally weaker Anglophones to evolve policies with a higher degree of sophistication and understanding of French Canada's views than TROC has so far been willing or able to achieve.

Following logically from such a conclusion, he asks: "Is there really such a thing as Canadian culture?" Canada emerges as "Notland," and as a country whose cultural products are characterized by misery, negativity, and silence--with heavy emphasis on the Grierson documentary tradition.

The book, like Canada, is not without its shortcomings. One notes that Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier was joint Prime Minister of United Canada, 1857-62, not of Canada. The argument of the Fowler Commission against the two Board system eventually created by the 1958 Broadcasting Act was overlooked. One wonders why the author assumes that Canadian television productions will not attract international sales. Why should unmistakeably Australian material succeed internationally and Canadian works fail--unless it is that the cultural values Collins identifies as Canadian have an appeal as limited to an international audience as they do to the Canadians. Regardless of such minor shortcomings, the author presents a serious challenge to the basic tenets upon which Canadian television policy and even attitudes toward Canada as a state have been premised.

Inevitably a book dealing with current policies will in some respects be overtaken by events, but given the fundamental nature of this work, I cannot help but agree with the book's own publicity. I conclude with the words of John Meisel, one well versed in the ways of Canadian television, taken for the book's back cover. Referring to Collins, Meisel says: "His theoretical sophistication, mastery of developments and personalities in contemporary English and French Canada combine to make this book an uncommonly rich contribution to a subject of vital importance to all Canadians."

Note

1
This review was received by the Journal's editor before September 1, 1991.


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