Monday, March 29, 2010

My Canada 150 Presentation: "The Creative and Competitive Economy"

What follows is an expanded version of what was supposed to be a five minute presentation at the Canada 150: Halton conference - and a MUCH expanded version of the 2 1/2 minutes I actually got to speak.

Canadian Culture in the Digital Age

Canada has always faced unique challenges to establishing our cultural identity. We are geographically vast, culturally diverse, sparsely populated, multi-lingual... and we sit right next door to one of the most prolific producers of film, television and music in the world.

All we have to unite us as a people and as a culture across such vast divides are our stories, whether told through film, television, literature, music or journalism. But we need two things: the ability to create those stories, and the space to share them.

Looking at the rather vague subject of this challenge as a creative person, two questions interest me:

1) How do we develop funding models for the arts, film, television, and journalism in the digital age?

This is a problem not unique to Canada. The cultural industries and institutions of countries all around the world - especially in North America - are facing a crisis due to advances in technology and profound changes in how people access information, entertainment and culture.

Up until recently, reproduction and distribution of books, newspapers, music, film and television programming has been an expensive endeavor, requiring the participation of record companies, book and newspaper publishers, television broadcasters, film studios and so on.

Today, the function of these entities is eroding as technology enables many artists to produce and distribute their own work, and for their audience to access that work directly, all for minimal cost.

The problem is, people are used to the idea that they are paying for physical media. They buy records or CDs, not music. They buy DVDs, not films; books, not words; newspapers, not news.

Without physical media, how do we value these works, and how do we ensure that artists and writers are compensated for their work? Can we continue to use advertising and sponsorship as the primary means of monetizing broadcasting and news, or will we need to find more direct means as the functions of television and print media are increasingly transfered to the internet?

2) Is there still a need to protect Canadian culture?

The sad fact is, we know more about American history and American democracy than our own because these things aren't just taught in schools - they are taught by the movies and TV shows we watch and the books we read.

One example: my son's grade 9 Canadian History class did a unit on World War II, and spent 11 hours of class time watching 'Band of Brothers' because the teacher couldn't find any film or television productions which depicted the Canadian experience in that war. I find that horrifying.

Another example: during the coalition 'crisis', many Canadians were under the impression that they had elected our Prime Minister directly - possibly because they were influenced by watching the electoral goings on south of the border.

When I was a kid, I lived in the suburbs. But I knew about downtown Toronto by watching King of Kensington, where people of many cultures, races and ethnicities all lived and worked peaceably together. This contrasted sharply with what I was seeing on American shows like 'All in the Family'.

I had never travelled to the west coast, but I knew what it was like there from watching The Beachcombers. In fact, my first impression of Native Canadians was from watching that show.

I have never travelled to Canada's arctic, but I feel that I know what life is like there from watching 'North of 60'. The U.S. show 'Northern Exposure' aired during the same period, and I remember watching it and thinking, "what's with all the white people? I thought this was the North!"

Ensuring that Canadian stories are told in film and television isn't just about nationalism or patriotism - in a country this vast and disparate, this is fundamental to how we know ourselves and understand each other. Short of moving into someone's house, film and television are perhaps the most powerful means of generating understanding between people because they allow us to see through another's eyes and walk a few miles in their shoes.

Without that ability, misunderstandings arise and soon fester. If 'King of Kensington' had been set in Calgary, we might not have some of the problems we have today.

So, what do we do about it? To start, here are three practical things I would recommend:

1) Abolish simultaneous substitution in television broadcasting.
When you watch a show on NBC or CBS that is also being shown on CTV at the same time, CTV overrides the signal coming in from the U.S. and substitutes their own - including their own commercials. In other words, Canadian broadcasters are double dipping, and are therefore rewarded for re-broadcasting hit US shows all night long.

Our private broadcasters have long claimed that Canadian content regulations prevent them from being competitive, and lower the quality of Canadian productions by shielding them from competition with American shows. But in reality, it is simultaneous substitution that is in fact protecting and shielding the broadcasters from having to compete.

By doing away with simultaneous substitution, Canada's private broadcasters will no longer have a monopoly on the airing of U.S. programming in Canada, and will therefore have an incentive to create something different from what the U.S. networks are airing. Something, perhaps, Canadian.

2) Don't take the punitive copyright protection approach.
Copyright doesn't protect artists - it was never intended to. It was originally designed to protect the state's licensing and control of publishing and theatre, and today serves mainly to protect publishers, broadcasters and film producers.

One example: a member of my family who shall remain nameless does props and wardrobe work in the film and television industry, mainly as an independent contractor. On one recent production, he decided to make a duplicate of one of the pieces for himself on his own time.

When he tried to sell this piece online, he immediately heard from the studio lawyers who informed him that despite the fact that he had designed and made the piece himself, had never sold it to the studio, and had never signed anything giving them rights to his creation, it nevertheless was their intellectual property.

He was told to not just remove it from sale, but to physically destroy it and submit photographs as evidence of its destruction. Which of course he did, immediately, because we're just not the kind of people who can afford to hire a team of lawyers.

So no, copyright law is not generally designed to protect artists.

Instead of following the U.S. example of locking up teenagers for downloading movies and music, or digitally locking down media so that it cannot be transfered or converted by the person who bought it, look at alternative ways of compensating artists such as levies on recordable media including IPods and MP3 players.

3) Focus on funding Canadian film promotion as well as production.
Your average Hollywood film production spends nearly as much on advertising and promotion as on making the film itself. In this country, Passchendaele succeeded largely because they spent money promoting it, but most other Canadian films are produced on such minimal budgets they can't afford any form of promotion or advertising at all.

The result is that even the best films this country produces cannot begin to compete at the box office or even the video store because no one has ever heard of them.

Case in point: the two most nominated films for this year's Genie Awards are 'Polytechnique' and 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.' You may have heard of 'Polytechnique' because there was some controversy about making a film about the Montreal Massacre, but most of you probably aren't aware of 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.'

I can almost guarantee that you didn't see either of them in a movie theatre, unless you live in Quebec.

I went to Blockbuster recently to look for 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.' hoping that the multiple Genie nominations might have inspired them to get at least one copy. I spoke to the manager, and not only had she never heard of the movie - she didn't even know what a Genie Award was.

While tax incentives and program funding are essential to film production in this country, more funding needs to be channelled into promotion and distribution. The government should also look into creative ways of promoting Canadian film and television in more general terms, as there continues to be an absurd stigma attached to our homegrown productions.

The digital revolution has created both challenges and opportunities fo Canadian culture. While technology has broken down many of the barriers we once used to protect our culture, it has also removed many of the financial barriers our creative community has faced relative to other countries by making production and distribution of their work affordable and accessible to all.

In a sense, digital technology and the internet have leveled the playing field. Musicians can create and sell digital copies of their own music without the need for studios or music labels. Film makers can finance relatively high quality films on a couple of credit cards and promote them independantly. Bloggers are challenging traditional journalism as the line between the two continues to blur.

Even television broadcasting is being transformed by PVRs and streaming video, destroying traditional restrictions of scheduling and dial position, opening up the potential for quality programming - Canadian programming - to finally break through the static.

With the right policies in place, 2017 will be a good year to be a creative Canadian.

Canada 150 in Halton

In the few years since I've been engaged in party politics, I don't think I've ever encountered such a stunning clash between hope and cynicism as I have this weekend.

From the beginning, just getting our own local riding to support the idea of doing our own 'satellite' conference was a bit of a struggle. I can understand why. On the surface, this just looked like yet another way to placate the grassroots members with an invitation to provide input that would never make it's way to an election platform. Why should we bother?

Certainly time was a factor. From the day we got the details on how the Party wanted to handle this to the day of the conference we had about a month and a half. Happily, the group that came together to organize our event was small, motivated, and hard-working.

We had no idea how many people would show up. I was preparing myself for just our twenty panelists and moderators, but in the end there were at least 50 people attending through the course of the day. I hardly recognized any of them.

For me, the best gauge of how things were going came during the breaks. Instead of people just drinking their coffee or talking to their friends, the room and the hallway outside got downright noisy with animated conversations. People would seek out specific panelists to talk to or follow up with someone from the audience who had asked an intriguing question. I regretted not having brought business cards because they were flying left and right. I did manage to get cards from John Opsteen (Halton Region Federation of Agriculture) after picking his brains about food policy at the sandwich table, and from Dr. Jeff Zabudsky, the President of Sheridan College, who wanted me to send him links to my blogs.

The feeling in that room was like we had opened a window to let in the fresh air.

I can't even begin to list all the ideas that were presented and discussed. I can tell you that one item of agreement for everyone on our "Real Life Issues for Canadian Families" panel was the absolute need for a national child care policy. Several panelists talked about the $7 a day program in Quebec which, while it's had its problems, has also resulted in lower high school dropout rates, lower crime rates, more women in the workforce - a whole host of indicators that, among other benefits, result in lower costs and higher revenues across the board.

My only disappointment was with the panel that I sat on, which was supposed to discuss the "Creative and Competitive Economy". The topic was admittedly a difficult one to get a handle on, and our moderator had a rather draconian approach to time management, but for some reason I seemed to be the only one interested in talking about Canadian content in the film and television industry, punitive copyright vs. levies on media, arts funding models in the digital age, etc.

I was glad that at least Stephen Baker (owner of the Halton Compass) was there to help me talk about the impact of the internet on print journalism. Everyone else just seemed to want to talk about job training, productivity, and... I can't even remember what else.

I'll be posting what I wanted to say later this week.

After all the excitement and buzz of our own local event, it was a bit of a shock to emerge and read what the national media had to say about it all. I don't know why I expected anything different, but all the naysayers were still saying nay and all the cynics were still poo-pooing the whole thing.

And of course the Conservatives and the media all pounced when it became apparent that most experts (and apparently, most Liberals) still believe that a carbon tax is the most effective and the most fiscally responsible method of reducing carbon emissions. Go figure.

Still, there were some cracks opening in the wall of negativity. For one thing, even the nattering nabobs were forced to admit that the technological wonder of combining webcast, live chat and Skype to interconnect dozens of simultaneous events across the country was really pretty cool, and may in fact presage an evolution in how such events are conducted in the future.

Then, today, some of the other assumptions about Canada 150 started to crumble. For one thing, Robert Fowler shattered the notion that this was all going to be a non-controversial Liberal strokefest.

And then Michael Ignatieff surprised us all.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff concluded a landmark Liberal policy conference Sunday with an ambitious agenda that increases federal spending on the environment and health care, to be paid for by cancelling planned cuts to corporate taxes.

In doing so, Mr. Ignatieff made it clear that the next election, when it comes, will be between two clear alternatives: A Conservative government that emphasizes deficit and tax reduction, and a Liberal government that is willing to defer tax cuts and perhaps extend the deficit to target social programs.

“Do we rush ahead with further reductions to corporate tax[es] we can’t afford?” he asked the 300 participants at a Montreal, “or do we use these resources” to fund new programs.

A tax freeze, he said, would prove that the Liberals had “the courage to choose, to make the choices we have to make.”

Holy crap! You'd almost think he'd taken Robert Fowler's withering criticisms to heart.

Ok, so there's still the possibility that our leadership is going to back down, water it down, say no, of course, he didn't really mean to say that. God knows they've done it before. But right now, today, it appears that Michael Ignatieff has decided to nut up and stand firm for doing the right thing instead of just the electable thing.

Maybe the Liberals will end up standing for something again after all.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Forget Montreal - come to Canada 150 in Halton!

Reading the various blog posts and op-eds about this weekend's 'Canada at 150' think-fest in Montreal, one might be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is just some expensive, elitist wank designed to give the appearance of policy input without actually listening to anyone.

Of course, none of the nay-sayers and poo-pooers have bothered to mention the other Canada 150 events going on this weekend: the local 'satellite' conferences.

When the Montreal Conference was first announced, it was indeed planned as an exclusive event - just like Kingston, Aylmer and all the others were. Which is exactly why several grassroots members pressured the party to broaden the scope by setting up local events across the country, like the one I'm helping to organize in Halton.

The idea was to decentralize the whole process by linking these smaller events into Montreal via the internet. We would watch the webcast of the proceedings in Montreal, discuss the issues with our own group of thinkers and activists, then feed our ideas and conclusions back to Montreal.

That's the ideal. In practice... well, we'll see. Some ridings are just hosting watching parties for the webcast, which is rather sad. Others aren't doing anything at all.

To them, all I can say is you can't complain that no one is listening if you don't speak up.

Our event in Halton is going to be a real local version of what's happening in Montreal. We have over a dozen panelists including local municipal councillors, representatives from environmental and multicultural organizations, community activists for accessibility and social housing, local media - all sorts of people, hardly any of whom are partisan Liberals.

We'll be monitoring the Montreal webcast and will put it up on the screen if their discussions look particularly interesting, but mostly it will be a discussion between our panelists and the 30-60 guests we're expecting. Then a summary and any conclusions we draw will all get fed back to Montreal.

Whether the party chooses to do anything with our input will remain to be seen. I'm not holding my breath, frankly. But even if we end up binned, I will still consider this a useful exercise. For one thing, organizing all this with only five people in the space of a month and a half has proven my theory that the fewer organizers you have, the more you get done. Having no budget helps too.

For another thing, we have made some great new connections with local leaders and community organizations that will last long after this conference is over.

Lastly, even if our party leadership doesn't listen, our local candidate will be there soaking it all in. And when she is elected as our MP, she will be taking all our input and all these ideas to caucus with her.

Seriously - come to Halton on Saturday. Sheridan College, Oakville, Room G404. We're there all day, and it won't cost you six hundred dollars. Although if you want to throw us a couple of bucks to cover sandwiches and photocopying, we'd really appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Ann Coulter Theory - updated

I watched Ann Coulter on Power Play today, or at least as much as I could stand. It felt rather like being choked by a giant blonde hairball, which makes me wonder why on earth anyone would pay good money to listen to her.

More importantly, why would anyone assign credibility to a woman who any sane person would instinctively cross the room to get away from at a cocktail party?

So I can certainly sympathize with the U. of O. students who chose to protest this dreadful person's presence at their campus. I would have too. But there is a vast difference between objecting to or even protesting a public speaker and threatening violence. Which makes me really wonder about this:

Ann Coulter’s speech in Ottawa cancelled

Right-wing antagonist Ann Coulter cancelled a University of Ottawa address last night after organizers decided it wasn’t safe to speak.

The move followed boisterous demonstrations outside that sponsors of the appearance feared could turn violent.

“There was a risk there could be physical violence,” said Canadian conservative activist Ezra Levant, who was scheduled to introduce Ms. Coulter.

Let me get this straight - the organizers decided it wasn't safe for her to speak? Organizers, as in Ezra Levant?!

Am I the only person to smell a PR stunt here?

Levant claims that "police advised [the event] was untenable for safety reasons". I would very much like to have that verified by the actual police, because the amount of mileage Coulter and Levant are about to get out of this ("BANNED IN CANADA!") is likely going to more than make up for the money they were getting out of the Ottawa speech.

UPDATE: I would say that this pretty much confirms my theory -

Right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter, who was forced to cancel her speech to the University of Ottawa Tuesday night over fears for her safety, says she’s the victim of a hate crime under Canadian laws.

She said she’s hired Canadian conservative activist Ezra Levant to prepare a human-rights complaint that will test how equitably these hate-crime laws are applied.

Quid pro quo.

FURTHER UPDATE: I can' find it right now on the CBC site, but one of their reporters who was there is stating that there were maybe 1,500 people there (Levant is claiming 2,000), but only a couple of hundred of them were actual protesters. The rest - some 1,200 by her guess - were Coulter supporters and curiosity seekers lined up around the building just waiting to get into the hall. The hall only had a capacity of 400, so there was some frustration at the inefficient and disorganized process of verifying who had and had not pre-registered.

She also reported that the protesters themselves were rowdy but hardly threatening, and that the police were present, but only to investigate the pulling of a fire alarm.

And then there's Ezra's performance as he announced that the speech was to be cancelled. The video is here - I'll let you judge his acting abilities for yourself. I'm thinking Bill Shatner should play him in the movie.

STILL MORE UPDATES: Our intrepid Kady O'Malley has confirmed that it was not, in fact, the police who shut the event down, despite what Coulter and Levant are claiming. She has also been unable to find a single mention of rocks, sticks, tar or feathers on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else, except for the endlessly repeated claims by Coulter supporters that threats were made. Google it yourself - there's nothing.

It's all very interesting - go read.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Logic of Margaret Wente

Shorter Margaret Wente:

All the blogs I read are by men.

Therefore, all bloggers are male.

Slightly longer Margaret Wente:

I read a few blogs.

All the blogs I read are political.

All the blogs I read are by men.

Men like to spout off opinions without thinking.

The bloggers I read spout off opinions without thinking.

Therefore, men blog because they like to spout off opinions without thinking.

Therefore, all political bloggers are men.

Therefore, there are no female political bloggers.

Therefore, none of you exist.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lisa Raitt Back at Work

You'd almost think this was a spoof, but it's not. These are the very thoughts that pass through the head of Lisa Raitt during Question Period, as expressed through Twitter:


thinking about live tweeting QP
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

@kady @inkless @davidakin watching from above
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

hedy fry and geoff regan seem to be color-coordinated seat mates
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

@tonyclementMP has the coolest iPhone apps
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

@inklesswells is correct. these curtains are terrible
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

lots of purple on the other side of the house today
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

wow - some liberals are loud!
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

M. Bachand's tie is a little askew today
about 20 hours ago via mobile web

It's people like this who give blondes a bad name.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ZombieBread, Part 2: Still 'Fresh'!

You may remember about a month ago I told you about the Bread That Wouldn't Die. This miraculous loaf was purchased some time around December 30th in Daytona, Florida, largely because it advertised itself to have "No Artificial Preservatives, Colors or Flavors" and "No High Fructose Corn Syrup".

Today is exactly two months and six days after the expiry date marked on the bag, so I decided to pull it out of the bread box again and examine it for signs of mould, decay or even staleness.

Nope. It's just as fresh and mould-free as it was the day it was purchased.

This is really starting to scare me. But what is truly terrifying is the knowledge that if I ever contacted the "Nature's Own" company to complain that their bread lasts too long, they would think I was out of my mind.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Roger Ebert in my Head

There's a lovely movie that came out last year called "Julie & Julia", about one woman writing a cookbook, and another woman writing a blog about her 50 years later.

A movie about cooking AND blogging? How could I not love it?

The young blogger Julie develops a special bond with Julia Child, a writer she has never met but comes to know through her work and by reading about her life. One person suggests that Julia is her 'pretend friend', and Julie agrees. After all, she is the audience Julie is writing for and hopes to emulate. She fantasizes about meeting her idol, but in the end her husband observes that it isn't necessary for the two to meet because she already knows her, and that the Julia Child that lives in her head is perfect.

Roger Ebert is my imaginary friend. Roger Ebert lives in my head.

We have long conversations in there - about movies, about religion, about democracy, about the health care systems in our respective countries. We've attended numerous imaginary screenings together, and I've explained to him many times exactly why his criticism of Spielberg's 'Artificial Intelligence' is based on an assumption that completely ignores the facts presented in the first five minutes of the film and is therefore fundamentally flawed.

He reluctantly agrees.

The Roger in my head looks and sounds just like he did the last time I saw him on television, and when I read his blog, that's the voice I hear. Of course I know that he doesn't look or sound like that anymore - not since cancer surgery and a series of near fatal complications left him without a lower jaw and without a voice. I had seen a couple of more recent photos, but Roger has generally kept his physical self to the shadows these past four years, so the old photo that graces his website was still the one in my head.

That all changed this week when I read a profile of Roger from Esquire magazine, which opened with an uncompromising full page photo.

The article is wonderful, and discusses a lot of the issues Roger himself has talked about in his blog - the things he's lost, the things he misses, the surprising things he's gained or rediscovered in the process, including his newfound passion for blogging. It talks about his amazing wife Chaz, about the new routine of their lives, and it describes his physical state in unflinching detail. It's not sappy, or maudlin, or voyeuristic, and after reading it I got over the momentary shock of the photo and started to feel like the Roger in my head had gained another dimension or two.

The article was followed by an appearance on an Oprah Winfrey special the other night which I didn't like quite so much. I'm not sure why, but it all seemed a little condescending to me, a little too much like trotting out the crippled kid at a tent revival for a bit of pity and inspiration. Hallelujah!

The one moment that redeemed the whole episode was when Roger got to demonstrate his brand new computer voice to his wife. The voice, which replaces the generic Stephen Hawking-like one he's been using, was created by a company in Scotland and uses actual samples of his own voice culled from hours of his DVD commentary tracks.

The result was so startling, it brought Chaz to tears.

So now the Roger in my head has a voice again. A real voice - not one half remembered with the 'At the Movies' theme music playing under it. It's still not the real Roger, but that's just as well. If I ever did meet Roger Ebert in the flesh I would probably fall all over my own tongue and embarrass myself utterly.

When I started this blog three years ago (God it's been three years?!), my first full post was entitled "Just Call me Roger". At the time, I fantasized about becoming Canada's Roger Ebert, or at least some brand of Professional Journalist, waiting to be discovered sitting at my own virtual Schwab's lunch counter.

It didn't quite work out that way.

Instead, my little blog transformed from being a place to post my reviews and work on my writing skills into a reasonably well respected (albeit minor league) political blog. That in turn led to attending a couple of political events, meeting some of the local players in the Liberal Party, diving head first into a political campaign, and eventually getting in up to my neck in riding politics. Meanwhile, I started writing about other subjects, from environmental sustainability to foreign policy to local issues and politics.

And now I'm running for Town Council.

Like Roger, and like Julie, blogging opened up a whole world for me that I never imagined I would be walking in at this point in my life.

Like them, I found my voice.

Thanks, Roger.

Monday, March 1, 2010

We. Are. Canadian.

It doesn't take much for me to get all gushy and patriotic, so I've been on some serious maple leaf overload these past two weeks.

Long before the international press suddenly decided midway through that these were no longer the worst Olympics ever but quite possibly the best - even before our own pundits stopped whining about what a cock-up it all was and how we had set our sights too high - I was on board from day one.

I cried at the whales and the trees and the sight of all those First Nations dancers. I watched events all day at home and kept track of the scores on my Blackberry at work at night. I teared up every time our flag was raised or a crowd broke into a spontaneous chorus of 'O Canada'. I shouted myself hoarse over that final hockey game, and I positively squirmed with glee through the entire closing ceremonies.

Even that stupid 'I Believe' song chokes me up. Still.

So you'll have to forgive me if I find all this analytical puzzlement over our supposedly newfound patriotism passing strange, given that I feel this way most of the time and just sort of assume all Canadians do. I suppose the word 'patriotism' itself might be part of the problem, since we do tend to associate it with the sort of obnoxious, blinkered, 'my country right or wrong' patriotism of the United States. Let's face it - a lot of Americans give 'patriotism' a bad name.

Maybe we just need a different word. But pride doesn't seem big enough, and love is too generic. It's not nationalism because it goes beyond the limitations of the nation-state. It's not tribalism because our origins lie in every corner of the earth. It's not about being better than everyone else. It's not even about winning a hockey game.

Maybe it's just a feeling of familiarity. A recognition that this is us - this is who we are. Feeling part of the same rich tapestry woven from the threads of our individual and common experiences into this incredible landscape we share. Silly little touchstones like road hockey and maple syrup and tobogganing after that first snow of winter which, even if we haven't experienced them all as individuals, we still understand as being a part of our common culture.

In the end, it's just... complicated. We're a complicated people, which may be why our 'Canadian identity' is so notoriously hard to define. But if the past two weeks have proven anything, it's that just because something can't be defined doesn't mean that it can't be cherished, felt deeply, or shouted out from the rooftops.

And then there's what Denis said.