From Stompin’ Tom to Salsa Bembé: How the CRTC enriches my life | Bruce McDougall

By Bruce McDougall

Law360 Canada (May 9, 2023, 10:36 AM EDT) --
Bruce McDougall
Bruce McDougall
I listen to salsa all day on a radio station from Mexico. It makes me happy. To find stations that play non-stop salsa, I have to pick my way through an infuriatingly long list of specialty stations from all over the world that deliver everything from recitations of the Bulgarian tax code to the rantings of university climate-change activists in Toronto to hip-hop zither music from Macedonia. Presumably, with the passage of Bill C-11, that list will include a healthy dose of Canadian radio stations specializing in the obscure recordings of Canadian cultural icons like Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Under Bill C-11, our government will potentially have control over what we can read, see and listen to on social media platforms. Their algorithms will have to adhere to Canadian guidelines intended, as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) maintains, to ensure that I “have access to a world-class communication system that promotes innovation and enriches (my) life.” What we read, see and post will potentially be at least influenced if not determined by the Canadian government. Since salsa music won’t be high on the list of my government’s priorities, I’ll have to search even harder for my sources.

According to the Toronto Star, the Canadian government’s goal in introducing Bill C-11 is “to subject streaming giants like Netflix and Spotify to the same regulations that (sic) already apply to traditional television and radio broadcasters in Canada.” Considering the government’s current role in promoting Canadian culture, this makes some sense. Over just 25 years since Netflix became widely available, almost half the TV watchers in the country now subscribe to the service. Canadians have adopted other streaming services, as well, so that almost every household in Canada has a subscription to at least one service, despite the ham-fisted interference of the government that currently restricts the availability of programming and blocks some content from reaching Canada at all.

As usual, the government doesn’t seem to understand or care about the reasons why Canadians have become such ardent consumers of streaming services in the first place. People don’t migrate to streaming services because they want to see more reruns of Stompin’ Tom’s last concert. They go to see TV series like Fauda, from Israel, Slow Horses from the U.K., Kleo from Germany or any other programming that meets their standards of quality, whether it comes from Canada, Denmark or South Korea.  

Most Canadians younger than me, which includes just about everyone, download content on Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram and all the other streaming services that keep people glued to their screens as they wander through their days. As these Canadians argue online in vast numbers, such content comes from all over the world, and since they think they’re capable of distinguishing Vladimir Putin’s propaganda from the earnest offerings of a Korean break-dancer, they don’t need or want the Canadian government messing with their algorithms.

If we lived in a world of clear-cut, well-defined values instead of a spiritual puddle of muddled ambiguities, I would place my humanity above my nationality and far above my identity as defined by my sexuality, colour, race, creed, belief in God or any other label that people use to define themselves these days. With this in mind, I have never accepted the idea that the CRTC should qualify my cultural environment based on the nationality of the people generating its content. I’m far more interested in the way that a story, song, movie or TV series contributes to my humanity than I am in its contribution to my patriotism.

There’s nothing wrong with Stompin’ Tom. And I’m glad to see that people appreciate his unique if rather limited talents. There’s nothing wrong with most of the books published by Canadian publishers and written by Canadian authors who receive government grants to jam Canadian culture down my throat. But if I need to read a good book or watch a good movie, if I have an urge to feed my soul with a story that will expand my spiritual horizons and reassure me of the infinite splendour of human life, I will not likely choose the book or the movie because it’s written by a Canadian. It might be, but that won’t be the reason why I select it.

I understand that the government feels some responsibility to ensure that my list of radio stations includes a specified percentage of Canadian operations. In this respect, it’s no different than governments all over the world. Take Korea, for example, whose president Yoon Suk Yeol recently serenaded U.S. President Joe Biden with a rousing version of American Pie, a song written by Don Mclean in 1971, when Yoon was 11. Not only was it remarkable that Korea’s president could sing the song, it was also remarkable that he’d ever heard it, because in 1971, the Korean government was banning songs from the U.S. such as Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody because they were harmful influences to the public psyche.

Korea’s government applied its heavy-handed censorship laws to music, movies and other forms of entertainment until the 1990s, and even now maintains a degree of control over its media with screen quotas and other forms of regulation that Canadians would regard as oppressive. But, apparently, they’re allowed to listen to American Pie.

It does this, it says, to maintain its cultural diversity and develop the Korean film industry so that Korean moviemakers can remain competitive with sophisticated Hollywood productions. Where have we heard those sententious words before?

Canada’s government could blaze a different route through the cultural morass. Instead of passing fatuous, feel-good legislation, it could distinguish itself among the world’s political bulldozer drivers by encouraging, endorsing, practising and insisting on standards of excellence in reading and writing so that literate citizens can judge for themselves whether a book, movie, radio station or YouTube video delivers good value or merely depends on government support to insinuate itself into the selection.

This may sound idealistic and grandiose, but many of the critics of Bill C-11 already regard themselves as competent judges of quality. Why not acknowledge their competence and find ways to reinforce it further instead of assigning to the CRTC the task of promoting innovation and enriching my life? If I need to enrich my life, I doubt that I’ll turn to the government to do it. I’ll just listen to Salsa Bembé.

Bruce McDougall ( has written for the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and other Canadian news magazines. He is the author of The Last Hockey Game and Every Minute Is a Suicide. A graduate of Harvard College, he attended the University of Toronto Law School.

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