Broken Pencil and Canadianization

After spending the last few weeks closely reading the first three issues from the first year of Broken Pencil, 1995-1996, this past week has been about accounting for the various cultural, socio-economic, and technological contexts through which these issues and this magazine emerged. Essentially that has meant working backward from these issues to identify potential threads that would explain things like the nationalism in the letters section, or why Broken Pencil have been poised for hybidity. This has led me to books on the history of the Internet and how and why the Web came to be; to texts about Canadian culture and history; and, finally, texts about neoliberalism and globalization, especially when they affect the culture industries. Three books in particular have occupied my time, mostly since they discuss the above threads in overlapping ways. In the next few posts, I’m going to try to connect these texts to threads throughout Broken Pencil’s issues, regardless of time period. Today: Canadianization.

Edwardson, Ryan. Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Print.

Ryan Edwardson’s Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood explores the ways in which culture has been used to shape postcolonial Canadian nationalism since the country’s first confederation in 1867. Edwardian traces Canadianization, his term for this process, through three distinct periods: Masseyism (1920s-1950s), The New Nationalism (1960s), and ending with Cultural Industrialism (1968-present). Importantly, the roots of Canadian nationalism differ from those of America’s because it developed throughout 20th century rather than the 19th; that is, as Canadian nationalism has been cultivated, the available technologies used for reaching and making publics have changed significantly. As a result Canada has regulated mass media — especially TV and radio — through quota systems that require a certain percentage of broadcasted content be Canadian in origin. First introduced in 1968, but still used today (with increasing vulnerability, which I’ll discuss in a moment), the quota systems are used alongside more common cultural bodies — such as The Department of Canadian Heritage — to insure that Canadian Content (CanCon, for short) sustains nationalist or domestic discourse throughout the public sphere.

According to Edwardson, quota systems were an easy sell in the 1960s, as public intellectuals helped fashion the nation’s self-image of a “Peaceable Kingdom,” asserting its independence from the United States, whose imperialism was becoming more of a threat. Importantly during this period, culture became “freed from elite domination and ostracizing paternalism,” typical of Masseyism, “in order to encourage a national project with a wider social base” (17). This move allowed domestic discourse to circulate more widely using more accessible cultural identifiers, like certain comics or pop music. In essence, this was the New Nationalism.

These quota systems, however, increasingly mapped nationalism onto the growth of the Canadian culture industries by increasingly commodifying culture. As Edwardian notes:

“Economic incentives and industrial point systems all placed Canadian content within the dynamics of profitability and cultural commodification, which encouraged industries to strip it of national identifiers — or more commonly, replace Canadian ones with American equivalents — in order to attract the interest of distributors at home an abroad” (20). 

This period, which Edwardson dubs “cultural industrialism,” sees government officials increasingly making use of economic rather than social benchmarks (employment, sales, returns of return, investment, etc.) in garnering continued support of these public programs. The sum of this shift, at least for Edwardson, is that a globalized and subsidized 21st century Canadian culture industry has facilitated an “entrenchment” of culture where the motivation for profit negates “social cohesiveness” that should come with Canadianization (25).

He has more to say about this period in Chapter 10 and in the Conclusion, but for now the question is: how might these policies affect our understanding of Broken Pencil?

For one, at some point (I’m not certain when) several public programs began subsidizing Broken Pencil. According to their About page, the magazine is currently supported by four agencies: The Department of Canadian Heritage, Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and The Access Copyright Foundation. And although a letter in the most recent issue of BP, #67, criticized the magazine for accepting government money, these public programs are organized in such a way that they filter funding through a bureaucratic process that makes it difficult for the public to hold government officials directly responsible.

An example: according to The Department of Canadian Heritage’s website, BP was awarded between $13-$14,000 under their “Aid to Publishers” program during the last three years— plus what appears to be additional money under their “Business Innovation—Print” program ($25,000 in 2011-12 and $18,500 in 2013-14). I don’t understand the particulars of these programs, or their application process, so that is something to look into. These complications are discussed in certain issues of the magazine. In #46 (2010), for example, BP ran an article on the affects of the recession on public money for the arts, pitting certain parts of public funding against free market ideology, much like Edwardson suggests:

“The recession and rising deficits have once again put arts funding and culture-friendly policies on the chopping block… And the independent arts—the bands, publishers, artists and creators on the front lines of grassroots creativity—are once again the easy prey of a sustained, yet unproclaimed, hunting season” (15).

The article goes on to provide an example of the Toronto electro-experimental group Holy Fuck and the cutting of a program called PromArt — a program meant to fund overseas tours of Canadian music — through a strategic review, introduced by the Tories.

Author Laura Trethewey puts it this way: “The new, ongoing auditing program singles out ‘lower priority, lower performing’ government programs and redirects the money towards other programs vaguely defined as ‘higher performing’” (15). Hence, DIY or indie culture — arguably the least organized and most impoverished arts sector — are ostracized under an economic rubric of culture.

In a follow-up post I’ll take a closer look at Chapter 10 and the Conclusion of Edwardson and apply some of what he says to this article.