- Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood
Surely enough time has passed for a fairly definitive evaluation of the Canadian 'quest for nationhood' through the harnessing of culture. This is pretty much exactly what historian Ryan Edwardson attempts here in his study of the three waves of Canadianization in the arts, publishing, broadcasting, film, and academy since the early twentieth century. These were 'Masseyism' or cultural elitism, from the 1920s to the 1950s; the 'new nationalism' of the mid-1960s to the early 1980s; and 'cultural industrialism' from about 1984 to the present.
For Edwardson, 'Canada presents a fascinating case study in which to explain how nationalism has been defined and pursued through culture.' The phases of Canadianization reveal the evolving tone of nationalist [End Page 543] movements, conceptions of nationhood, and ways in which culture has been identified and operationalized. Framed by the bookends of 'modernity' and 'globalization,' Edwardson follows 'several generations of privileged and influential citizens' in their attempts to bring culture and nationalism together.
What differentiates Edwardson's story from the bulk of the relatively copious literature on Canadian cultural nationalism is his 'pragmatic' attempt to give credit to the process 'by which ethnic privilege is replaced by civic rights, progressive values, social diversity and ethnic and religious tolerance.' From this perspective, the story he uncovers is a hugely successful one of the creation of an infrastructure of quasi-mass entertainment, of the industrialization and commodification of cultural production, and of satisfied bureaucrats adding up the billions spent or mobilized to make the Canadian cultural economy one of 'world' significance. Despite these measures of success, however, Edwardson concludes, after 279 pages of careful reconstruction and evaluation, that the entire enterprise reveals 'a very questionable path upon which to articulate and orchestrate a civic nationhood serving the interests of the citizenry as a whole.' Instead, what resulted was 'a system' of the conflation of identity and industry, whose 'blatant contradictions' centrally 'relie[d] upon domestic profiteers and multinational corporations to develop Canadian content.' The marvel, as Edwardson underscores repeatedly, was 'the almost effortless ability' to disguise a 'rigid' economic agenda in 'the rhetoric of aiding domestic expression.'
It might be tempting to suggest that the prolonged mass mobilization of Canadian cultural enterprise resembles nothing less than the totalitarian equivalents of the former Soviet Union or Maoist China - Pierre Juneau, creator of the CRTC, once saw its role as similar to the (unqualified) 'barefoot doctors' loosed upon Chinese public health! But this would be to confuse real tragedy with mere 'kleptocracy,' to use a post-Soviet term. After all, nobody ever died or was murdered in the name of Canadian culture. Instead, what might be called for is a different kind of analysis to explain how the resources of a civic nationalism were so successfully marshalled to particular private ends (however laudable some of these might have been from time to time). Such a story, though, would not be all that admirable, much less 'fascinating.'
By approaching his topic mainly through careful understatement (and the occasional exclamation, as in 'Vincent Massey would have been aghast!'), Ewardson himself deploys another well-known, equally discrete Canadian rhetoric; that of its historians. Is a tone of knowing sadness, though, really the appropriate one for recounting a whopping scam? Edwardson, in the venerable tradition of not telling tales of out school, thinks so. Some might see it differently. [End Page 544]
Michael Dorland, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University