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    Self Parody, National Identity and the Canadian Culture Industry

    What does it mean to be authentically Canadian in the time of Nickelback? Read this story in Somersault’s free pdf issue!

    By Gareth Simpson (Gareth Simpson is a writer and humo(u)rist from Vancouver, British Columbia. He doesn’t really like Stephen Harper or Nickelback all that much, but he thinks Justin Bieber is okay. He has a Twitter and a Tumblr, but then again so does everyone else.)


    It speaks volumes about the Canadian culture industry that the announcement of Chad Kroeger and Avril Lavigne’s engagement felt so momentous. Their engagement served as a tipping point into self-parody for the nation that gave the world Anne of Green Gables, Glenn Gould, and the genesis of Saturday Night Live. Fittingly, their relationship started on Canada Day, which the Nickelback frontman called “very cool.” The engagement was the subject of widespread mockery, most of it from Canadians racing to distance themselves from the pair. Lavigne and Kroeger (and Kroeger’s band Nickelback) have come to represent a certain unacknowledged tension within Canada. Many Canadians, particularly those in metropolitan hotbeds like Vancouver and Toronto, are embarrassed by bands like Nickelback and uncomfortable with their ubiquity. Despite well-publicized protests, the band has been an undeniable force, racking up more Juno Awards than Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell combined. The reason for this, despite the rush to disassociate, is that Nickelback really is Canada today. Their music is the soundtrack of a country that is no longer what it used to be, that has had its image retooled over the last six years by a right-wing economist whose most enduring cultural legacy has been his tendency to co-opt pianos and hammer out Beatles tunes like an awkward uncle at a family reunion.

    In the middle of the twentieth century, as the United States was turning into a entertainment superpower, the Canadian government decided that they needed to enforce a certain degree of Canadian culture. They feared, for good reason, that if they didn’t ensure that content created by Canadians would actually reach its intended audience, their entire society would be subjugated by the cultural delights of their southern neighbor. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously compared Canada’s border with the United States to sleeping next to an elephant. “No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

    Through the years, the Canadian government has attempted to nationalize Canadian content, in the effort to promote it. The National Film Board was created in 1950, and a few years later, the Fowler Commission set the wheels in motion for public regulation of all broadcasting in Canada. A nominally independent agency called the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was created as a response to the Fowler Commission report. Since then, the CRTC has become responsible for maintaining a certain degree of Canadian-ness on the airwaves across the nation. For example, radio stations in Canada are required by license to feature a certain percentage of Canadian music, usually between 30-40%. 

    There are a variety of rules and tests that the CRTC has chosen to apply in order to decide what qualifies as Canadian content. Perhaps the most distinctive is the somewhat patriotically-named MAPL system. The CRTC considers a song Canadian if it can satisfy two of the following four criteria:

    Music: “The music is composed entirely by a Canadian.”

    Artist: “The music is, or the lyrics are, performed principally by a Canadian.”

    Performance: “The musical selection consists of a live performance that is recorded wholly in Canada, or performed wholly in Canada and broadcast live in Canada.”

    Lyrics: “The lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian.”

    The question of what actually makes something Canadian is considerably more philosophical than a handy acronym. After all, this test makes Lenny Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman” Canadian content. While that would explain why I heard the song so much on the drive home from elementary school, this system is not a particularly good judge of national character. This contradiction is present in the Canadian film and television industry as well. For example, The Tudors is a series about an English monarch, filmed in Ireland for the American cable network Showtime. However, since the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a small hand in the show’s production, it is considered Canadian enough to be nominated for a Gemini Award. While one could correctly assert that a significant component of the Canadian identity is a respect for the multicultural mosaic, the aforementioned examples are only part of the problem. 

    The most successful Canadian television show of the last few years is Flashpoint, a police procedural ostensibly set in Toronto (although the city is not actually named until the last episode of the second season, and Toronto is known for its transparent resemblance to Anyplace, USA.) A large contributor to the show’s success was its pickup by CBS as a summer replacement series. It was considered to be a good business move to make a show largely indistinguishable in tone and content to similar American programs, because America is where the money is. As a result, it is a show that fulfills all of the CRTC-style qualifications for Canadian content, featuring Canadian actors and directors and writers and producers, and yet does not seem the least bit Canadian to the viewer. 

    This type of show seems to be what Canadian audiences want, as television critic Andrew Ryan wrote in The Globe & Mail about the short-lived CBC comedy Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays. The show was created by Bob Martin, one of the brightest Canadian comedy writers of his generation, and featured the relationship between a therapist (Martin) and one of his patients (played by Canadian comedian Matt Watts.) The show was offbeat and funny, and stacked with Canadian comedic talent, from Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney to Slings and Arrows’ Susan Coyne. However, few viewers were interested, and the show ended abruptly in its first season. Ryan, in a column published on the day of the series finale, lamented: “Don’t hold your breath waiting for the great Canadian sitcom. You missed it.” He lambasted viewers for preferring rebroadcasts of American shows such as New Girl and Dancing with the Stars. It is hardly a surprise that Canadian audiences have turned towards American-style entertainment; they’ve done the same thing with their government.

    Stephen Harper, just like Flashpoint, is largely a facsimile of his American counterparts. He studied economics at the University of Calgary, which is one of the biggest Canadian exponents of Milton Friedman’s economic ideology. A deficit hawk who has shown few qualms in prioritizing economic growth over virtually anything is far from the “Gay Nader Fan for Peace” Jon Stewart lampooned after his 2008 re-election. Harper’s government followed America’s lead by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, much in the way that a small child follows a bully around in order to spit epithets in the background without fear of retribution. Harper is kept company by fellow Conservatives on the back benches of Parliament, like Rob Anders, who is famous for calling Nelson Mandela “a communist and a terrorist” and more recently suggested that new NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “hastened the death” of party luminary Jack Layton. While Harper insists that he has no interest in reopening long-settled social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he remains largely silent while Conservatives like Stephen Woodworth introduce bills to examine when life begins and speak at conferences held by anti-gay activists. With regards to Canadian cultural production, Stephen Harper has repeatedly advocated cutting funding to organizations like the CBC, arguing that the government should not fund something that is (to him, at least) identical to commercial companies owned by media conglomerates. 

    During Canada’s most recent prime ministerial campaign, Nickelback happened to be playing a concert in Ottawa about a month before the election. As the band launched into their hit song “Photograph,” a picture of Stephen Harper appeared on the screen behind lead singer Chad Kroeger. There may not be a more telling image of Canada in 2012 than that of the anti-charismatic Harper staring dead-eyed into a camera while Avril Lavigne’s husband-to-be grimaces his way through a second-rate Creed impersonation.

    (Photo: Matt Watts of the short-lived Canadian sitcom Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays. CBC.)

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