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With no vision comes no Canada
by: Feb 5, 2007 Print

Peter Keleghan has been acting in movies and TV shows for more than 20 years, and has appeared in projects including The Newsroom, The Red Green Show, Made in Canada, Seinfeld and Billable Hours.

I saved an article from a major Canadian newspaper with the headline: "Paris [Hilton] Dogged By Low Scores On Pet Skills Poll". There's a picture of her holding her Chihuahua with the caption: "Paris Hilton and Tinkerbell in happier times..." and a 120-word story.

I have it - I promise. Why would this respected paper think this a print-worthy story? Why would their editor print this rather than a story of, say, Brent Butt marrying his costar from Corner Gas, which happened around the same time? Why do Canadian newspapers tend to feature stories about American stars like Paris, Oprah and TomKat? They told me why once: they are in the business to sell papers. They are not in the business of patriotism.

But here's the thing: it's a little harder - a little more work, but we have to start thinking about its consequences.

Maclean's magazine published a poll in the Jan. 23, 2006 issue about Canadians and their nationalistic pride. The title read: "Nobody Loves Canada - Pride in the country has dropped significantly." Just 61% of Canadians felt "very proud" to be Canadian, down from 80% in the last poll of 1985. Author Paul Geddes said voters were "...increasingly detached from the common touchstones of national identity."

In 2006, ACTRA sent a few actors to Parliament Hill to try to get culture on the campaign agenda. While there, I argued that instilling a sense of nationalistic pride, a vision, would provide them with a self-propelled bandwagon. I reminded them of the "I Am Canadian" beer commercials and how the spot perfectly nailed down a collective idea that did more for Canadian spirit than Timbits - and also sold a lot of beer. Instead, culture, pride, and identity hardly, if ever, were on the campaign radar.

According to Geddes in the same pre-election Maclean's piece, "...if voters looked for a 'vision' they had a choice between the negative, the nebulous and the neglected."

I recently caught a National Film Board documentary about the Inuit who, when introduced to TV, quickly became addicted to it. Particularly named as culprit in this '70s documentary were shows like The Edge of Night and The Price Is Right.

The Inuit, their leader argued, were fast becoming marginalized because there, on their TVs, was a tantalizing and prosperous lifestyle, but never once did they see their own image involved among the glitter. Yet they remained transfixed to the spectacle as it was readily available, cheap and exciting.

Their leader feared they would lose their heritage because they were lured into being bystanders in a foreign culture instead of being given the opportunity to further their own words and tell their own stories. I suggest Canadians now parallel this course, mainly because of the lack of political leadership.

Since the disastrous 1999 CRTC decision to change the rules for broadcasters, one of our cultural delivery systems, indigenous television, has fallen on hard times. If we had gains by the '90s with some good sitcoms and dramas, we are now in a place where, because of business concerns, we have been set back decades. We currently make so few shows for so little money, that Cancon hardly registers in our cultural picture, TV schedule, or press.

I can't help think that's exactly the desired effect for the business model pushed on us in 1999: our broadcasters will happily feed us what we want - (profitable) American shows. Glazed over by foreign glitter, there'll be no will behind the electorate to vote for our own stories, so no political will. With no political will, there will be no vision. With no vision - no identity. No identity - no Canada.

We also fall victim to circumstances like SARS and a high Canadian dollar. Unless we continue building our own industry on its still-solid foundations, we will not only be foolishly throwing away a great opportunity, but diminishing ourselves to be service providers, followers, inconsequential.

Americans got it right years ago: mythologize the American story, make iconic stars and you will have a healthy unified culture raring to do the brashest things together - like electing Arrrnold.

Canadians, with no political will to mandate our stories, are starved for it and will inadvertently push aside our own narration to get it. We neglect our own individuality desperate to be part of something together. Anything. Even Paris Hilton - daily. The human is a social being and the glittery, well-oiled and well-funded U.S. publicity machine knows it.

Our private networks and corporations are not to blame. They did what they're supposed to do - they nourished the corporate mandate of their shareholders. Blame them? For making money the way they are supposed to? That would be like blaming the guard dog for eating the teddy bears while he was left alone at the teddy bear museum. Tragic sometimes, but that's what they do.

Whom we have to blame is leadership - leaders who are following the prescription given them by big business to make some of us more transiently moneyed. But it has made Canadians, as a whole, very much poorer indeed.

There should be no special case for funding institutions like the CBC. It can be a money-losing proposition. It cannot be ratings-driven because it nourishes our collective. It must be well run, vital and strong. If we admire it, it will make us admire ourselves.

Throughout history, the richest and most powerful nations, such as England, Greece and America built awe-inspiring cathedrals, theaters and mythologies to give their people a sense of pride, identity and purpose. They were sometimes unsparing and appeared foolishly lavish - but they achieved a purpose - if only for future generations. Canada is not a poor country.

Do we mandate away American TV and film? Do as the Québécois did in the eighties when they enforced their culture with language laws? Start a department called the culture police? Well, no. But, when you look at the Quebec cultural scene today you must ponder its outcome. The Québécois now have a healthy culture, star system, good indigenous TV numbers, healthy movie box office, and public and political will to keep driving it forward. Québécois seem very proud to be Québécois.

Art is the best way to deliver meaning. Art, theater, literature, music, film and even television can enlighten, lift us above the common stuff, and unify.

For us here in Canada, our sensibilities and images are singularly unique and our communal recognition of them, fulfilling. It makes us family. Only at our table in Canada we are overindulging on entertainment that will make us unhealthy. No, it's not all we get - we have profoundly nourishing stuff delivered as well - but a great part of the fast, easy, cheap, glitzy, foreign stuff is nothing more than fast-food entertainment. A fast-food culture that will quietly negate our heritage, disable our identity, and homogenize our cultures to a lowest common denominator.

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