Canada’s parliament decided last week that digital platforms and streaming services like YouTube, TikTok and Netflix must give prominence to Canadian content to users within the country. This law would require these companies to make changes to their algorithms so when a person in Canada does a search, Canadian content is given prominence over material from elsewhere. It would not only give greater visibility to Canadian artists but also make these companies direct a lot of money to them.

Canada has not suddenly become parochial in the face of free exchange of entertainment around the world. It is just elbowing in some space for itself in a global environment that can swallow the local. And it has been at it for some time now. Canada is among a group of countries like Israel, Mexico and New Zealand that have instituted rules over the years to safeguard their culture.

But does culture need government support? Canada’s 38 million population is spread fairly tightly along the border with the US. About 75 per cent live within 100 miles. That makes for being subjected to a fairly strong US influence that can come in different forms. Tourists are welcome but the pollution that wafts across from US factories causes acid rain and that can be a nuisance for Canadians.

Protecting its interests

A similar problem rides the airwaves. With the massive reach of US broadcasting stations (radio and television), it would be easy for the Canadians to be swamped by US generated entertainment. So the Canadian government has been vigilant in protecting its interests. Using the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) objective of promoting cultural diversity, Canada and France (equally worried about protecting French culture) managed to keep culture out of being treated a commodity under the gambit of free trade rules and the grasp of the WTO. A UNESCO Convention in 2005 permitted countries to use subsidies and quotas to promote their culture.

Canada’s Ministry of Canadian Heritage oversees the culture industry. Detailed rules specify that 20-40 per cent of recordings played by a Canadian radio station must qualify as ‘Canadian content.’ This would include the artist, production, lyrics, and composition being Canadian. The Ministry’s website also reminds us that arts and culture contribute $57 billion to the economy and support 673,000 jobs.

Gandhi who wanted the cultures of all the lands to blow about his house freely yet did not want to be blown off his feet would have supported the Canadians in their efforts, even though he generally shied away from government interventions. This is because he was also focused on local development, as his definition of swadeshi suggests. If the local does not thrive, neither can the distant. That was a fundamental underlying belief in Gandhi’s push for a village focus and cooperation at the local level.

Push for local

Culture is a broad artifact and encompasses apart from music, dress, art, dance, and so on. And every now and then, a country wakes up to a supposed threat to some part of its culture. Many States in India are pushing for increased use of the local language in administration and the courts. The National Education Policy gives importance to the vernacular in the lower stages of education.

Bhutan expects its people to wear their traditional dress in government offices and on formal occasions. Although religion influences culture, the boundaries can be debatable. Some Islamic countries require their women to wear traditional clothing or headdress in public and have in recent times been subjected to several protests and criticism for this. They positioned women’s dress regulation as a religious requirement which is challenged as being discriminatory, not being required by the religion and interfering with individual freedom. Maybe if they keep religion out and require men and women to be in the traditional garb, they would get away with it as a cultural requirement?

The writer is an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston