National Column: Quebec reaction to Netflix deal: Non!

by Chantal Hebert

If Netflix’s offerings reflected the vitality of Canada’s film and television industries, one might understand why Justin Trudeau’s government would give the American conglomerate preferential tax-free treatment in recognition of its vital role in putting the country on the streaming map.

But Netflix cannot have become the federal government’s best pal in the pursuit of an updated vision of Canada’s place in a brave new digital world on account of the efforts it has expended on showcasing Canadian content.

About half of all this country’s households subscribe to Netflix. Canada happens to be home to the largest number of citizens whose mother tongue is French outside of France. Based on the Canadian content available on Netflix, this country might as well be a unilingual cultural colony of the United States.

Here are some gems unearthed on a dispiriting Canadian content search down the Netflix rabbit hole.

A total of two television series appear in Netflix’s “binge-worthy Canadian TV dramas” category: Travelers and Between, and that’s two more than are listed as binge-worthy in French.

There are barely more than half a dozen movies listed in the French-Canadian film category. Most are translations from English. Zootopia and Finding Dory are on that list.

A few more surface in a separate Quebec category alongside, among other offerings, a French translation of an American documentary titled Hot Girls Wanted. That one is not available with “Canadian French audio,” but The Lord of the Rings is.

This week, Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly placed Netflix at the centre of her government’s bid to maintain and expand the digital footprint of Canada’s television and film industries. The deal she struck with the streaming company will presumably become a template for similar arrangements with other global corporations that operate in the cultural sector.

Boasting that it was “the biggest investment in the last 30 years in Canadian content from a foreign company,” the minister unveiled a deal that will see Netflix invest $100 million a year for five years in the production of Canadian television.

But Joly was unable to say how the spending promise compares with what Netflix would have spent in Canada absent a deal with Ottawa.

Nor were there specifics as to what qualifies as Canadian content. Are American series shot in Canada to take advantage of tax credits considered domestic productions?

What the deal does do is maintain a non-level playing field between Canada’s cable industry players and Netflix. They have to collect the sales taxes and contribute a percentage of their revenues to a national media fund. Netflix is free of similar obligations.

Netflix is in the editorial driver’s seat and it has no quota of original French language content to meet.

Joly says there is no reason to worry, because Netflix executives know that some of the top names in the business – filmmakers such as Jean-Marc VallÈe, Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan – are all from Quebec. Really?

The first just won an Emmy for his work as director of the HBO series Big Little Lies. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel is opening this month. Dolan is in pre-production of his first English-language film.

Chances are it is neither their French-language skills nor the cultural eco-system within which this trio’s talent was nurtured that are the attraction for Netflix executives.

Joly’s Netflix announcement has ignited a Quebec firestorm with some columnists describing the spirit behind the federal policy as the symptom of a branch-plant mentality. The province’s culture minister, Luc Fortin, urged Ottawa to go back to the drawing board.

The Conseil du patronat – a lobby that speaks for Quebec’s private sector executives – was as scathing in its denunciation of the Netflix deal as was the leftist QuÈbec Solidaire party.

Nowhere in Canada is the issue of culture more sensitive than in Quebec. It is seen as central to the province’s collective identity. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives learned that at their expense in 2008. A
pre-election round of culture cuts contributed to losing them a coveted governing majority.

It is too early to conclude that Joly’s announcement will similarly damage Trudeau’s Liberals. They are seen as more culture-friendly than their Conservative predecessors, and they have public dollars at their disposal to back up that perception. But Joly’s Netflix deal has elicited more blowback in Quebec than any of her government’s previous policy announcements.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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