Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
The Demise of Canadian Culture
By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, October 23, 1998 --  

In the international war against the dominance of American culture, it is Canada that mans the front lines. With a 3,000 mile undefended border, a common language and history, it should come as a surprise to no one that Canada is losing.

But its utter failure in this battle has done nothing to stop nationalists and government legislators from screaming bloody murder. The latest battle is to save Canadian magazines from the U.S.-based competitors that have already captured the majority of the market. If the Canadian government has its way, it will be illegal for U.S.-based magazines to sell advertising that appears only in Canadian editions.1 The new law must be upheld by the World Trade Organization, which has struck down similar laws as incompatible with international trade agreements. The Canadian government insists that the new law has nothing to do with trade, but is imperative to protect the variety of choices in the magazine market.

This argument is undoubtedly disingenuous -- Canadian media companies have lobbied relentlessly for protection of their industries. But more importantly, the argument is wrong. The government position -- like most of those given to support media protection -- assumes that local publication is a guarantor of cultural diversity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The changes in U.S. publishing over the last 30 years make a mockery of this argument. The monolithic national magazines and urban newspapers of yesterday have been swept away by countless new targeted journals and suburban newspapers. Homes of yesterday were likely to receive Life magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Sun. Today's homes receive periodicals that defy prediction. Modern magazines often target incredibly specific interests, as shown by periodicals such as Old Bike Journal, Windsurfing, and N' Synch Back Street Boys.

While a single U.S. publishing conglomerate often controls multiple periodicals, the corporate quest for targeted advertising has helped fuel this explosion of variety. The appearance of internet-based periodicals such as Slate, the Drudge Report, and ZDNet has accelerated the trend. On-line journals commonly offer personalized content based on an individual's interests.

These changes mean death for the continuation of a unified Canadian culture. Artificial borders can no longer contain the free exchange of ideas and lifestyles that help create national cultures. At present, there is far more cultural diversity within the United States -- and within Canada -- than there is difference between them. Inhabitants of suburban Toronto have far more in common with Boston's suburbanites than they do with Vancouver's Cantonese entrepreneurs or Louisiana's watermen.

But the death of Canadian culture should not be met with smug responses from nationalist Americans. While the current trend is one of American cultural dominance, this is bound to change in the future. American cultural dominance exists because the United States has by far the most consumer-oriented society in a world that is increasingly open to consumerism. At the same time, the U.S. entertainment industry is far ahead of its rivals in bringing the world what it wants to see. Neither of these conditions can continue forever. As other nations become more consumer-oriented and other media production centers become more competitive, the flow of culture will begin to move in the other direction.

Canadian publishers and legislators would do well to abandon attempts at cultural protectionism and join the emerging international consumer culture. By abandoning weak nationally based general publications and focussing on targeted interests, activists will be far more successful -- both financially, and at preserving Canadian culture.

1. The Washington Post, Canada Tries to Protect Market for Magazines, October 9, 1998