Is all the talk around C-11 consultations just performative box-ticking?

As the federal government overhauls Canada’s outdated Broadcast Act, arts organizations and other analysts – like those convened by OCAD University’s Cultural Policy Hub – suggest how to make policy consultation processes more meaningful.

As the federal government overhauls Canada’s outdated Broadcast Act, arts organizations and other analysts – like those convened by OCAD University’s Cultural Policy Hub – suggest how to make policy consultation processes more meaningful.

Why cultural policy matters

“I first saw Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner at the ImagineNative Festival in Toronto in 2001,” says Kerry Swanson, CEO of the national non-profit Indigenous Screen Office (ISO). “There was just so much excitement and enthusiasm and pride around that story. It really resonated with Indigenous people, but also with non-Indigenous people. It was obviously something different that we hadn’t seen before.”

I am talking with Swanson a few weeks after the federal government announced that the ISO would finally receive permanent funding – official recognition of the increasingly crucial role the ISO has played in Canada’s film and television industry since the group’s founding in 2017. The announcement came on the heels of last year’s amendment to the Broadcast Act, C-11, that elevates Indigenous and Indigenous-language content to a level, some argue, on par with Canadian content in English and French. These are huge changes that begin to redress Canada’s racist, colonialist history in the culture sphere. For Swanson, Atanarjuat symbolizes why this is such a bittersweet moment for advocates like her.

Why didn’t [Atanarjuat’s success] trigger an enormous amount of funding and support for Indigenous-language content and Indigenous-made storytelling on screens?

Kerry Swanson, Indigenous Screen Office

Made in the Inuktitut language and helmed by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, winning the Caméra d’Or. The film was released in 2002 and became the top-grossing Canadian film that year, winning six Genies in the process. It’s now considered one of the best Canadian films of all time. “It was really successful across this country and internationally,” Swanson says. “And the question we have to ask ourselves is why didn’t that trigger an enormous amount of funding and support for Indigenous-language content and Indigenous-made storytelling on screens? It did not. We had to continue to fight for that for another 20 years.”

Cultural policy affects everyone in Canada, whether on the more existential level of reflecting our lives back to us, or the more utilitarian level of promoting social cohesion, reducing poverty, improving health, and a host of other worthwhile policy objectives. C-11, the first major reform of the Broadcasting Act since 1991, is an ambitious attempt to drag Canada’s cultural policies into the 21st century by ejecting the colonialist language of the past and embracing the current and future digital revolutions upending the culture sector.

While C-11’s objectives and effectiveness are hotly contested, the focus of this story is on how bureaucratic consultation processes, like the one underpinning C-11’s implementation, often fail to live up to the ambitions of an organization’s stated policies. The critiques and suggestions of arts leaders involved in the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) – the broadcasting and telecommunications regulator tasked with implementing C-11 – process are of obvious interest to anyone in the non-profit and charitable sectors working in culture. But they also hold valuable insights for other groups working with Indigenous, equity-seeking, and diverse communities looking to improve their ongoing feedback systems, both internally and externally, with respect to their organizations’ reconciliation and EDI commitments.

Consultation is never a simple, straightforward process. But get it right, and it can transform an organization. With respect to Canada’s culture sector, get it right, and it can transform a country.

Enter the Hub

The Cultural Policy Hub (the Hub) at Toronto’s OCAD University is an intriguing new player on the culture scene. Leveraging its connections among government, academia, and the culture sector, the Hub aims to inspire policy-making that is inclusive, informed, and integrated. The Hub was launched in the fall of 2023, just as the CRTC embarked on its first round of public hearings. In response, the Hub brought together Swanson with two other leaders of non-profit production funds working to advance authentic and diverse representation in Canada’s TV and film industry: Kadon Douglas, executive director of BIPOC TV and Film, and Sally Lee, executive director of the Canadian Independent Screen Fund for Black and People of Colour Creators (CISF). The roundtable, held less than two months after all three appeared before the CRTC, was moderated by Elamin Abdelmahmoud, host of CBC Radio’s arts program Commotion.

Kelly Wilhelm, who heads the Hub, says that convening thought leaders like these is the Hub’s “superpower.”

“There needs to be a kind of connective tissue [that] brings people to the table to ask hard questions, so that those who are making the decisions at the policy level have a way to hear what needs to change,” says Wilhelm, a cultural policy analyst with 25 years’ experience. She’s been chief of staff to a federal minister, part of the executive management team at the Canada Media Fund, senior analyst at the Heritage Ministry, and planning and strategic director at the Canada Council for the Arts. Wilhelm observes that policy-makers in government are often blinkered by the structural limitations of the institutions within which they work. “[Bureaucracies] develop in order to serve the goals that they develop,” she says. “It’s a self-fulfilling kind of a structure.” Even when policy-makers understand that change is necessary, structural limitations get in the way. “There’s always a disconnect,” Wilhelm says. “The bureaucracies do not know who to talk to.”

There needs to be a kind of connective tissue [that] brings people to the table to ask hard questions, so that those who are making the decisions at the policy level have a way to hear what needs to change.

Kelly Wilhelm, Cultural Policy Hub

The Hub’s goal is to bridge that disconnect. It’s not just the who, it’s the how, too. Swanson, Lee, and Douglas all went before the CRTC, for example, but each of these arts leaders argues that the hearings aren’t necessarily designed to hear what they had to say.

“To open up those [bureaucracies] to new networks, where relationships are reciprocal and not exploitative or extractive, [to] communities who haven’t had access – that’s really part of the work of policy-makers that is very much underinvested in at this point,” Wilhelm says. “It takes time. It takes a certain level of expertise. It takes an openness to hearing things that are maybe not what you’re even thinking about . . . I feel that in our very structured administrative policy-making processes right now, it is extremely difficult to create those spaces.”

Broadcast reform in a nutshell

Officially called the Online Streaming Act, C-11 marks two big policy shifts: it substantially redefines Canadian culture, and it forces foreign-owned streaming services to contribute to and promote domestically produced cultural content.

First, the act expands the concept of culture far beyond the two “founding” languages of French and English that traditionally defined Canadian cultural policy. After years of condescending – if not outright racist – terminology, the act now recognizes the unique historical and constitutional place Indigenous people and languages occupy in Canada. Swanson uses the term “narrative sovereignty” to define what has changed. “For over 100 years, Indigenous Peoples have been misrepresented on screen,” Swanson says. “And that’s because we weren’t given access to the industry, to the power to produce and make our own work. That’s why we refer to it as ‘narrative sovereignty.’ It’s really important to make it clear that this is distinct [from other forms of representation and EDI initiatives], that it’s grounded in our sovereignty under our nation-to-nation agreements with the Government of Canada, with the Crown.”

“It’s not only about representation, but about our rights to self-determination.”

C-11 also makes explicit Canada’s diversity, stating that the broadcast system should “serve the needs and interests of all Canadians, including Canadians from Black or other racialized communities and Canadians of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and ages.”

Second, the act brings US-based streamers like Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify, companies with sizeable and growing percentages of the Canadian market, into the domestic legislative framework: it establishes the principle that large foreign companies selling cultural products in Canada must contribute to the domestic production and promotion of those products (analogous to what Canadian companies are required to do).

Despite ministerial directives and wording in the legislation that compel the CRTC to engage meaningfully with Indigenous, equity-seeking, and minority groups, the Hub panellists raised serious concerns over the CRTC’s ability to deliver on those directives; it’s still unclear how the CRTC is going to act on the changes above. The Hub followed up the roundtable with a blog post from film programmer Julian Carrington, managing director of the not-for-profit advocacy group Racial Equity Media Collective, who also participated in the CRTC hearings. In summarizing the roundtable conversation, Carrington writes, “there remain significant barriers to meaningful engagement with regulators.”

“The [Hub] panel was to give a public space to the kinds of things that couldn’t be said right in the hearing because the hearing just doesn’t allow for that,” Wilhelm says. “It doesn’t allow for the bigger debate about what should the purpose of this be, how do you do it meaningfully, and what needs to change in order for that to be achieved.”

Consultations must be built on broad access and a level playing field – and they have to result in action

C-11 received royal assent on April 27, 2023, but the government left a host of thorny issues to be sorted out by a newly expanded CRTC, including the size of the financial contributions streamers will be compelled to make and the method of divvying up and distributing those contributions (since announced), as well as the mechanism to track the discoverability of Canadian content and updates to CanCon rules (defining what counts as Canadian content). Hence the public consultations that began in November of 2023 and will continue for years to come (if a change in government doesn’t throw a wrench into the works).

While Swanson, Douglas, Lee, and Carrington appreciated the opportunity to address CRTC commissioners directly, each raised the interrelated issues of access, capacity, and accountability with respect to the process.

When the [CRTC’s] notice of consultation was opened, it was a really short window for us to submit our intervention. That means we didn’t have any time to dedicate towards consulting with our community.

Kadon Douglas, BIPOC TV and Film

Access has to do with who has the ear, the attention, of the CRTC, and who is best positioned to make the most of the consultation process as it is currently structured. “Our main challenge was the financial aspect of it and how under-resourced we are in different ways,” BIPOC TV and Film’s Douglas said during the roundtable. “One of the largest challenges is when the [CRTC’s] notice of consultation was opened, it was a really short window for us to submit our intervention. That means we didn’t have any time to dedicate towards consulting with our community . . . That was a huge challenge for us.”

Lee picked up on that theme. “A really stark visual for me, being in the hearings and me going up [alone] to represent CISF, [was] seeing Netflix or Spotify or even larger non-profit advocacy organizations like the Canadian Media Producers Association going up there with a phalanx of not just outside consultants, but their in-house regulatory affairs and government relations people.”

“So we’re trying to go shoulder to shoulder with these groups . . . who have all these resources. Why? Because they’re operating in the commercial sector,” Lee said. “They’re driven around maximizing their profits, not in what’s good for the system.”

Privileging corporate players is a double whammy for non-profits, where access is closely related to the issue of capacity. Delivering the services non-profits provide is tough enough; they are hard-pressed to take on the additional work of researching, writing reports, and jetting off to Ottawa to attend hearings.

“We understand that government bureaucracy is slow, very slow, achingly slow,” Douglas said. “And then, on the other side, I am responding to a community that has urgent needs.”

In Carrington’s choice words, non-profits “seldom have the capacity to familiarize themselves with esoteric regulatory precedents.”

Sometimes it felt like the CRTC hearings were just for show, to get buy-in on what the CRTC ostensibly considers the act’s primary objective: making US streamers pay. Who wouldn’t want their share of monies (reportedly $200 million annually to domestic production in Canada) that US companies are supposed to pump into the system once C-11 is enforced? The non-profits were seemingly left to fight over what proportion of those funds each felt they should receive.

The Hub panellists were very aware of that dynamic. “You do feel like suddenly you’re pitted against your colleagues who you respect and admire,” Swanson said during the roundtable. “Suddenly it feels like we’re all jockeying for a limited amount of resources . . . Let’s face it, there’s not enough money to go around. We’re all fighting for our communities.”

In terms of operating in this atmosphere of scarcity or competition, I do think we’ve done a really great job of information sharing, collaboration, solidarity.

Sally Lee, Canadian Independent Screen Fund for Black and People of Colour Creators

The trio of women have a longstanding history of working together. They worked hard to keep a spirit of collegiality during the CRTC hearings. “In terms of operating in this atmosphere of scarcity or competition,” Lee said, “I do think we’ve done a really great job of information sharing, collaboration, solidarity.”

In other words: more work. Bureaucratic processes rarely acknowledge the emotional work that is the stock and trade of community-based non-profits.

“There isn’t an Indigenous person working in any of these [culture sector] roles, filmmakers included, who doesn’t take on the weight of responsibility of not letting the community down, not letting their families down. And I take that on,” Swanson said. “It feels sometimes just really overwhelming – the weight of that. It’s not just a job.”

All three panellists talked about consultation burnout, feeling unheard during consultations or, worse, lectured at. Douglas characterized these forms of consultation as “extractive,” even a form of “spying.” Many organizations just go through the motions when it comes to their reconciliation, equity, and diversity commitments, what Lee calls “performative box ticking.”

What we’re talking about is not just engagement but accountability.

Sally Lee

The remedy? Concrete change. “Where it makes a huge difference,” Douglas said, “is when we see something tangible coming out of those engagements.”

“What we’re talking about,” Lee added, “is not just engagement but accountability.”

All three Hub panellists supported the idea of setting up a committee within the CRTC, one accountable to their communities. In his CRTC presentation and follow-up post, Carrington pointed to an existing CRTC committee called the Official Language Minority Communities Discussion Group, created to ensure that the broadcasting landscape reflected the country’s linguistic duality. The discussion group, Carrington argues, provides an engagement model that is “open and cooperative” and free of the “judicial trappings” of the existing hearing process.

But doesn’t forming yet another committee risk more consultation burnout? I ask Wilhelm what makes this type of committee effective. “I’ve set up a lot of these in the past in my own work at different cultural agencies over the years,” she says. “They’re useful and helpful when it’s about relationship building over the long term. It is about making sure there is a pathway for advice to come from folks who don’t always have a big seat at the table.”

“What it can do for an agency is open up an entirely new or deeper set of relationships with communities that don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in that agency or in its decision-making,” she adds.

Care, accountability, and effectiveness: a feedback loop

To conclude, let’s explore what open and collaborative policy engagement might entail, whether as part of more formalized consultation structures, like the proposed CRTC discussion group, or as part of something less formal, more personal. Only engagement based on broad access and real accountability can deliver on ambitious policy objectives.

Above, Douglas mentioned how a lack of resources limited her group’s ability to consult with the communities it serves prior to the CRTC hearings. It was different with the ISO, which, even before the permanent funding announcement, was better resourced than Douglas’s group. The ISO, in turn, has a very comprehensive approach to consultation. As Swanson explains, “We used multiple methodologies. We did a small roundtable in-person with a group of senior producers, to get that very high-level perspective from those who had experience working with large budgets and had a number years’ experience in the industry.” But that’s only a small part of the picture, Swanson says. “It’s also important to us to provide access to consultations to whoever wants to participate amongst our constituents. So we extended an invitation to all ISO members in our database, people who applied to our programs in the past, to participate in an online town hall. Then we did a survey.”

That is an important piece, to have that mindset that in order to serve, you need to know what people need.

Kerry Swanson

“So there were multiple access points to the process,” she says. “It’s not just a one-off. We’re constantly in dialogue with the people we serve . . . That is an important piece, to have that mindset that in order to serve, you need to know what people need . . . I think meaningful engagement is asking that question, What do you need? And being really committed to serving people and addressing those needs when you have the chance to.”

When Swanson, Lee, and Douglas talk about feeling responsible to their communities, they are also talking about accountability. “If you’re a part of the community, your responsibility is relational. You are committed to this work,” Swanson tells me in a follow-up conversation. “And I think that level of care is demonstrated in that responsibility and accountability that we feel.”

Swanson notes the central role that mentorship has played in the development of her career and the effectiveness of the ISO. Mentoring, too, is a form of responsibility and care. “My learning was really supported through mentorship within larger institutions [like] the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm,” she says. “The team at CMF, in particular, supported my learning through the CRTC process.”

When I ask if her experiences with mentoring mirror the ties of community and her comments about relationality, Swanson agrees. “It’s true,” she says. “The CMF was one of the founding partners of the ISO. And so we’ve really kept that relationship strong. We’ve also worked very closely with Telefilm, too. We keep fostering those relationships because we’re all in this together. I think everyone does want to see success for Indigenous storytelling on screen and for more diversity on screen. So we really need to work together. We can’t change the industry by ourselves. We need everyone to come along with us.”

According to Swanson, relationality is a feeling of responsibility based on “constant engagement” and a “level of care.” Isn’t that where the real work of advocacy and service takes place? Swanson and the ISO are effective because of their deep, reciprocal relationships to the communities they serve and the government agencies that are supposed to serve those communities.

Whether based on consultations, community ties, or mentoring relationships, ongoing access is the key. Access engenders care; care demands accountability; accountability produces effectiveness.

Now what?

Just as non-profits and government agencies need to have forthright conversations about their reconciliation and EDI commitments, Wilhelm wants those conversations to be taken up by the wider public. The Hub’s role in those conversations, she says, “is not about advocating for a particular cause or outcome, but about knowing where the public good is going to be best served . . . And the public good has got to be in part defined by the public themselves.”

The Cultural Hub’s role in those conversations is not about advocating for a particular cause or outcome, but about knowing where the public good is going to be best served.

Kelly Wilhelm

With a federal election likely in the next year, Wilhelm says that her “number one consideration” right now “is how do we bring a renewed public mandate for investment in culture and cultural industries” to all levels of government. “I’m interested in the meaning and the connection to the public good that these investments in the arts and culture provide,” she says.

Wilhelm hopes Canadians can cut through the toxic hyperbole that often derails substantive policy debates, something C-11 is no stranger to.

“How can we talk about culture in this country in a way that’s actually going to start to bring people back together and to provide that kind of social fabric that we are really struggling to maintain right now in Canada?” she asks. Ultimately, Wilhelm is optimistic: “Despite the polarization of the discourse at the political level, people in Canada are not that far apart from each other on a lot of these big questions.”


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