C-11 and digital creators

There are a few debates currently brewing within the Canadian broadcast ecosystem about Bill C-11, also known as the Online Streaming Act

Will bringing online platforms — such as YouTube, Spotify and Netflix — under the scope of the Broadcasting Act succeed in generating more funds for a wider range of national programming? 

Will amendments to the Broadcasting Act materially make any difference to the livelihoods of Canada’s digital creators?

It’s tough to predict the impact of C-11, but digital creators and their supporters have a lot to say about what’s possible. 

Creators speak

“My take [on C-11] is nuanced,” said YouTuber and Producer Fred Bastien Forrest in a recent interview. 

“The best thing that can come out of any legislation [would] be the financing of digital culture [and] funding communities that are authentic in that space, [to ensure] we can compete with the production value of America, France, and the world… 

“The scary part,” he added, “is the CRTC not understanding what digital content is and [treating] it like traditional media, breaking stuff inadvertently and messing up the way my generation consumes content.”

Fred Raw Photo 1
Fred Bastien Forrest

Opinions on the “discoverability” aspect of C-11 vary widely, and geographically, across the country. According to The Globe and Mail, a Nanos survey found only 19 percent of Quebecers oppose the idea of greater government regulation of the internet, compared with 50 percent in the Prairies. 

Bastien is open to reforms, however. “It's interesting… [Legislators] are trying to recoup value from these American companies, right? [But] when you take a step back, I wonder if they won’t just hurt their market, workers, and economies by trying to do that..." 

“There's a limit to what you can do with legislation.”

Read: Des artistes québécois portent leurs espoirs au projet de loi C-11.
Watch: Fred Bastien’s testimony to the Canadian Senate on Bill C-11
Listen: La culture québécoise et franco-canadienne peut-elle survivre sur YouTube et Spotify

For musician and comedian Eve Parker Finley — who now hosts the CBC Music show Ten-Minute Topline on YouTube — the debates on C-11 are circling around a “classic” cultural question: how will Canadian media survive without government intervention? 

“Promoting Canadian discoverability is a great step but the greatest barrier for anyone to become a creator or an artist of any kind is their own financial situation,” said Finley, adding she was only able to release her music in 2020 since she was receiving CERB and a Canada Council for the Arts grant. 

“Those things make a bigger difference than a quota,” she noted. “There are really talented people who do not have the time to make art and content because they are just trying to survive.” In the current creator marketplaces, “it’s impossible to eke out even a middle-class income, unless you are super successful.” 

Eva Parker Finley
Eve Parker Finley (photo credit: Stacy Lee)

(SOCAN reported much the same in 2021, finding that, on average, Canadian musicians earned only $67 in royalties from domestic streaming services.) 

Quotas in the music world and grants in the art world undoubtedly help foster Canadian talent, Finley added. “If we don’t have those things, it’s such a huge challenge to compete with the US.”

Especially since it’s not a meritocracy, in terms of who rises to the top online. 

Finley thinks there’s “something interesting about the idea of having slightly more government intervention over what gets shown on these huge platforms because, at least in theory, there’s an accountability structure to the citizens.” 

“I don’t think a multibillion dollar, multinational company is necessarily going to be accountable to their users [or] more democratic than a government. That’s a false idea. Both [approaches] have their concerns.” 

C-11 and cultural sovereignty 

Pascale Chapdelaine, an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Windsor, recently wrote in Policy Options magazine that the “incremental changes” made through C-11 to “the regulatory powers of oversight of media content are a soft yet important exercise of cultural sovereignty.” 

Citing a 2019 paper, Chapdelaine noted that “algorithmic personalization of media content is a form of cultural policy […] a form of curation, a main function of traditional broadcasting, subject to the Broadcasting Act’s framework and policy goals.”

Nonetheless, “personalization diverges from traditional broadcasting curation in important ways,” she wrote. “As media researcher Tanya Kant points out, personalization of media content amounts to a form of narrowcasting.”

Finley hopes C-11 won’t cut Canadian creators with smaller audiences out: “While I feel supportive of the ideas in the bill, I worry [that, in practice it could] lift up Canadian media that is already doing fine and in a way that it would further marginalize voices,” she said. 

“If we really want this to be about bringing more people into the arena, then it can’t be about just promoting the most successful Canadian content. That’s the challenge.” 

Other academics also feel C-11 is still missing the mark for digital-first creators: “More ambitious reforms should overhaul our national media regulator, emphasize creators’ rights, and cultivate a new generation of public media in order to create opportunities for content creators working online” wrote Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. 

As C-11 seeks to modernize broadcasting, it’s to be noted that while there are guilds and unions in the film and TV world to lobby and protect workers’ rights, these structures don’t meaningfully exist on the digital side just yet.

"[TikTok] creators in the states get paid for how many views, they have but that’s not the case in Canada," explained Finley, adding it would be hard to imagine that changing without government intervention.

McKelvey argued that a turn to YouTube “clearly demonstrates that the Canadian public infrastructure is lacking for creators, [who] continue to be on the outside, without a clear way to participate nor a chance to build something better.” 

The best case scenarios

If nothing else, debates about updating the Broadcasting Act have brought mainstream attention to these systemic obstacles. 

“The laws and guidelines that govern broadcasting and content creation haven’t changed since Brian Mulroney was prime minister,” argued Jesse Wente, the first Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office and currently Chair of the Canada Council of the Arts, in a recent op-ed. “As a result, the gatekeepers remain largely the same.”

With a modernized Act, Wente continued, “we can ensure more funding [and] reform to the broadcasting system to ensure that it evolves fairly amid technological and societal changes.” 

For creators like Bastien, the impact of C-11 remains to be seen and the devil is in the details. 

He just thinks whatever happens next should include creators. “If Canadian institutions begin to make concrete plans, like new grants, [for digital creators and] new ways to distribute money, creators who have been in that space for a long time need to be invited to the table [to ensure] these new policies serve creators in the economy,” he said. 

What Finley wants policymakers to consider is similar but more direct: “Bring back CERB,” she argued. “That’s the best way to help amazing Canadian creators make really cool shit.”

Laura Beeston
Laura Beeston is a writer, editor and content strategist from Winnipeg. In 10+ years of media making, she's worked on a variety of projects but was notably a breaking news reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star, and an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail. Since 2017, she's worked as multimedia content producer and is a media advisor and mentor at The Link.
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