Now that spring is here .. even if the Liberals fall, we’ll always have Canadian culture goods

Mar 31st, 2005 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

As the prospect of warmer weather settles in again across the true north, the latest political rumblings of quasi-hysteria in Ottawa can start to seem beside the point. Now even Liberals are apparently unhappy about the Liberal government’s neo-Machiavellian blending of both the Kyoto and Atlantic accords with upcoming federal budget legislation. Yet a “vote on the budget bill is not expected until late April.” Get back to us closer to the deadline, the taxpaying democratic electorate seems to be saying. That will do fine.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining, sometimes. And the Statistics Canada Daily has just reported on exports and imports of “culture goods” for the year 2003. That seems more in the spirit of the new season. April may be the cruellest month. But in spring more generally a young person’s thoughts turn to Canadian culture. Which nowadays has almost everything to do with business, and goods and services, and exports and imports, and exactly how much money is on the table, just like everything else.

Another “surge in imported goods from China”

South of the recently renamed unfortified border, the high-minded public television personality Bill Moyers has been worrying, in the pages of The New York Review of Books , about how “of late … one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power.”

As usual, it is impossible not to feel some similar strange vibrations up north in Canada too. And on one of them the federal parliament actually may defeat the present Martin minority government’s budget bill – and precipitate another election, less than a year after the last one, on some complex technical questions about implementing the Kyoto Accord.

Again, however, even the prospect of this kind of delusion’s invading the seats of power is still a few weeks away from being tested, in the growing heat of the fires on Parliament Hill. For the moment it seems more compelling that, as Statistics Canada reports, “Canada’s trade deficit in culture goods widened for the fourth consecutive year in 2003, thanks in part to a surge in imported goods from China … China became the second biggest exporter of culture goods to Canada in 2003, displacing the United Kingdom and France.”

(And this may ring a few extra bells as well, in the minds of those who have recently received their April 2005 copies of the still newish Toronto magazine known as The Walrus in the ordinary mail. With this provocative question at the top of its front cover: “AS THE OIL RUNS OUT – The US and China square off in Alberta: what card will Ottawa play?”)

The brighter side of culture goods exports … Advertising, Photography, Sound recording and music publishing

There are other small and large fascinations in the latest numbers on Canadian culture goods. The trade deficit itself is what culture industry managers are no doubt most concerned to underline. As Statistics Canada judges things, Canada imported some $4.5 billion worth of culture goods, and exported only $2.5 billion in 2003 – for a yawning trade gap of some $2 billion.

Yet as alarming as this is, the numbers also hold out various kinds of more encouraging national news. Statistics Canada, e.g., divides culture goods into eight broad sectors: Written and published works; Film and video; Sound recording and music publishing; Visual Art; Architecture; Advertising; Heritage; and Photography. The trade deficit is overwhelmingly concentrated in just one of these sectors – Written and published works. Its size is less alarming in other sectors. And in three sectors Canada even ran a trade surplus in culture goods in 2003.

In Advertising, to take the leading case in point, Canada imported only some $184 million worth of culture goods in 2003, while it exported $440 million. The trade surplus in Photography was not quite as good as this: $151 million in imports versus $217 million in exports. In Sound recording and music publishing the surplus was less dramatic again, with imports of $143 million and exports of $155 million. But it remains true that Canada did run a culture goods trade surplus in the sound of music. And that rocks, baby (or should it be dude?).

It is probably worth noting as well that the trade deficit in the Film and video sector is a great deal smaller than in Written and published works. Canada imported $865 million worth of Film and video culture goods in 2003. But exports in this sector amounted to $618 million – or almost 72% of imports. For Written and published works exports amounted to only 33% of imports. (And which sector is more influential in our various cultures today?)

Even in written and published works there has been some progress

In the broad sweep of the known Canadian past, it would also seem wrong to get too upset about the $1.9 billion trade deficit in Written and published works in 2003 ($941 million worth of exports, compared with imports of more than $2.8 billion).

Just think back, e.g., to the early fall of 1890. Goldwin Smith, a former Regius Professor of History at Oxford University in England, had some considerable time before resettled in Toronto (in a big house that is now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario). And he was about to cease publication of his innovative local magazine known as The Bystander (“A Monthly Review of Current Events, Canadian and General,” dedicated to the slogan “Not Party, But the People”).

Goldwin Smith had done what was in his power to help provide “one at least, though perhaps not the most important of the elements of nationality” in the still quite new and struggling Canadian confederation of 1867. (And he at least established a model that The Walrus is only the latest publishing enterprise to bravely emulate, more than a century later.) But he had to set aside the quest himself for the time being. The challenge was immense and he was getting old.

There was, he explained, “no use in denying the fact that the literary products of a dependency are at a discount in the dependency itself” (to say nothing of the world beyond its borders). And in the Canada of the late 19th century, as the former Regius Professor had discovered, the “struggle against the literary journalism of the mother country and still more against that of the United States is almost desperate.”

Viewed against this background, what is remarkable is that Canada actually exported close to a billion dollars worth of Written and published works beyond its borders in 2003. And you can see evidence of the hard-earned achievements of more recent Canadian generations in this particular culture goods sector in other places too. There is, e.g., a piece by Margaret Atwood in the April 7, 2005 issue of The New York Review Books (to set alongside the piece on how the delusional is no longer marginal, by Bill Moyers, in the issue for March 24).

Most culture goods trade is from (and to) the United States … but it’s not all in Ontario (or even Ontario and Quebec)

As with all other goods and services, by far the largest share of Canada’s international trade in culture is with the United States next door. In 2003 78% of all Canadian imports of culture goods and an even more dramatic 93% of all exports came from or went to the US. (And the exports number should prompt anyone who imagines that any form of “anti-Americanism” is important for the economic health of Canadian cultural industries to think again.)

As already noted, in the world beyond North America the big story lately has been the increasing importance of China. In 1996 the largest sources of culture goods imports to Canada after the United States were France (4.0% of the total) and the United Kingdom (3.8%), followed by China (2.5%) and Italy (0.7%). By 2003 the order beyond the USA had changed to China (6.7%), the United Kingdom (4.3%), France (4.0%), and Italy (1.0%).

Inside Canada itself the Statistics Canada Daily stresses that “By far, Ontario accounts for the majority of trade in culture goods … In 2003, more than $3.3 billion worth of culture goods were imported into Canada through Ontario … almost three-quarters of total imports” And “Ontario accounted for one-half of all culture goods exported from Canada.”

Yet the imports number here can be misleading. The point is not that a very cultivated Ontario used up almost 75% of culture goods imports all by itself. It is just that Ontario, with just under 39% of the 2003 Canadian population, has the largest anglophone regional market in the country. It is the logical single Canadian place for culture goods exporters from other countries to ship to, as a distribution centre for the rest of Canada. (That may be unfair to other provinces in some respects. But it remains both an almost irresistible business convenience for many culture goods exporters in such places as the US, China, the UK, and Italy, and a continuing reason for Ontario to contribute at least some of its resulting extra tax dollars to equalization payments for other provinces, that do not have such large populations and regional markets.)

Similarly, what is surprising about culture goods exports from Canada – given what you sometimes hear more casually about such things – is that Ontario, with its especially advantageous almost 39% of the national population, had only 52% of the action here in 2003. Quebec had 30% (down from 33% in 1996), BC and the Territories 11% (up from 9% in 1996), the Prairies 6% (up from 5%), and Atlantic Canada 1%. (And of course while Atlantic Canada does not have a lot of international culture goods exports, it has lately come to almost dominate anglophone national culture on television inside Canada – with the likes of Rick Mercer, Marg Delahunty, Ricky and Julian and all the other Trailer Park Boys, and on and on and on.)

No matter what province you live in, none of this may seem remotely important if the new Conservative Party of Canada, the Bloc Quebecois, and the NDP actually do join forces in Ottawa and defeat Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government on its budget legislation, over the next few weeks.

But if Bill Moyers’s proposition about how the delusional is getting so much closer to the seats of power nowadays actually does come true to quite this extent, it just might be time to ponder yet again the very serious price of exporting and importing quite so many culture goods in the true north, to and from the more remote red states down south. Meanwhile, it’s time to go out and rent another Chinese movie at the video store – maybe Shanghai Triad, starring Gong Li, or perhaps one of her other vehicles, like Ju Dou, or Raise the Red Lantern, or Temptress Moon. Who says this ain’t a great country, looking ahead to celebrating its own 150th birthday, in 2017?

Leave Comment