Cultural Protectionism in Canada

1280px-flag_of_the_north_american_free_trade_agreement_standard_version-svgCultural Policy Series, Part 1 of 5

The history of cultural policy in Canada is marked by systematic efforts to control the influence of the United States on Canada’s culture. Cultural protectionism is a national policy or philosophy that rejects or limits the import of foreign cultural products and the impact of foreign media on a nation’s cultural industries. In Canada, policy has been set to protect indigenous cultural products and industries that are perceived to be negatively impacted by the influx of programming and values from the U.S.

According to world system theory, nation-states may be divided into three zones with varying levels of interaction. Under this model, both the United States and Canada are considered core nations. However, Canada and the U.S. have a unique relationship in terms of their history and geography, and as a result Canada in relation to the U.S. acts as more of what Thomas McPhail (2014) calls a semi-peripheral, subordinate nation subject to the flow of “technology, software, capital, knowledge, finished goods, and services” from its dominant neighbour. As a result, Canada has felt the pressure to protect its own cultural values and industries from Americanization.

In “Cultural imperialism and cultural sovereignty: U.S.-Canadian cultural relations” (2000), Kevin Mulcahy notes that the Canadian government has repeatedly “sought to mitigate any expansion of American influence over Canada’s extensively co-opted cultural identity” by preserving and promoting distinct Canadian cultural and social values. As early as 1928, the Canadian government was exploring ways to protect Canadian broadcasting from American content controlling the airwaves. The recommendations arising from the 1929 Aird Commission report resulted in the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, which become the CBC in 1936.

Canadian concerns with U.S. domination have continued throughout the century, such as the 1951 Massey Commission, which recommended strengthening Canada’s cultural institutions; the new Broadcasting Act of 1968 that created the Canadian Radio Television Commission (now the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC) to ensure that broadcasting remains in Canadian hands; and Canada’s adoption of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2007 (it was opposed by the U.S.). As Michael Dewing points out in Federal Government Policy on Arts and Culture, “These efforts tended to promote the idea that the government should have a role in fostering Canadian culture through the creation of institutions, funding and regulation .”

While it is clear that the U.S. market exerts a high level of influence on Canada’s social, economic, and political framework, the changing nature of the global media landscape—in particular, the emergence of multinational media conglomerates—means there is no monolithic global media empire controlled by the U.S. As a result, and in addition to new challenges such as Canada’s ethnic diversity and rapid changes in technology, federal policy to protect indigenous cultural products and industries may no longer be sufficient or relevant. Rather, Canada may need to explore new policies and approaches aimed at increasing media partnerships and distribution of Canadian content to global markets, not just maintain existing policies to protect Canadian cultural production.

An oft cited example of Canada’s cultural protectionism policy and its conflict against or difference from the United States, is the debates surrounding cultural industries as outlined in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA specifies that cultural industries are to be governed by the terms of the 1989 Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, and Article 2005 (1) of this agreement states that “cultural industries are exempt from the provisions of the Agreement.” In the context of protectionism, this clause appears to secure cultural industries against the provisions of the agreement; however, the subsequent clause, which indicates “a party may take measures of equivalent commercial effect in response to actions that would have been inconsistent with this Agreement but for paragraph 1,” has raised concerns that the U.S., with its free market ideology, could challenge Canada’s policies aimed at protecting its indigenous industries. Although the U.S. has not made such a challenge, it did contest Canada’s policy aimed at protecting the Canadian magazine industry and won. In this case, the World Trade Organization ruled that Canada’s split run magazines were a violation of NAFTA.

See also: Canadian Culture: New Policies and Approaches (Part 2), Internet Streaming and Canadian Content (Part 3), Cultural Policy in Mexico: NAFTA and Beyond (Part 4), How AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead Reinforces U.S. Cultural Hegemony (Part 5)


Dewing, Michael. Federal Government Policy on Arts and Culture. 2010. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2013.

McPhail, Thomas. Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends. 4th ed. 2002. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Mulcahy, K. V. “Cultural imperialism and cultural sovereignty: U.S.-Canadian cultural relations.” Summer 2000. American Review of Canadian Studies, 30(2), 181–206.



© Jennifer Bertrand, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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