How pop culture influences Canadian communication

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon reviews
the third volume of How Canadians
Communicate, which features a series of essays that  focuses on
Canadian pop culture and our nation’s search for identity in a
globalized world.

How Candians Communicate Volume 3How Canadians Communicate III: Contexts of Canadian popular culture is a book about culture as “one of the most significant and serious factors in the enactment of citizenship” (p. 31). It is also the third volume of a series of books initiated by University of Calgary’s communication professor, David Taras, and meant to present an account and contribute to the understanding of the Canadian experience with practical examples taken from scholarly researches.

Volume I discussed the challenges that Canadian media and communication industries face in the 21st century. Volume II drew the portrait of the impact of globalization on Canadian media and culture and how we learn both to adapt and resist to its influence. Volume III adds to this tradition by focusing on what Canadian popular culture has to say about the construction and negotiation of our national identity. 

The new book is edited by Bart Beaty, Derek Briton, Gloria Filax and Rebecca Sullivan. The editors have been very clever and unorthodox to invite the American professor, Toby Miller, to write the introduction. Miller argues in favour of a Media Studies 3.0 that would blend “ethnographic, political-economic, and aesthetic analyses in global and local way, establishing links between key areas of cultural production around the world … and diasporic/dispossessed communities engaged in their own cultural production” (p. 43). This is a good addition to the  volume, since it sets the tone for the whole book.

Similarly, Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan say that “[i]n the months leading up to the October 2008 federal election – Canada’s fourth of the twenty-first century – the minority government of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives introduced a series of acts that were seen to negatively impact arts, media, and cultural groups on multiple levels. Among the most controversial was Bill C-61, a dramatic reappraisal of copyright legislation that put severe restrictions on the principle of “fair use” for mass-mediated and digital materials and privilege large media conglomerates over individual media users” (p. 11). Like Miller, they start with the premise that Canadian media faces challenges in an “increasingly transnational media commercialization” (p. 97). This issue is critical in communications studies, presents itself in multiple public policy challenges, and needs to be addressed.
Popular culture, according to the editors and contributors, exists “not merely as discrete texts, but also as mediated communities, as cultural industries, and as praxis in engaging new forms of national identity within larger networks of globalization (p. 13).” The authors strive to find relics of Canadian culture, and in so doing, some examine how surviving Canadian culture has adapted to a global environment.

A series of authors tackle this issue from a local perspective. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s ethics, Gloria Filax looks at various ways that Alberta engages in mobilization of cowboy imagery as opposed to other provinces. Loiselle examines the impact of fragmented and divided French Canadian nation on film production in Quebec. On the contrary, Zoë Druik’s analysis of the Canadian film industry advances the argument that the hoser mockumentary has emerged as a new genre.

Johanne Sloan also examines genres. She is concerned with the way in which artists transform existing cultural artefacts according to changing and contradicting desires of the artists. Frits Pannekoek, Mary Hemmings, and Helen Clarke present an analysis on the role of memory institutions in an increasingly digital and globalized world. The realignment of high culture gatekeepers is superficial, they argue. Specific genres such as comic books, romance fiction or juvenile literature have been kept out of libraries, and the authors say it is a problem since we have no documented memory in these institutions about a variety of Canadian genres.

Heather Devine assesses the role of heritage spaces in the current Canadian landscape, arguing that “Canadian policy-makers are faced with the challenge of developing and implementing cultural and communication policies that will enable it to preserve its unique national identity and cultural sovereignty in the face of powerful, globalized mass media” (p. 236). The challenge of our country is not to forget the past and enter in a new era, but it is to reconcile our past with present challenges that globalization brings to our popular culture. Aboriginal communities are a great example as they foster the “need for autonomy and control over Indigenous heritage, while preserving the sovereignty and cohesion of the larger community” (p. 236).

This example is taken to another level by Michelle Helstein, who analyses female Canadian athletes in relation with the masculinity of sport culture. She argues that new representations call for hybrid diversity. Patricia Hughes-Fuller reinforces this reinterpretation of our identity by assessing Hockey Night in Canada and the gap between myth and reality, such as suggested by John Rauston Saul. She highlights our willingness to know ourselves through myths and memory and whether this is really part of our reality or not.

Similarly, David Gregory argues that folk music programming on Canadian radio does not reflect Canadian identities. Surprisingly, since the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is the only national transmitter, the research also reflects that while it is true that CBC satisfies Canadian content regulation, it might not be enough to only promote “Canadian artists playing Bach or [singing] Pucini” and “devote little time to the country’s heritage of traditional song and instrumental music” (pp. 309-310). This shows a trend in the book, where collective identities seem to become hybrids.

While the local perspective still matters, as Miller alludes, the global perspective is increasingly becoming integrated in our daily practice. Serra Tinic is concerned with the innovation imported to Canada from abroad and the relationship of Canadian culture to international marketplaces within the film industry. Will Straw argues against the general consensus that daily newspapers are in crisis, highlighting national newspapers conglomerates. He raises an important point about the degrees by which the public space “may be commercialized, and the right of diverse voices to register that presence within public space” (p. 91), using free commuter daily Metro as an example. Our identities are soaked in the global context, made stronger with experience in popular culture and daily life practices.

While Ira Wagman starts off the book by reminding us that the social-networking site Facebook often blurs the area of work and play, he wraps up his argument by saying that networking sites could “shed light on some of the issues facing our understanding of new media, most notably that of privacy” (p. 56). Similarly, Derek Briton concludes the volume by an analysis of online gaming spaces such as SecondLife, which encourages Canadian dialogue with globalized and virtualized workers.

The discussions raised by the contributors remind me of Habermas’ public sphere. For them, a strong public sphere fostered by citizens and governments would help enable a strong democratic society. It would have been valuable to see more comparisons with other countries, to highlight that this process does not happen in a vacuum.

It is no criticism of the editors that I want to know more about examples from outside of Canada yet are similar to our experience, which is what Miller argues at the beginning of the volume. On the contrary, it shows how this topic is very current and that there is more sophisticated research that needs to be done on this topic. The Canadian experience is a relevant example and the authors were definitely able to present the challenges that it entails for our public policy, cultural industries, and daily life practices.

This volume is a valuable and rich addition to the series of volumes initiated by Taras and will appeal to a wide audience: starting from undergraduate university students to anyone who want to learn more about Canadian popular culture.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is a Ph.D. student at City University London, and blogger. Her areas of interest are journalism and globalization. She currently lives in London (United Kingdom) and Montreal, QC.