MONTREAL — Wearing a headset and a look of practiced indignation, Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin began her media availability Friday trying to convince everyone that her government hadn’t just backed down. “Despite a deliberate filibuster by our Conservative colleagues, Liberal members of the heritage committee were finally able to share the social media amendments to Bill C-10 while respecting parliamentary privilege,” Dabrusin said.
Nevertheless, behind Dabrusin’s statement was an obvious concession. After weeks on the receiving end of ire from Conservative MPs—as well as academics, legal experts, columnists and free-the-internet activists—the government was making changes to a bill it hoped would update the Canadian Broadcasting Act for a world increasingly dominated by digital platforms.
Bill C-10, the federal Liberals’ effort to bring Canada’s broadcasting rules into the 21st century, has sparked a firestorm of criticism from Conservative MPs, legal scholars and business leaders who see it as an assault on free speech and a travesty of big-government overreach. But those voices are notably English Canadian; in Quebec, it has been much more positively received. The province’s politically influential cultural sector backs the bill, which is in part an expression of the anxiety of a francophone community about an increasingly online world with English as its lingua franca.
You’d think legislation on the country’s broadcasting rules would be about as compelling as a “Corner Gas” rerun. In the Liberal telling, Bill C-10 seeks simply to “promote and make discoverable our artists, our stories and our shared experiences,” as Dabrusin put it. The government wants these services to pay into Canadian media funds, as well as make YouTube and other music streaming services to futz with their algorithms in order to up the “discoverability” of Canadian artists. No, Justin Trudeau doesn’t want to regulate your cat videos.
And yet Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has somehow ended up on the wrong end of a debate that has seen the Liberals accused of “a full-blown assault” on free expression in Canada and of running “the most anti-Internet government in Canadian history.
Those accusations have by and large come from English Canada. But to understand how we got here, you have to understand Guilbeault’s efforts to address the concerns of the country’s broadcasters and cultural institutions—specifically those in his home province of Quebec. And, you have to understand Justin Bieber.