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Culture Cuts a Blow to Canadian Digitization Strategy

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The Canadian cultural community has been abuzz over the past two weeks as details emerge about the government's plans to cut millions of dollars from nearly a dozen culture programs. While the cuts may find support among some Canadians opposed to public funding for the arts, a closer look at the plans reveal that this has little to do with handouts to artists.  Rather, the affected programs are focused on industrial policy and the creation of a digital information strategy.  

The industrial policy programs, including PromArt and Trade Routes, provide financial backing for Canadian artists and culture through the promotion of Canadian artists abroad. Supporters of the cuts argue that the market should be the sole determinant of artistic success and that public dollars for promotion are unnecessary.

Yet the reality is that these kinds of programs are common in industrial sectors throughout the economy.  The Canadian government regularly launches trade promotion initiatives, maintains trade offices in foreign countries, and allocates billions of dollars in support for key sectors such as the aerospace, automotive, and energy industries.

Few people argue for a market-only approach for the sale of airplanes, largely because public support is recognized as a necessary pre-condition to global commercial success.  The same may be true in the cultural industries. As we move from a world of scarcity (limited bandwidth and access to culture) to one of abundance (near unlimited access to culture), Canadian policies must shift from unworkable regulations that limit access to foreign content toward efforts that back the creation and promotion of Canadian content. In other words, cutting off funding for promotion is not just bad cultural policy.  It is bad economic policy.

The second class of programs relate to the digitization of Canadian content.  These programs include the Canadian Memory Fund, the portal, and the A-V Presentation Trust. These cuts are particularly disappointing since Canada once prioritized support for digital networks, but it now lags badly behind much of the world in its digitization efforts.

Most of our major trading partners, including the United States, European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and China have already established digitization strategies that feature robust programs and ambitious plans. Those countries recognized that an effective digitization strategy yields significant domestic benefits such as wider access to knowledge for all communities, a greater appreciation of national cultural heritage, and the facilitation of lifelong learning.  There are tangible international advantages as well, since digital access supports cultural exports and collaborative scientific research.

Yet the announced cuts move Canada in the opposite direction. For example, just as the government was cutting $11.7 million to the Canadian Memory Fund (which gives federal agencies money to digitize their collections and post them online), the European Union - which is currently led by the Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy - was committing nearly $200 million next year alone toward digitization and efforts to provide online access to Europe's cultural heritage.  The European Commission has urged its member states to increase their digitization budgets, as Europe works toward the creation of a massive European Digital Library.

These program cuts seemingly guarantee that Canada will fall further behind the digitization race, leaving Canadians without online access to their cultural and historical heritage and doing precious little to promote Canadian content to the rest of the world.  The decisions may provide short-term gains among some voting constituencies, but also promise long-term pain for Canada's presence in the online world.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at