In Defence of Florence

By Jacob Webster

Convocation speeches vary from the insightful to the mundane and across the spectrum between those two poles. John Peters Humphrey used his convocation address on June 9th, 1976 at McGill University to tackle notions of excellence, Canadian nationalism, and universality. In this speech Humphrey describes the threat that Canadian nationalism presents toward excellence and argues against isolationist cultural policies in a way that is increasingly significant for contemporary discussions about culture and media.

The atmosphere of a university convocation will be familiar to most in society whether they have an academic background or not. It is an event celebrating the academic achievements of university students from undergraduates to newly conferred PhD recipients. John Peters Humphrey was invited to deliver the 1976 convocation address to students, faculty, staff, graduates, and friends of McGill University and used this opportunity to unpack the compatibility between excellence and nascent understandings of Canadian nationalism.

The convocation address mounted a defence of excellence in all forms.[1]  Humphrey positioned laws that mandate the protection and proliferation of Canadian cultural content as an important threat to excellence in Canadian culture and society. He envisioned excellence as important in all domains within society from plumbing to philosophy, and credited equality of opportunity as the right that makes the realization of excellence possible.[2] Unlike equality of opportunity, Nationalism inhibits the embrace of universal excellence in Humphrey’s assessment.

In attacking Canadian nationalism, Humphrey delivers an invective against Canadian content regulations that is increasingly prescient in the current media and cultural landscape. By arguing that Canadian content regulations promote mediocrity and limit freedom, Humphrey attacks efforts to preserve Canadian culture and support Canadian talent simply based on their national origin. These protectionist policies, Humphrey argues, “can only result in national mediocrity and possibly worse.”[3] He invokes Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right to access information regardless of national borders, in justifying his opposition to isolationist cultural policy.[4] Not only does Humphrey make a utilitarian argument that Canadians will be exposed to better information when Canadian culture is not supported solely based on its Canadian-ness, he makes a rights-based argument emphasizing equality of opportunity and the free flow of ideas across borders. This multi-pronged attack on content regulations shakes the foundation of policies meant to promote Canadian nationalism.

In ridiculing Canadian efforts to protect cultural material based solely on their degree of Canadianness, Humphrey provides an alternative. In an appeal to history Humphrey exhorts Canadians to follow the Florentine model of the 14th and 15th Centuries. By the Florentine model Humphrey encourages an embrace of excellence regardless of its national origin. Instead of insulating themselves in their Tuscan traditions, denizens of Florence embraced and sought out excellence, and in doing so proliferated ideas that led to global advancement. In dichotomizing the Florentine openness to the more insular and nationalistic concept of national content protection, Humphrey provides an interesting binary that is relevant to current discussions surrounding Canadian media and culture.

Humphrey’s critique of Canadian content regulations is increasingly salient because it went against the prevailing zeitgeist of his time. The 1960s and ‘70s were a tumultuous time for Canadian nationalism. With the growing influence of the United States on Canadian society and culture, many Canadians were unsure how to protect and foster Canadian talent in media and the arts. This fear led to the creation of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) that was designed to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.”[5] The mission of the CRTC was supported by important Canadian intellectuals like George Grant and Walter Gordon as well as everyday Canadians.[6] Given the broadly constituted support for Canadian content regulations in all echelons of Canadian society Humphrey’s critique was rather anomalous.

Despite the regulations, fears of losing Canadian content have not dissipated. Given the increasing difficulty of policing content in the digital age and a recent report published by the Public Policy Forum Humphrey’s critique is increasingly prescient. For traditional media like television and radio, enforcing Canadian content was relatively straight forward. If stations did not conform to CRTC standards the Commission could revoke their license to broadcast.[7] However, with the ubiquity of content on the internet and the practical impossibility of regulating internet domains and social media the CRTC is at a crossroads. Not only, as Humphrey suggests, are content regulations potentially harmful to excellent content but they may be impossible to enforce in the digital ecosystem. The CRTC acknowledges this fact in stating, “The control of access as a means of guaranteeing the supply of Canadian content is becoming outdated.”[8]

Furthermore, Canadian media is in a time of crisis. In a recent report published by the non-partisan Public Policy Forum entitled “The Shattered Mirror” they detail the dire state of Canadian media organizations, notably so-called “legacy media” institutions like the Globe and Mail and Postmedia. The Report suggests policy solutions that would protect Canadian media in the advent of a digital age that is dominated by foreign media sources. Specifically, the report recommends eliminating tax deductions for foreign owned companies and news entities in an effort to insulate Canadian legacy media institutions from foreign owned companies like Google, Facebook, and the New York Times.[9] It also proposes imposing increased taxes on news media subscriptions that do not meet Canadian content regulations.[10] The capital generated from these programs would go to support Canadian media outlets in an attempt to preserve Canadian content in the news media landscape.[11] The report was written by former Editor-in-Chief of The Globe and Mail Ed Greenspon.[12] The recommendations of this report are a proposal to institute Canadian content regulations that fit the present evolving digital ecosystem. They represent an attempt to bolster the position of long-standing Canadian media institutions by penalizing foreign news sources. These policy recommendations are antithetical to Humphrey’s exhortation to embrace excellence rather than protect mediocrity simply because of its national origin. They contravene the principle of equality of opportunity, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Humphrey’s call to embrace the global proliferation of excellence regardless of national origin.

Digital media provides an unparalleled platform for the global transmission of ideas and information. It makes Humphrey’s Florentine model increasingly possible. Given this incredible tool that allows the dissemination of information and journalism around the world, should the Canadian government support Canadianness or excellence? Based on the rhetoric of Humphrey’s speech it is clear which side of the debate he would come down on. Humphrey’s critique of Canadian cultural protectionism deserves re-examination. The dilemma that Humphrey elucidated in 1976 remains contentious today and his recommendations provide a model by which Canadians can pursue excellence in the digital age.

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.370 – Graduation Speech (June 9, 1976), John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives. 2.

[2] Ibid 4.

[3] Ibid. 9.

[4] Ibid 11.

[5] “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

[6] Ryan Edwardson, “Canadian Content : Culture and the Quest for Nationhood,”  (2008). 144

[7] “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

8 “Canadian Broadcasting Policy, 6 August 2014”, Background Paper No. 2011-39-E

[9] Bruce Campion-Smith and Alex Ballingall, “Media Cuts Are a Threat to Canadian Democracy, New Report Warns,” Toronto Star 2017.

[10] Daniel LeBlanc, “Canada’s Media Industry Needs Major Federal Cash Injection: Report,” The Globe and Mail 2017.

[11] ibid

[12] Ballingall.

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