Stranger Things May Happen: The TPP Incident and The Netflix Connection


Though all may not be lost, the talks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Vietnam to put ink to paper on a new, revamped Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) met with quite a road block over the last 24 hours. The impasse was due to one country’s impulsive decision to put up resistance at these multilateral negotiations at the eleventh hour. If that was as far as you read in the first paragraph of a news item, you could be forgiven for presuming President Trump was just being his predictable self. He may not be winning high approval ratings for his performance, but the President does score highly for consistency.

However, Trump was not even at the table for the TPP conversation. The 11 remaining TPP members were meeting, outside of the APEC agenda, and they were seeking an agreement in principle that would not require U.S. involvement. The one to walk away from the table last night, much to the dismay (and even fury) of the other nine members was our Prime Minister.

The answer, in large measure, to the question “why” was a buried lede in this story, and it may yet emerge as the one issue that gains more prominence on the federal landscape in the last two years of this government’s mandate. As CBC’s John Paul Tasker reported, it relates to “the right to regulate, and financially support, the countries’ cultural industries and not fear retribution at a trade tribunal. Importantly, Canada has long said it must be allowed to protect its culture – especially its minority francophone culture – against globalization and cultural assimilation.”

The challenges with questions of intellectual property, digital content – and more to the point cultural content – were not adequately anticipated by Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s launch of “Creative Canada,” the new vision and approach to Canada’s creative industries. That the Minister chose to foreground a $500 million deal with Netflix to produce digital content in Canada, with no clearly articulated provisions for Canadian content, never mind Francophone content, was met with a fire storm of criticism, especially in Quebec. This week Quebec’s Finance Minister Carlos Leitao confirmed his intention to introduce and implement the province’s sales tax on all online goods and services offered by foreign suppliers – an announcement made in response to Joly’s launch.

Small wonder, given this context, that Trudeau did not want to add fuel to this fire with any agreement in Vietnam – until or unless this issue was adequately dealt with first.

Outside of this episode in Vietnam, the old, familiar litany about foreign ownership and cultural dominance in Canada that the Netflix conversation revived shows no sign of abating, given the state of the NAFTA negotiations. Any substantive approach to dealing with overarching issues of Intellectual Property and Digital Content will have to be addressed and soon, given the 1994 agreement is woefully lacking in these areas. In the wake of two decades of digital disruption that has dramatically affected our cultural industries – not least in Quebec – a great deal of political calculus has to factor in to what the Trudeau government is prepared to give in to at the negotiating table.

This conversation can quickly transform into a fight for the right to tell our stories to ourselves and protect what we value about our cultural identity. To think this issue will just be about jobs in the creative industries here, and how we can effect the least painful transition to a digital economy, is wishful thinking at best. Especially for anyone facing re-election in 2019.

A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.