Are we American?

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McGill Reporter
February 7, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 11
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Are we American?

Are we American? Now that’s a loaded question – especially when it comes to Canadian culture and its associated industries. But it’s not a question some of the continent’s top cultural players will shy away from next week.

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) will tackle the question of Canada’s cultural identity in a North American context in the 2008 installment of its annual conference. From Feb. 13-15, “Are We American? Canadian Culture in North America” will bring together leading artists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, media specialists and scholars from Canada, the United States and Mexico. Among many others, these include political commentator and author Andrew Cohen, former Quebec cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin, cartoonist Terry (Aislin) Mosher, aboriginal comedian Drew Hayden Taylor, Mexican cultural commentator Carlos Monsiváis, authors Wayde Compton and Émile Martel, and musician and Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil.

Critical issues ranging from Canada’s star-making machinery and Quebecois successes in Las Vegas will be on the agenda for what promises to be a dynamic exchange of ideas.

“Some of it I know will have a direct influence on policy,” Professor Will Straw, Acting Director of MISC and conference chair, said. “But we really want it to be about case studies – identifying those elements of Canadian culture that do work in the United States or Mexico and those that don’t, and what makes them work. Is language a major barrier? Is it legal issues such as immigration and visas? Is it the differences in the markets?”

The effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – some 15 years after NAFTA came into force – will undoubtedly be among the more contentious issues on the table, raising the question of whether the products of cultural industries are more about culture or industry. “It’s complicated because in Canada there’s been a whole shift in policy to thinking about culture in terms of industries,” Straw said. “And in the United States, even though they think of it as an industry, there’s a very strong sense that culture is a kind of arm of public diplomacy – that it sells American values to the world. So in both Canada and the U.S. you have this idea of it as just an industry but also that it not only is about values and about communicating who we are to others.

“Canadian culture is stronger internally than it’s ever been and that’s given us a sense of our own distinctiveness. Of course we watch American movies and television shows, but we’ve now got things in Canada to which we’re highly devoted, whether it’s Corner Gas or Trailer Park Boys or Quebec cinema.”

Furthermore, the Mexican presence promises to offer a refreshing take on these issues. “There are as many speakers from Mexico as there are from the U.S.”, Straw said. “Throughout the whole thing I’ve been trying to get various kinds of balance and diversity,” between both the professional sectors and the countries from which the speakers come.

“You’re going to have people who say there’s no such thing as North America, that we all live in countries with very different values. And then you’re going to have people whose careers have allowed them to move with relative ease between Canada and the U.S. and possibly Mexico, and they’re going to say that there is an idea of ‘American-ness,’ a kind of new world culture that we all share. I hope they fight it out,” Straw said, quickly adding: “Politely, of course.”

“Are we American? Canadian Culture in North America;” Feb. 13-15. For more information go to

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