Margaret Atwood Weighs into Bill C-11 Debate: Says Government Shouldn’t Tell Writers What to Write

Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, has weighed into the Bill C-11 debate. She says that the government shouldn’t be telling writers what to write.

Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, has been one of the subjects of Bill C-11. The reason why is because a film adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale, wouldn’t qualify under current Canadian content rules (or “CanCon”). While there is no question that Atwood is Canadian, the ownership rules says that because the film is owned elsewhere, it’s not considered Canadian. The example sparked a fair bit of debate over ownership rules and what qualifies as “Canadian”. Lobbyists have pushed back, saying that changing the rules would cannibalize their industry and, as such, have not only pushed back against rethinking this, but also called for the tightening of such rules, claiming that Canadian production shouldn’t just be a service industry.

That debate periodically spilled into the Section 4.2 debate. Often, it is with good reason. Should user generated content also fall into the scope of Bill C-11, that would force YouTubers, Twitch streamers, TikTok creators, and more to try and navigate the Cancon rules complete with 10 page forms and month’s of waiting for approval. Otherwise, they would risk their content being demoted on such a basis. So, little wonder there was pushback on that front.

Lobbyists, at least initially, pushed back against this part of the debate by trying to sell politicians on the idea that online creators are not “real” creators and that the whole debate is “something of a canard” that should be ignored by politicians. Fortunately, Senators didn’t ignore this part of the debate, ignoring calls to not touch that section which some argued was ‘as good as it is going to get’. An amendment was tabled and passed which seemingly does everything that both sides asked for: scope out user generated content while targeting commercial music. So far, this change has survived and only has the test of surviving the final stages of agreeing to a final version of the bill between the House of Commons and the Senate.

Much focus was, indeed, on the user generated content portion of the bill. Less talked about, and, in retrospect, somewhat surprisingly, was the commercial content that still suffer from such onerous rules. While it is rather late in the debate, Atwood herself has weighed in on the debate. She compared the bill to Nazi Germany. From The Globe and Mail (probably paywalled):

Margaret Atwood has weighed into the debate about Bill C-11, saying “bureaucrats should not be telling creators what to write.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Atwood said bureaucrats also should not be deciding what’s Canadian.

“All you have to do is read some biographies of writers writing in the Soviet Union and the degrees of censorship they had to go through – government bureaucrats,” she said. “So it is creeping totalitarianism if governments are telling creators what to create.”

The author said she had not read the bill “thoroughly yet” and that there seemed to be “well-meaning attempts to achieve some sort of fairness in the marketplace.”

Atwood encouraged people to listen to Senator David Adam Richards speech on Bill C-11. Parts of his speech can be heard on Michael Geist while the whole speech transcript can be found on the site as well. The main takeaway is when government decides what is acceptable content, then we travel down a very dangerous path that other countries have followed where books or other works were banned. While Canada isn’t at the book banning stage of this debate, we have gotten a big step closer to such a world with this bill.

Indeed, while user generated content may be safe, unless Section 4.2 is reversed or the CRTC finds another way to work around the rules to regulate such content, the “professional” content is left untouched and suffers from the same onerous Cancon rules. If “professional” creators have to create works specifically tailored to such rules just to be found on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or other streaming services, then self-censorship is going to be inevitable. It’s either that or such creators will have to rely exclusively on non-Canadian audiences just to showcase that their work is economically viable and worth investment from big production firms. It’s really a choice that such creators shouldn’t have to make.

In essence, those creators have been put into a position where the government is inserting themselves into contracts made between these online services and such creators. Without government interference, then their work gets to compete freely in a more open market where their work is just competing for attention with other commercial work. With Bill C-11, the government is stepping in and saying that either their work makes it through the certification process or they are getting demoted in the rankings – all this in favour of other content in Canada. The Section 4.2 amendment doesn’t really touch this part of the debate at all.

Unfortunately, we are in the legislative process part where changes are going to be extremely difficult to make. So, if creators in Canada that produce for such premium services want to see a change in all of this, then it will probably have to be through the courts at this stage.

On the plus side, if there is a plus side, proving to the courts that harms have been created by this legislation to them should be trivial. If their work gets downranked, then that will mean fewer views and, potentially, less revenue. What’s more is that an infringement of freedom of expression would be a very viable rout to take in pleading such a case as well as it is the government that is ultimately responsible for the suppression of that speech. Moreover, the idea of turning such a legal case into a class action isn’t necessarily that implausible either as a whole class of creators are being negatively impacted by all of this.

Ultimately, though Atwood admits that she hasn’t read the bill in its entirety, she probably won’t find much that makes her differ on her stance. Any work that fails to meet the Cancon rules that are meant for premium online services are going to get harmed by this bill in the end. It’s quite possible that such voices waited too long to speak out in this area, but their concerns, at the very least, are well placed as far as I can tell.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top