Oda on the record

In an exclusive one-on-one with Playback, Heritage Minister Bev Oda defends her performance during the CTF crisis, and talks of changes needed at the CBC and CRTC

In an exclusive one-on-one with Playback, Heritage Minister Bev Oda defends her performance during the CTF crisis, and talks of changes needed at the CBC and CRTC

It’s understandable if Bev Oda is a bit on the defensive. The minister of Canadian heritage and status of women has had to endure some verbal punches in recent months, especially over her handling of prickly matters – mainly the temporary refusal of cable companies Shaw Communications and Videotron to make their Canadian Television Fund payments.

In a recent interview with Playback at the ministers’ regional office in Toronto, Oda bristled at accusations she could have done more to resolve the crisis more quickly. She passes blame to the CTF board, which she says was slow to react in the early days of the dispute. Oda can also point to the fact that she announced the government’s two-year renewal of its annual $100-million contribution to the fund.

And then there are the long-awaited amendments to the Copyright Act, which have yet to see fruition, though they were promised for last fall. Hollywood and U.S. lawmakers are hoping the new Act will curb incessant camcording piracy in theaters, particularly in Montreal.

It’s little wonder that Oda – who is saddled with a huge portfolio that also oversees museums and the arts, libraries and archives, women’s issues and flag protocol – describes her first year in office as ‘challenging.’

How do you react to critics who say you were slow to respond to the CTF crisis?
Only the NDP and the Liberal [critics] would stand up and make hysterical statements saying that ‘You should be doing something’ when there is no ability to do anything. And that’s a purely political act that the Opposition parties took.

So handing the responsibility over to the CRTC was the most effective approach?
The CRTC has been set up by government through legislation to deal with these things. Nobody could act because the CRTC chair was waiting to be asked by the CTF.

The CTF was slow to respond to the situation?
Yes… there is no ability in the Broadcasting Act for me to direct the CRTC to order two specific companies to do anything. My ability to give direction to the CRTC [is limited to] wide policy directions.

Will the CRTC be a powerful entity going forward?
We all face challenges, as government, industry and CRTC, because of new technologies and new media, et cetera. I would suggest that under new chair [Konrad von Finckenstein] we’re going to see some dramatic changes in the regulation and the supervision of the broadcasting system. We don’t believe that the regulatory system enables the industry to work within the new environment.

The PM has said he recognizes the CRTC’s need for more regulatory flexibility and streamlining… but we have to ensure that we have a Canadian system. If we’re totally blind to the changes that are happening, our industry’s not going to be able to operate in the new environment. There has to be changes at the CRTC.

Is the CBC on track with its mandate?
We have to – again, because of the changes in media and overall communications – look at the service that the CBC should be providing to Canadians. We’ve advocated that. The standing committee [for heritage] has decided that they want to look at the mandate of the CBC.

Until we decide what it is that Canadians want the public broadcaster to do – what service it should provide – then we’ll make sure that it is adequately resourced. That means we would provide it with stable multi-year funding… but not without a real look at it, particularly English-language television, which is most highly criticized. The government would only do something in a more stable situation, not within a minority government situation.

What do you like to watch on TV?
(Laughs) I watch the news, I watch CPAC. Other than that I don’t have much time. I used to watch the History Channel and A&E and Discovery.

What are your thoughts on the health of the feature film industry in Canada?
First, we shouldn’t compare the English-language sector and the French-language sectors. They’re different… they work in two different kinds of marketplaces.

The success of the French-language film sector in Quebec is commendable and has potential to become greater. The situation there is you have a smaller captive market… it can create its own star system, because it has very strong promotional and marketing tools right within the French-language community.

The English film industry competes with the American film industry. We have a marketplace here where we’re competing with films that are made at multiples of the budgets that we can afford. The other thing that challenges the English market is that we don’t have promotional and marketing vehicles that survive in isolation of the Americans.

Are screen quotas the answer?
I don’t think so. I can walk you into a Cineplex, but I can’t force you to buy a ticket for a Canadian movie. I’m going to buy a ticket for the movie that I’ve heard about, that I want to see. So even if we ordered the screen quota… you can’t force people to buy a ticket to go and see a particular movie. That’s the reality.

So, how do we increase the box-office performance of English-Canadian films?
It’s not a question of talent, it’s a question of whether we can create the interest in Canadians to go to the theaters to watch Canadian films. Other countries have had success competing within a realm of larger American movies, but it’s a different situation that we live in. We’ve got to look at a different business plan – we’ve got to see where the key investments can be.

How far along is the new Copyright Act?
[Industry] Minister [Maxime] Bernier and I have been working on copyright. As you know, it’s a very complex piece of legislation. Things are evolving and changing as we speak, so there is never going to be the perfect Copyright Act, particularly with the new technologies.

We’re hoping to be able to introduce something quite soon… but again, it’s a matter of not making it overcomplicated. We want to make sure we’re gathering all the information we need, to be able to have a relevant piece of legislation.