Newsmaker of the Year 2020: Steven Guilbeault

Steven Guilbeault
The Minister of Canadian Heritage has helped the production and broadcast sector navigate unprecedented challenges, and tabled a historic bill to modernize the Broadcasting Act.

A s 2020 draws to a close Playback is announcing its Best of the Year, an annual recognition of the people, companies and projects that set themselves apart from the pack. Due to the unprecedented challenges faced across the sector, this year’s selections were especially tough, as the examples of resilience, ingenuity, quick thinking and collaboration on display were too numerous to mention. Check back throughout the week as we name our Best of the Year for 2020.

Even before the pandemic hit, Steven Guilbeault’s first four months as Minister of Canadian Heritage were a baptism of fire.

Thrown in at the deep end of a complex and long-overdue policy review, many questioned whether the rookie Quebec MP could pick up where predecessor Pablo Rodriguez had left off, and accomplish something that had eluded both Rodriguez and Mélanie Joly during their respective tenures: modernizing the Broadcasting Act.

Guilbeault’s first major appearance came at CMPA Prime Time in late January, immediately following the release of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR) report. He left with plenty to ponder – 235 pages and 97 recommendations, to be precise. Fast forward six weeks and those recommendations would be the least of his concerns, as the pandemic shuttered the Canadian economy and left a trail of unprecedented financial devastation.

Companies across the Heritage file – which includes production, broadcasting, publishing, music and festivals – were left clinging on, looking to Guilbeault to provide emergency financial relief to help steer the cultural sector through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

The emergency isn’t over yet. Since mid-March, Guilbeault has played a crucial role in every major decision impacting the local TV and film sector, including the distribution of $500 million in COVID-19 relief funding for the cultural sector at large, a $50-million insurance backstop and tabling updated legislation for the Broadcasting Act. Perhaps never before has a Canadian Heritage Minister been so central to the news cycle during their first year in the role.

His mailbox has been full, too, with letters broaching weighty topics: the letter from a collective of Black professionals proposing the creation of a Black Screen Office; from CBC staffers asking the government to compel the CRTC to investigate the pubcaster’s paid-content division, Tandem; and from film producers arguing both for and against the elimination of Telefilm’s Fast Track program.

“What a ride,” he tells Playback of his first year overseeing the Heritage portfolio.

For Guilbeault, the question of inexperience was leveled at him repeatedly during his first few months. But after tabling new Broadcasting Act legislation in November, even his critics have been forced to acknowledge that Guilbeault is at the forefront of enacting significant, long-in-the-making change.

“Many people were saying that we’d never do it, that ‘this guy doesn’t know the first thing about the Heritage sector – how will he ever be able to table such a complex piece of legislation?’ Well, we’ve done it,” he says.

For the domestic production and broadcasting sector, Bill C-10′s topline proposal is new legislation that would bring streaming services operating in Canada into the regulatory tent. Canadian organizations have been calling for this for more than a decade. Specifically, the bill creates a new category of broadcasting undertaking (referred to as an “online undertaking”) which denotes a service designed for the transmission or retransmission of programs over the internet. Under the proposal, these online undertakings (such as Netflix, Disney+ and Spotify) will be mandated to contribute towards the creation of Canadian stories and music, which the government says could bring up to $830 million of new money into the creative ecosystem by 2023.

There’s room for improvement with Bill C-10, acknowledges Guilbeault, but he is steadfast in the belief his department is on the right track. “It’s the nature of this exercise. You work really hard with your team, you consult, you put something out which you think is good, but it can always be improved upon.”

Of course, the pandemic has brought with it enormous pressures, which Guilbeault concedes he’s felt acutely. “It’s been challenging. I’ll confess there were nights I would go to bed and say ‘OK, well have I done enough to help people?’ It weighs on me, to try and make sure we’re doing everything we can to help as many organizations and people make it through this really difficult time.”

While the industry has been grateful for the much-needed funding, there have been times when tensions have risen.

This was typified when, after three months of waiting for an answer on an insurance solution, the CMPA and AQPM criticized the delay and called upon the minister to take immediate action. At the time, the producers associations said that 200 camera-ready projects (the equivalent of $1 billion of Canadian production) were at risk due to a lack of insurance coverage.

Within a week, the Department of Canadian Heritage had announced a $50-million fund to backstop projects without insurance coverage for stoppages or delays related to COVID-19. That fund has helped multiple productions, with many more set to begin filming early next year.

Some have pointed out that the fund will likely need to be replenished before its March 31 expiration date, but Guilbeault insists he is keeping a close eye on how the situation evolves. “We understand that the March deadline could cause some problems for summer-time production, so we’re keeping our ear to the ground. If we need to make some adjustments, we’re certainly willing and prepared to do so.”

Another major objective is to level the playing field with the web giants. That is more to do with the media sector than the cultural sector, but it is part of a major international shift toward beginning to tax multinational corporations like Google and Facebook.

In its fall economic statement, the Liberal government said it would impose a temporary new tax beginning on Jan. 1, 2022. This will act as a stopgap until the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which includes 37 member countries, has decided on how to collectively address the web giants.

“We’re determined to go ahead, but we’re also determined to do it with others. I think this is how we can be successful,” he says, adding that he has been in discussion with his counterparts in Australia, France and other OECD member countries.

Looking ahead, Guilbeault says his primary objective is to get Bill C-10 adopted “as early as possible in 2021.” The bill still needs to go to committee, back to the house, then to the senate, but the Minister says he’s hopeful it can all happen without delay.

There had been moments when he was concerned the pandemic could derail the ultimate goal of modernizing the Broadcasting Act. Seeing that the bill is supported by others has increased Guilbeault’s resolve, however. “I’ve seen some articles talking about me as a gung-ho Minister being on some kind of quest by myself. Well, it’s not just me. It’s a whole-of-government approach – everybody is behind this. I was a little worried in the spring [with the onset of the pandemic], but in the summer time I became reassured when I saw how much support there was around the table for that.”

With a light finally, seemingly, at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Guilbeault believes the legislative pieces that the government has advanced in 2020 will pay off in 2021.

The end of 2020 will bring a brief moment to exhale, but Guilbeault knows the work is only beginning. “I’m the first one to recognize that there are other things we need to do, but it’s an important first step,” he says. “We’re doing what needs to be done.”