Canadian Pop Culture
Depending on who’s doing the talking, “Canadian pop culture” can mean at least three different things.
First, it can refer to the pop culture products most Canadians enjoy in their leisure time, such as movies, music and television shows, the vast majority of which are American (and to a lesser degree, British or European) in origin.
Secondly, it can refer to a foreign pop culture product that has a significant “Canadian connection,” such as a Canadian actor, director or musician, which makes it uniquely notable in the eyes of Canadians.
Lastly, it can refer to a pop culture product that is entirely Canadian-made, probably government-subsidized, and in all likelihood, not very popular. The clashes of pride, ego and fandom between these three competing realms of entertainment form the cornerstone of the modern Canadian pop culture realm.
Leisure Time in Canada
While Canadians undoubtedly spend a lot of time playing sports and having adventures outdoors, they also spend an awful lot of time sitting in front of glowing screens. The average Canadian is said to watch an average of 28 hours of television a week, visit the movie theatre at least three times a year, and spend tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime on DVDs, video games and downloads.
The vast, vast majority of television and movies that Canadians watch are American-made, and Americans and Canadians have largely similar tastes. A side-by-side comparison of TV ratings or box office profits generally shows that Canadians like what Americans like and vice versa, perhaps the predictable result of two very similar countries sharing a common border, common language and broadly common lifestyle. In most cases, a Canadian can watch an American program and completely forget that he’s even watching something “foreign” at all, in fact.
It would take another guide to summarize the full scope and history of American pop culture, which is obviously a tremendously rich subject in its own right. Suffice it to say that the cultural history of the United States is very much the cultural history of Canada as well, with the most dramatic rise in movies, television, and so-called “popular music” occurring in the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945) and then accelerating dramatically in the 1960s and 70s.
With the United States being the dominant pop culture market of North America, Canadians who aspire to significant levels of fame and fortune usually have to emigrate to California or New York to really get their careers going. And they frequently succeed.
Canadians have been described as the most successful minority in the United States because of their remarkably high level of success in American popular culture — a success that’s quite disproportionate, considering that the U.S. has more than 10 times Canada’s population. Among the most popular Canadian parlour games is memorizing which famous American actors, comedians, musicians or TV personalities are actually Canadians by birth, and observing this interesting point of trivia as often as possible. Since Canadians tend to blend in so seamlessly with a crowd of Americans (and are often explicitly taught to do this, in order to help their careers), learning that a major pop culture star is, in fact, a Canadian like you, is a proud and inspirational moment for many.
The complete list of Canadians who have achieved pop culture icon status in the United States is too long to post here, but some of the most notable men and women include: Christopher Plummer (b. 1929, Toronto), William Shatner (b. Montreal, 1931), Dan Aykroyd (b. Ottawa, 1952), James Cameron (b. Kapuskasing, 1954), Michael J. Fox (b. Edmonton, 1961), Jim Carrey (b. Newmarket, 1962), Mike Meyers (b. Scarborough, 1963), Pamela Anderson Lee (b. Ladysmith, 1967), Rachel McAdams (b. London, 1978), Ryan Gosling (b. London, 1980), Seth Rogen (b. Vancouver, 1982), Ellen Page (b. Halifax, 1987) and Michael Cera (b. Brampton, 1988).
As you might notice, the most famous Canadian stars tend to be comedians, and a lot of Canadians take pride in the role their country has played in defining modern comedy. The so-called “Golden Age of Canadian Comedy” during the 1970s and 1980s, when Canadian comedians were particularly dominant in leading comedy shows like SCTV (1976-1981), The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994) and Saturday Night Live (1975- ) remains much idolized to this day.
In the eyes of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the government-appointed body which regulates Canadian media), a movie or TV show cannot be considered fully “Canadian” simply because it has a Canadian director or a bunch of Canadian stars. Under the terms of the CRTC’s certification process, the designation of “Canadian” can only be awarded if the entire production meets certain strict criteria, such as the following:
- The producer, director, and screenwriter are all Canadian.
- At least one of the two lead actors is Canadian.
- 75 per cent of all paid production and post-production staff are Canadians.
These are quite high standards, and they exist because the Canadian government has agreed to subsidize Canadian film and television programs in order to promote Canadian jobs and encourage the development of a distinctive Canadian culture. In other words, Canadian directors and producers can get a whole lot of money from the state to help finance their project, but only if they go out of their way to make that project as Canadian as possible.
The challenge, however, is that Canada is not Hollywood. As mentioned, many ambitious Canadian actors and directors emigrate to California or New York to make it big, meaning that the talent scene left in Canada can often be a little thin in comparison. Canadian studios are significantly smaller than American ones, with less money, less high-tech equipment and less access to highly skilled actors, writers and directors. The cliche, therefore, is that most “made-in-Canada” media tends to feature low budgets and no-name casts — with predictable levels of quality.
Well aware of this unfortunate reality, Canadians themselves do not watch a lot of made-in-Canada movies or TV shows, which causes a lot of anxiety and insecurity for the people who make them. In response, the CRTC now forces Canadian television stations to spend at least 60 per cent of their airtime showing Canadian-made programs, including 50 per cent in prime time (8:00-11:00 pm). Of course, in the modern 5 000 channel universe, most Canadians subscribe to mostly American networks anyway, so even in this new era of increased quotas, Canadian content still remains easily avoidable.
Canada and Movies
In contrast to Canadian television stations, Canadian movie theatres are largely free of government regulation, and most simply don’t show Canadian-made movies as a result, since the demand to see them is so low. Most Canadian-made movies go directly to home video as a result.
The more well-known role of Canada in the modern motion picture industry is as a set location for major Hollywood productions. Particularly since the 1990s, American producers have increasingly shot films that are supposedly set in New York, Chicago or San Francisco in places like Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton, as a way of escaping the high cost of unionized labour back in the States, and to take advantage of the lower Canadian dollar. Seizing on this trend, a number of Canadian provincial and city governments have created special tax breaks and other incentives to keep the filmmakers in town as long as possible, helping turn foreign film production into one of Canada’s most lucrative international industries in the process. In a sign of how ubiquitous film crews in Canada have become, the Lonely Planet people in a 2006 guide actually listed “blocked-off streets for film sets” as one of the main burdens of travelling in Vancouver.
Canadian popular music is a bit of a different beast than Canadian movies and television, and is by far the most successful realm of Canadian pop culture talent. Presumably, this is mainly because the overhead involved with making an album is considerably lower than the overhead required to make something for TV or the movie theatre.
As they do with television, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires that Canadian radio stations play a certain quota of Canadian-made music (in most cases, 35 per cent) in order to keep their broadcasting licence. Unlike television shows and movies, however, CRTC standards of what constitutes “Canadian” music are considerably generous; as long as the main singer is Canadian and she’s singing her own lyrics, that’s usually good enough.
In any case, English music has proven to transcend national borders very easily, and a vast array of Canadian-born musicians have been able to achieve international success in a vast array of genres, particularly rock, indie, folk and pop.
Assembling a comprehensive list of major Canadian music stars is almost as daunting as compiling a list of Canadians in Hollywood. Nevertheless, any major list would obviously note The Guess Who, RUSH, The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Nickelback and Arcade Fire as among the country’s most popular bands of the last few decades, and solo acts like Leonard Cohen (b. Montreal, 1934), Paul Anka (b. Ottawa, 1941), Neil Young (b. Toronto, 1945), Shania Twain (b. Windsor, 1965), Celine Dion (b. Charlemagne, 1968), Sarah McLachlan (b. Halifax, 1968), Alanis Morissette (b. Ottawa, 1974), Michael Buble (b. Burnaby, 1975), Feist (b. Amherst, 1976), Nelly Furtado (b. Victoria, 1978), Deadmau5 (b. Niagara Falls, 1981), Avril Lavigne (b. Belleville, 1984), Drake (b. Toronto, 1986) and Justin Bieber (b. Stratford, 1994) as among the country’s most successful singers and musicians.
Canadian comics and cartoons have risen to become a leading form of Canadian folk art in the post-war era, particularly thanks to a number of memorable animated shorts commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a number of Canadian-made “Saturday Morning” cartoons from the same era, such as The Raccoons (1985-1992) and ReBoot (1992-2002). In more recent years, Canada has become well-known for producing both a number of famous graphic novelists, including Dave Sim (b. 1956), Chester Brown (b. 1960) and Bryan Lee O’Malley (b. 1979), as well as web cartoonists like Ryan North (b. 1980) and Kate Beaton (b. 1983).
Per capita, Canada has the largest domestic video game industry in the world, mostly based out of the tech-savvy cities of Montreal and Vancouver. Canadian branches of major American, Japanese and French firms have independently produced many extremely acclaimed titles and series, including the Assassin’s Creed franchise (produced by Ubisoft Montreal) and the Mass Effect series (made by BioWare Edmonton), as well as a variety of Canadian sports games produced by Electronics Arts’ large Vancouver branch.