Harper Falls into the UNESCO Trap

Budgets and softwood lumber deals aren't Prime Minister Stephen Harper's only significant initiatives. On Friday, he followed through on an unfortunate promise he made while on the campaign trail this winter: to invite Quebec to participate in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Last fall, UNESCO adopted a Convention on Cultural Diversity. The multilateral treaty, to which Canada was the first signatory, distinguishes the “economic” aspect of cultural goods and services from their “cultural” aspect. The sole purpose of this is to absolve countries of their duty to consistently apply international trade rules governing all goods and services, including cultural goods and services. According to the treaty, countries may take “all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions.” In short, the Convention on Cultural Diversity is a justification for trade protectionism against American cultural products. By giving his seal of approval to “cultural protectionism,” Harper risks putting an end to improved Canada-U.S. relations, as well as American trade retaliation.


Protectionist policies can be easily recognized by identifying the competing domestic industries that stand to benefit. For example, the U.S. softwood lumber industry has received a handicap in the market due to American protectionism in the softwood lumber dispute. But artificially holding prices above their competitive level means consumers lose out. Bed frames, doors and new houses all cost more as a result. In Canada, the Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA), the Coalition for Cultural Diversity (CCD) and the Cultural Industries Sectoral Advisory Group on International Trade (SAGIT) — the Canadian cultural products lobby — have all been strong proponents of the UNESCO cultural diversity convention for the same reason: They wish to protect their own interests and they want the government to help them do it.


But this doesn't explain Quebec's agenda. On the one hand, Quebec nationalists such as Lucien Bouchard, Gilles Duceppe and Bernard Landry have all spoken in favour of the UNESCO cultural diversity convention. Why? As an international organization in the UN system, UNESCO only recognizes independent and sovereign governments as member states. For Quebec to participate at UNESCO under the view that Quebec represents a culturally diverse — culturally distinct — society would lay the groundwork for the international recognition of a sovereign Quebec.


At the same time, the UNESCO convention enjoys the support of prominent Liberal federalists such as Jean Charest and Stephane Dion. Why? Following the vision of Pierre Trudeau, federalists view “cultural diversity” as a substitute for Quebec nationalism — that is, as a way to delegitimize the idea that Quebec is a nation, one of two founding nations of Canada. Instead, “unity in diversity” describes the Canadian way, according to Dion.


But in practice, giving more power to bureaucrats to pick cultural winners and losers is a dangerous policy. If the Convention on Cultural Diversity were fully implemented, the United States would respond in kind. For example, there would certainly be increased pressure on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to protect California film and television production jobs from being outsourced to cheaper British Columbia. It could also cause U.S. officials to become even more restrictive in giving visas to Canadian bands wishing to play concerts in the United States, something that should be made easier, not harder.


Proponents of the convention argue that culture is too important to be thought of as merely an economic good. Instead, it should become a political tool with “cultural diversity” as the goal. But we know that the main actors who support the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity (and Quebec's increased role at UNESCO) are not motivated by a desire to bring greater exposure of Canadian culture to the rest of the world. They have their own interests at heart. And harnessing the cultural industry to achieve a political goal is risky, as demonstrated by the sponsorship scandal. After all, the scandal began with the view that government could successfully use the “sponsorship” of cultural events to promote Canadian unity. But that became merely a cover story. And the project soon degenerated into a corruption and bribery racket between government officials, party hacks and industry executives.


Prime Minister Harper should not endorse cultural protectionism by granting its proponents greater access to UNESCO. Furthermore, Harper's Conservative government should stop giving grant money to groups, such as the CCD, that continue to promote harmful policies, such as cultural protectionism.


The best policy — best for consumers, conservatives, Canadians and Americans (who consume Canadian culture, even if they don't know the artist is Canadian) — is to leave culture in the hands of the individual and let diversity emerge through his or her natural curiosity and particular taste.