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Heritage minister views next election as a referendum on Canadian cultural reforms

Pascale St-Onge, Minister of Canadian Heritage speaks to reporters prior to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby Pascale St-Onge, Minister of Canadian Heritage speaks to reporters prior to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby
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Minister of Canadian Heritage Pascale St-Onge says the next federal election could become a referendum on Canadian culture and the trio of legislative measures the Liberals have advanced to try to protect it.

In an interview with CTV News, St-Onge said that in light of the Conservative party's opposition to the government's Online Streaming Act, Online News Act, and the Online Harms Act, in the next campaign voters will have to choose what kind of country they want.

"Canadians in the next election will have a choice between two very, very different visions. One thinks that as a country, it's our responsibility to protect our cultural diversity… protect our industries, protect the jobs here, protect also our cultural sector and cultural identity," St-Onge said, referring to the Liberal party.

Concerned about the level of polarization in Canada right now – which she in part attributes to creeping United States' influence, the challenges facing the journalism sector, and a decline in trust in democratic intuitions – St-Onge suggested the trio of legislative reforms the Liberals have presented were designed to help "counter-balance" these forces, though they have not come without pushback.

With the Online Streaming Act, the Liberals reformed the Broadcasting Act to subject streaming giants to Canadian content requirements. But, the arms-length regulator, the CRTC, has delayed implementing the new regime until late 2025, citing ongoing consultations.

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, requires big tech companies to compensate media organizations if they want to continue to host Canadian news content. St-Onge said that in "the next few weeks" the first funding tranche from a federal deal with Google will start to flow to news outlets.

And, while the two other pieces of legislation have now passed, Bill C-63, the long-promised Online Harms Act has been left unpassed before the House of Commons when it adjourned earlier this week. This bill proposes a suite of new requirements for platforms when it comes to harmful content and the creation of a new digital safety oversight body to compel popular sites to act or face penalties.

The challenge St-Onge is facing now, is seeing these reforms either implemented, or passed with enough political runway for them to take root and for the impacts of these policy efforts to be felt beyond the knock-on consequences already seen, such as Meta pulling Canadian news from its platforms.

"Changes like that don't happen over a day. It takes time to implement," St-Onge said.

"It is complicated to adapt some already existing pieces of legislation, especially when it's a debate that's being sometimes polarized, and also because the companies, the digital platforms themselves have pushed back on government legislation as well," St-Onge said.

"So yes, it's taking time, but these legislations will have impacts for years and decades."

However, whether they will have a lasting impact is still an open question.

'Canadians… will have a choice to make'

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his party have opposed all of these measures, opening the door to repealing them, should his party win the next election.

Asked if she's concerned that the prolonged implementation potentially makes it easier for a future government to roll back these new regimes, St-Onge said ultimately it'll be up to Canadians.

"People will have a choice to make… between a party leader that bullies journalists and that doesn't have a problem seeing journalists in Canada lose their jobs, while tech giants are putting billions of dollars in their pockets and not participating as fully as they should in our communities and our country. So, it is going to be a choice and very two different visions… We'll see what happens."

Responding to St-Onge's comments, a spokesperson for the Official Opposition Leader's Office said the Trudeau Liberals "are the ones responsible for attacking our heritage."

"They have censored what Canadians can see and say on the internet, blocked Canadians from reading the news on social media, favoured the state broadcaster and large corporate media over independent and local journalists, and this minister herself is bringing in a tax on Canadians who choose to watch streaming platforms," said Poilievre's office in an emailed statement.

The Conservatives say they'll restore "freedom for our content creators and Canadians who access content either on the internet or through broadcasting," and will replace the Online News Act with "a bill that restores balance for small, local, and independent voices in the media."

'We need to be able to fight back'

Beyond the coming policy fight over issues such as Canadian content, journalism, and harmful content, St-Onge said she's heading into the next election ready to fight to protect the "social progress" the country has made.

Running again – believing voters will eventually become fed up with anger – St-Onge said she plans to help her party recruit more women candidates. Her message to those eyeing the political arena amid the current state of discourse is: "We need to fight back for what we believe in."

"Some very organized movements are trying to bring our democracies down, and the progress… that we've made in our society, and we need to be able to fight back and be ready to protect it," she said.

For St-Onge, she feels it is her duty for the next generation.

"Globally right now we're in a very small portion of history, but in the history of Canada, we've always progressed towards better rights and freedoms and better protection for our diverse communities. And I do think that Canadians still believe in that," she said. 

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