“I was thinking about the British Empire and how, if you were there and you were the viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. Or similar, if you were in French Africa, you would think, ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them. There was a time when cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.” Catherine Tait at Prime Time in Ottawa conference, January 31, 2019
By now most of you have read or heard Catherine Tait’s comment comparing Netflix to imperial Britain and France in their ‘cultural imperialism’. I was immediately shocked but then surprised that there wasn’t much of a reaction in the room to the comment. Then I saw a growing reaction to it on my twitter feed and then in mainstream media. It became a topic of conversation in the halls for the rest of Prime Time with some people admitting to having been speechless in shock while others, well, didn’t understand or think it was that bad. So for the benefit of the confused, this why her statement didn’t go over very well for some of us.
Imperialism in India and Africa killed a lot of people. A lot. Here’s are a few examples. In 1943 approximately 3 million people died in Bengal from famine caused by British imperial policies and exacerbated by British war time policies that prioritized sending relief to Europe over India. From 500,000 to 1 million Algerians were killed or died from famine when France conquered Algeria from 1830s to 1860s. In 1898 the Voulet-Chanoine Mission was mandated to conquer the area now known as Chad to bring it under French control. They did it by looting, raping, killing and burning entire villages as they marched.
These are just a few examples of the impact of imperialism in India and Africa. I did a bit of googling to make sure that I had the numbers right but it wasn’t hard to find this info. Many, many books have been written about it. Imperialism’s goal was the economic success of the Empire in question, in disregard of the life and liberty of the local residents. Millions died as a result. You can’t separate ‘cultural imperialism’ from actual imperialism as the Empires never did. The valuing of the Empire’s culture over that of the local culture was just one of the tools used to subjugate the local population and maintain control.
So, in my mind, to compare policies that resulted in the deaths of millions to an OTT service that wants to offer Canadians another choice for the delivery of content and to provide Canadian content with a pathway to a global audience trivializes those deaths. Yes there are (very good) arguments to be made for Netflix to contribute into the system that it participates in and to ensure that it is spending a portion of its money on Canadian production (and not just production in Canada) but is talk like this helpful or disturbing. For me, it is disturbing.
I write this not to slam Ms. Tait but to try to use this as a teachable moment for anyone in a public position, those who advise those in public positions and well, everyone else who was confused by the reaction. We can do better.