Copyright and Tuition Hikes: Canadian Civic Engagement and Cultural Production

Now that Bill C-11, Canada’s Act to Amend the Copyright Act, has undergone its second reading in the House of Commons, it will be subject to two more votes before it likely heads to the Senate and finally to royal assent. Given our current majority Conservative government, this long-impending introduction of a “Canadian DMCA” will finally criminalize the circumvention of digital locks on cultural works, putting us in accord with U.S. legislation that was passed over a decade ago.

While public opposition to the anti-circumvention provision in Canada is not insignificant, and in fact reflects the language of such debates in the U.S. that took place in the late 1990s, it seems that Bill C-11 is attempting to actually court public favour with expansions to user rights under fair dealing. In what has popularly come to be called the “YouTube exception,” for example, Bill C-11 outlines fair dealing rights for non-commercial user-generated content here.

While I think this is an important step in the recognition of a kind of right to remix, I worry about this exception as a concession in light of the criminalization of digital lock circumvention that overturns existing fair dealing rights to make copies of copyrighted materials in certain situations. Moreover, Bill C-11 also contains a SOPA-like “enabler provision” (Clause 18), which allows for a site found to be “designed primarily” to enable copyright infringement to be considered engaged in violation of copyright laws. In the bill’s most recent hearing, opposition members have raised criticism of the way that the enabler and anti-circumvention provisions deny Canadians their rights, especially given that our market for cultural works is not fully competitive since it is regulated according to cultural sovereignty principles that limit foreign ownership and broadcasting content.

The public opposition to these provisions, mainly facilitated through, has been influential in getting Members of Parliament to raise certain amendments to the Bill in its Committee reviews. While I initially wanted to write this blog post as a case example of the online facilitation of civic engagement around the Copyright Act, something else has been happening in Montreal, where I live, that is perhaps even more compelling and certainly more immediately tangible.

Students have been on what is so far a six-week strike against the Quebec Liberal government’s proposal to increase tuition fees by 75% as part of a widespread privatizing of post-secondary education. Over 200,000 Quebec students out of a total of around 300,000 have joined the “strike,” which has entailed not attending classes, and holding public demonstrations. A couple of my pics from the big demonstration, March 22:

Students generally have the support of university faculty; at my institution, the faculty supporters have composed a statement, “Concordia Professors Opposed to Privatisation of Universities,” that frames the issue of tuition hikes as fundamentally detrimental to Quebec society in terms of education as cultural production:

The government’s plan is an attempt to break Quebec’s hard won social contract on education. The proposed 75 percent increase in tuition fees will undermine the accessibility of higher education. This is not merely a question of lost earning power for those who cannot afford to attend university. Universities create social, entrepreneurial, artistic, political and scientific networks that contribute to the productivity of our society. When access to university is restricted, society as a whole loses because these productive networks are reduced in size and diversity. Further, since the tuition hike will disproportionately affect women, people of color, and other marginalized groups who consistently earn less, the hike will worsen the economic and social stratification that Quebec society opposes.

(full text here)

Both Bill C-11 and tuition hikes have rallied public support in Canada in ways that reflect our country’s troubled relationship to the concept of “cultural sovereignty.” Domestic cultural production, both in terms of creative works and scholarship, have been shaped by regulation that has attempted to preserve Canadian ideals, while under immense pressure from global capitalism. Both civic campaigns have effectively used online tools, in much the same way as social movements all over the world have benefited from the organizational capacity of social networks to disseminate time-sensitive information about demonstrations, or to facilitate large-scale letter writing to political representatives. But I think the issues raised around Bill C-11 more deeply resonate with the student strike in Quebec in terms of their commitment to showing widespread resistance to the neoliberal values that pervade our political system, regardless of party lines.

We will see what ultimately happens in both cases of Bill C-11 and the Quebec tuition hikes; but in the meantime, I hope that academics continue to lend their voices to these debates that implicate the fundamental values of what we do as cultural producers.