A synCReTiC idea CRiTiCized: Fifty years of Canadian Content laws

The captalization of the letters CRTC in the words isn’t an accident.

Prior to 1970, Canadian radio and television was the near exclusive purview and stomping grounds of foreign entertainment. Almost everything that was broadcast was either from the US or the UK. (In English, anyway; the Quebec music scene was more developed.) Television and radio stations had neither the money nor the interest in producing or developing Canadian artists and actors. Canadian authors, writers, poets, newspapers, journalist and painters were famous at home and abroad, but at a time when TV was now a household appliance with immediate gratification and popular music dominated by record sales, Canadian culture was being silenced and shut out. The only voices you heard or saw were those popular internationally: Joni Mitchell, The Guess Who, Paul Anka, Wayne and Shuster, etc. There was no domestic-only broadcast culture, period.

In 1970, the Canadian government had the Bureau of Broadcast Governors (in 1976 renamed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC) create what would become the Canadian Content Regulations. Written by Stan Klees and approved by BBG chairman Pierre Juneau, the policies were announced in November 1970. They became law in January 1971, immediately changing the artistic landscape.

For television, broadcasters were required to provide a specific amount of prime time slots for Canadian produced shows, and not just sports. This included dramas, comedies, arts, music programs, movies or others. This forced broadcaster to spend money developing their own shows. And it wasn’t limited to prime time, children’s television benefitted greatly: Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Circle Square, Polka Dot Door and many other long running shows. Many Canadian television programs ended up being broadcast in the US: You Can’t Do That On Television, The Beachcombers, Degrassi High, SCTV, King Of Kensington, E.N.G., Littlest Hobo, Trailer Park Boys, among others (e.g. 1980s CBS late night shows Night Heat, Adderly, etc.).

Canadian radio stations were required to play a minimum percentage of songs that qualified as Canadian Content. In 1971, it was 25%, becoming 30% in 1980, and 35% in 1999. New stations since 2000 must play 40%. At that time, radio stations and record companies saw Canada as a place to play US and UK music, but now they had to spend money to develop and produce Canadian bands. Talent existed, but the amount of recorded material available was small. You could end up hearing Anne Murray ten times a day in 1972. As years and decades passed, the back catalogue become much larger, making it easy to fill the 35% or 40%. MuchMusic and its sibling channel had a 10% minimum in the 1980s when it began; I don’t know the current standard.

What qualifies a song as Canadian Content (or CanCon, as most call it)? It has to meet the MAPL rules: Music, Artist, Production, Lyrics. For any song produced before 1971, it only had to meet one of the four, so any Canadian artist’s music would suffice. After 1971, it had to meet at least two of the four requirements. That means if a song was written by a foreigner, both the artist and the producer had to be Canadian, e.g. Streetheart’s cover of “Under My Thumb”. On the other hand, songs written by Canadians but recorded by a foreign act would still qualify as Canadian Content – for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” (written by Eddie Schwartz), Santana’s “Hold On” (written by Ian Thomas; his version is better), Bonnie Raitt’s “Something To Talk About” (written by Shirley Eikhart).

Increased opportunities and A&R money meant bands that were once ignored would both get time in the studio and airplay on the radio. Many went on to significant international success: Rush, Frank Marino, April Wine, Prism, Chilliwack, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, Drake, Cowboy Junkies, Alanis Morissette, among many others. The music scene in Quebec is so vibrant that its artists have dominated France’s pop charts for decades (e.g. Roch Voisine, Michel Pagliaro, Isabelle Boulay, Les Cowboys Fringants).

It wasn’t only Canadian artists who benefitted. The increased domestic music system included recording studios and venues for bands to play. Styx (from Chicago) benefitted heavily from their proximity to Canada and received airplay they weren’t getting in the US during their early years. Some male members of Heart (from Seattle) were draft dodgers from the Vietnam war. They lived in Vancouver, recording their debut album “Dreamboat Annie” at Mushroom Studios. Several studio musicians on the album are Canadian (e.g. drummer Kat Hendrikse).

There was a downside to CanCon.  Many US, UK and other countries’ radio stations took (and still take) the chauvinistic attitude, “They’re only on the radio in Canada because they’re Canadian”. Some Canadian groups became popular abroad over the next fifty years, but many Canadian artists have had decades-long careers producing high quality music yet are unknown abroad. If a group sucked, Canadians wouldn’t be watching them in clubs, arenas, or buying their records.  (Country music is a different animal, many artists successful in the US.)

CanCon laws are under threat because of the “trans pacific partnership”, falsely labelled as commercial protectionism.  While some Canadian musicians and TV creators have benefitted from the law, it’s biggest effect is cultural.  It gave Canada a sense of national identity we didn’t have before, unifying the country despite how disparate the different regions are (the Pacific, Prairies, Easterners, Maritimes, the Arctic).  It’s not “for better or worse”, it’s mostly for the better.

More below the fold.

Here is a partial list of favourites from the past. Some you may know, but likely most you’ve never heard of. And yes, I’ve intentionally left out many big name artists who have had international success because I’m not a fan (e.g. Celine Dion), I’ve profiled them elsewhere (e.g. Bruce Cockburn), or you might have heard of them (e.g. Gino Vanelli, Nick Gilder, Red Rider).

Art Bergmann: “Bound For Vegas“, “Faithlessly Yours“, “The Junkie Don’t Care

Bif Naked: “Moment Of Weakness“, “Spaceman

Big Sugar: “The Scene“, “All Hell For A Basement“, “Turn The Lights On

Blue Rodeo: “Diamond Mine“, “Lost Together

David Wilcox: “Downtown Came Uptown“, “The Natural Edge

The Diamonds: “Little Darlin’“, “The Stroll

DOA: “F***ed Up Donald“, “Takin’ Care Of Business“, “Marijuana Motherf***er

Doucette: “Mama Let Him Play

Eddie Schwartz: “All Our Tomorrows(covered by Joe Cocker)

A Foot In Cold Water: “Make Me Do Anything You Want

Fludd, “Cousin Mary

Front Line Assembly: “BioMechanic“, “Plasticity

The Grapes Of Wrath: “Peace Of Mind“, “Do You Want To Tell Me

Harlequin: “Innocence

Haywire: “Black And Blue“, “Short End Of A Wishbone

Headstones: “When Something Stands For Nothing“, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man“, “Cemetary

Huevos Rancheros: “Get Outta Dodge“, “Gump Worsley’s Lament

Ian Thomas: “Painted Ladies“, “Right Before Your Eyes(covered by America)

Idle Eyes: “Tokyo Rose

Images In Vogue: “Lust For Love(Kevin Ogilvie later founded Skinny Puppy)

Infidels: “Celebrate

Jack Scott, “What In The World’s Come Over You“, “The Way I Walk

Killer Dwarfs: “We Stand Alone“, “Dirty Weapons

Kim Mitchell: “Go For Soda“, “All We Are“, “Rock And Roll Duty

Kim Stockwood: “Jerk

Jim Byrnes, “Hands Of Time(he is the actor from TV’s “Wiseguy”)

Lighthouse: “One Fine Morning“, “Pretty Lady“, “Sunny Days

Martha And The Muffins, “Black Stations, White Stations“, “Song In My Head

Michel Pagliaro: “Some Sing, Some Dance“, “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy

Mitsou: “Dis Moi(very NSFW!), “En Vole

Moxy: “Moonrider“, “Sailor’s Delight

National Velvet: “Flesh Under Skin“, “68 Hours

The Northern Pikes: “Things I Do For Money“, “Teenland“, “Blame The Song

Ocean: “Put Your Hand In The Hand(I know it’s religious, but it’s a good song)

The Odds: “Heterosexual Man“, “Love Is The Subject“, “Eat My Brain“, “Someone Who’s Cool“; (“Heterosexual Man” attacked toxic masculinity in 1990)

One To One: “There Was A Time“, “Angel In My Pocket“, “Hold Me Now

The Payola$: “Eyes Of A Stranger“, “Where Is This Love“; (the group’s guitarist was Bob Rock, the multiplatinum producer of the 1990s and 2000s)

Plastikman: “Plastique“, “Slinky

The Powder Blues: “Doing It Right

Prism: “Spaceship Superstar“, “Armageddon

Rough Trade: “All Touch“, “Birds Of A Feather“, “Weapons

Gary Lee and Showdown: “The Rodeo Song(NSFW)

Skylark: “Wildflower

Sloan: “All Used Up“, “Underwhelmed“, “People Of The Sky“, “The Lines You Amend

Strange Advance: “She Controls Me“, “We Run

Streetheart: “Snow White“, “What Kind Of Love Is This

Teenage Head: “Ain’t Got No Sense“, “Infected

The Tragically Hip: “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car“, “At The Hundredth Meridian

Trans X: “Living On Video

Trooper: “Raise A Little Hell“, “Santa Maria“, “Boys In The Bright White Sports Car

Voivod, “Astronomy Domine


  1. billseymour says

    I was into folk music in the late sixties, so for me, it was Gordon Lightfoot.  I saw him live a few times at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, California.

    I discovered Joni Mitchell shortly before 1970 and was quiclly hooked.  I heard her early lyrics as what, after later becoming a computer programmer, I would call “really tight code”.  I saw her live only once at the Troubadour, and she was having a bad day.  (Everybody gets to have a bad day once in a while.)