Canadian stars take fight against Bill C-10 to Ottawa

Members of Canada's film and TV industry are in Ottawa to voice concerns over measures that give the federal government the power to deny tax credits to productions it considers offensive.

Members of Canada's film and television industry were on Parliament Hill on Thursday to voice their concerns over a proposed bill that would give the government the power to deny tax credits to productions it considers offensive.

Actors Wendy Crewson (right) and Sarah Polley arrive at the Senate committee on banking, trade and commerce on Thursday in Ottawa. The two have called on the Senate to stop censorship and amend Bill C-10. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, actress Wendy Crewson and Brian Anthony, CEO of the Directors Guild of Canada, were among those appearing before the Senate committee on banking, trade and commerce, asking for changes to Bill C-10, an omnibus bill proposing a host of amendments to the Income Tax Act.

"These clauses are an attack on freedom of expression and will destroy film financing in Canada," Crewson said in a news conference ahead of her presentation.

Part of the Tories' controversial legislation would allow the Canadian Heritage department to refuse tax credits to Canadian film or TV productions, even if federal agencies such as Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund have invested in the project.

The department would base the decision on whether the production contained content — such as graphic sex or extreme violence — that the department deemed inappropriate and "contrary to public policy."

Decisions on which films will be denied tax credits will be at the discretion of the federal heritage minister and will be decided after the film has actually been made, Crewson said.

"The powers will be [the minister's], and no matter what guidelines she puts in place or what she promises to do, the decision rests with her," Crewson said, adding that future ministers will have the latitude to impose stronger restrictions on filmmaking.

'Double standard'

Industry representatives also complain that the amendment would be applicable only to Canadian productions; U.S. projects filming in Canada who apply for the tax credit would not be affected.

"This would make it more difficult to fund Canadian productions, but not to finance foreign productions filmed in Canada with Canadian tax dollars," said Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada.

The government has said in earlier presentations it has exempted foreign productions because they create jobs, so only Canadian films will be monitored for their content.

Parker asked why Canadian productions are not considered creators of jobs under this criteria and thus considered on a level playing field as foreign productions.

"The artists of Canada fight to be heard above the roar of American culture," Crewson added, saying the industry is fragile to interference such as that proposed by Bill C-10.

The Canadian Film and Television Production Association recommended the bill define "contrary to public policy" to mean "any unlawful content as prescribed in the Criminal Code of Canada."

That would restore certainty for the film industry, which brings $5 billion a year into the Canadian economy, said CFTPA president Guy Mayson.

"The Criminal Code is lowest level of behaviour and there should be standards beyond that," countered Senator John Trevor Eyton, who supports the bill.

"It's not a hidden agenda. It's not politically motivated," Eyton said. "There should be standards. The question is who determines those standards and what forms do they take."

Committee members asked whether the creative community would be willing to accept guidelines put in place in consultation with the film industry, but the producers association said that would still introduce a level of uncertainty for the industry.

Artists groups also say they fear that special interest groups would have the power to lobby politicians to further restrict what kind of filmmaking is considered acceptable.

Called 'dangerous and unacceptable'

The proposed amendment has sparked accusations the Tory government is engaging in de facto censorship.

Polley called it "dangerous and unacceptable" in her presentation to the Senate.

"It is the job of artists to provoke and challenge," she said. "It is vital that artists push the envelope and sometimes make us feel uncomfortable." 

The Conservative Party responded to Polley's statements with a release attacking her political ties and suggesting the artists had no business telling "hard-working Canadians" how their tax dollars should be spent.

Heritage Minister Josée Verner has denied the accusation of censorship, saying the bill is just meant to ensure Canadians aren't funding graphic violence and pornography. Producers are still free to make whatever films they want, she said. 

Verner, who appeared before the Senate committee last week, has called for film and television industry representatives to help her draft guidelines for C-10 and proposed a year-long grace period before the bill would become law. 

Verner has also pointed out that the proposed bill is similar to Liberal legislation tabled back in 2003 by then heritage minister Sheila Copps.

With files from the Canadian Press