Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Authors, Kids and the Canadian Position

The investment industry has a term for making statements in support of a stock you own: “Talking your position.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as full disclosure is made, so let me tend to that straight away: The initial reason my attention was caught, and my dander raised, by the set of circumstances described below is because my first kids’ novel, Finn the half-Great, goes on sale this autumn.

My published political views and this new foray combine to form the most unlikely of business card monikers: “Right-Wing Children’s Author.” But with those views in mind, consider that I am talking my position not only as a writer, but as a Canadian and a taxpayer.

On January 20, 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced $15 million in discounts for the province’s elementary school libraries to purchase reading materials. Folks can agree that getting books to kids is a good thing. But here’s the onion – on June 17, the Canadian Coalition for School Libraries issued a media release stating, “Only a shocking 13% of the recent funds used to buy books for Ontario school libraries was spent on Canadian authored books.”

Canadian children’s publishing is a quiet, pleasant industry (I’ve only just arrived), so its stakeholders are disinclined to kick up a kerfuffle, but come along – 13 percent? In a nation where private broadcasters are required to carry higher percentages of Canadian content in return for use of the “public airwaves,” one would expect a targeted, tax-funded program to include at least some sweetener to purchase home-made materials.

I’m not a fan of “Buy Canadian” (or “Buy American”) policies, and I’ve often considered Canadian content mandates to be recipes for mediocrity. Moreover, I have opined in these pages against protectionism – recently and repeatedly.

But when Canadian tax dollars are being used to buy educational supplies, there should be some incentive toward products created by the taxpayers. And not for nothing, if the objective is to educate Canadian kids, how about giving Canadian authors first crack at the task?

There is another wave of funding coming from the Ontario Ministry this fall, as children return to school. The question becomes, then, how best to incentivize schools to buy Canadian materials?

And before some bureaucratic smarty-pants suggests it, the solution is not to slap a tax on foreign books. If our experience with the broadcasting industry is any guide, this will just limit the market and lower the number of purchases. We want more books getting to kids, not less.

How about adding 5 percent to the original discount for the purchase of Canadian books? That is, if there is some Dutch tome that a librarian feels the little darlings cannot live without, he or she should buy it with our blessing and, say, a $1 discount. If, however, there is a comparable Canadian book, make the discount $1.05. Perspicacious readers will point out that increasing the discount will simply cause schools to run through the allotted money faster, and that’s fair enough. So perhaps convince the federal government to waive the 5 percent GST on home-grown purchases, pointing out that they will make at least some of it back in taxes from Canadian publishers and authors.

This is, of course, part of a larger and distinctly Canadian question: How do we support our national arts without creating an artificial industry and subsidizing work that cannot stand on its own? Whether because of the relatively small size of our market or an aversion to local talent, Canada has a history of artists needing to move away to find real success (I call this, “The Celine Dion Principle”). But we can kindle enthusiasm for our arts industry by giving kids Canadian materials – and this worthy program provides an opportunity to do just that.


Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.