This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Washington Post columnist and popular YouTuber J.J. McCullough about a potpourri of topics including his recent interview with Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, the ongoing debate over Bill C-11, the state of politics in British Columbia, and his biggest political or policy surprise of 2022.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Washington Post columnist, successful YouTuber, and popular past guest, J. J. McCullough. We previously spoke in May and August about a range of topics including the Conservative Party’s leadership race, as well as his own role in galvanizing opposition to the Trudeau Government’s Bill C-11, which extends the CanCon regime to online content such as his own. I’m grateful to have J.J. back as we approach the end of 2022 to catch up on some of those topics and new ones, including his recent interview with Pierre Poilievre and his take on the politics of British Columbia, his home Province. J.J., thanks once again for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
J.J. McCULLOUGH: Happy to be back.
SEAN SPEER: You recently interviewed Official Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre for your YouTube channel. The interview has more than 200,000 views and counting. You had met Poilievre before. What struck you about the interview?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: I suppose just what a disciplined communicator he is. He speaks so purposefully, even when completely off the cuff. I was told that he didn’t really prep for the interview but was just speaking extemporaneously. He is just very good at doing that. He is just very on message all of the time. I suppose that what that revealed to me is that he is a man in some ways that is just a purely political creature. Every time I tried to ask gingerly and steer the conversation in a way that would maybe be a little bit more personal or a little bit more reflective, he was still very on message, on task all the time.
The most revealing moment I think was when I asked him—this is a question I like to ask politicians because I think it can open them up a little bit. I asked him, “What’s the biggest misconception that people have about you?” It was interesting to me just how he was a little flummoxed by that question, like he had never really thought to think of himself in that way, in the way that others see him. He’s just so focused on the task of getting elected and furthering his political career. I do like him overall. I feel like I’m pleased to see him in the position that he’s in, as I think most Conservatives are, and that’s why he was able to get elected quite so easily.
There are some politicians in this world that you meet, and you feel like if you cut them open, there’s only politics inside. I feel like he’s a little bit in that category. What that means to me is I suppose that there is a degree to which I think a lot of Conservatives are in a very transactional relationship with him, where they very much view him as their instrument in order to bring about a rather orthodox conservative political agenda, and I think he’s perfectly happy to fulfill that role.
SEAN SPEER: You’re one of many prominent online voices and alternative media figures that Poilievre has spoken to since becoming Conservative leader. In response, you’ll probably know there’s been plenty of ink spilled about his neglect of the legacy media. What do you think about this strategy, J.J.? In the modern media environment, is it possible for him to go about the task of building the party support and prosecuting an election campaign without speaking to the major media outlets?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s an interesting strategy. I think it’s very important that we ponder what is the underlying motive of the strategy. If the motive of the strategy is simply “We hate the mainstream media and we don’t want to talk to them out of spite,” then I think that is possibly a problematic strategy if the mainstream media, like it or not, has a broad audience and a broad reach. If, however, the strategy is that the media landscape in Canada has fundamentally changed and we can’t take for granted certain assumptions about who has the biggest reach, then I think it’s a perfectly defensible strategy.
As you said, my interview with him got 200,000 views. Then if we compare that to the other interview that he did since becoming leader with a Post Media columnist, which is also up on YouTube, you can see that that has about 200,000 views as well. Somebody like me, somebody within the new media space, I think if we’re just going to look at raw numeric metrics, we’re punching at equal levels. I think that if that is the motivation, then I think it’s a very justifiable one because I think that there are lots of podcasts, there are lots of YouTubers, and social media personalities who have enormous, enormous reach. I think that a savvy politician has to wake up to that.
Then that being said, I do think that If you’re having a media strategy, however, that is too animated by spite, then you’re possibly shooting yourself in the foot. If you’re cutting yourself off from legacy media, then yes, maybe they will give you a harder time. Maybe they will ask more unfair gotcha questions, but their reach is pretty broad as well. If I was the man running his communication strategy, I would very much favour an all-of-the-above approach rather than seeing new media as an alternative to old.
SEAN SPEER: One thing you asked Poilievre about is the growing interest in and support for him from younger voters. As someone attuned to the viewpoints of a younger audience, what do you think is going on here, J.J.? I’ve read in some places that, while millennials lean Left, Gen Z—in part because they’ve encountered the full expression of so-called woke politics on campus and elsewhere—are more conservative as a result. Is that your sense? How do you explain Poilievre’s youthful support, and do you think it will have an effect on the next federal election?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s a good question. For starters, I suppose we should contextualize this a bit and say that whenever we’re talking to Canadian politics, we always have to be clear that we’re talking— when someone is winning a demographic per se, it’s often in the high 30s compared to their competitors that are maybe in the mid-30s and that kind of thing. It’s important that we don’t overstate this. It is a competitive race on all metrics, and I think that includes demographics like youth. But that said, I do very much agree with what you said when you were hinting at the idea of the woke kind of stuff.
Definitely, I see in terms of my YouTube audience and other young people I deal with, that to a lot of people in the Gen Z crowd who grew up in that sort of milieu, their understanding of what is the dominant access point of politics is very much this woke activist, what we in the older generation would call political correctness style debates. It’s important that we be aware that every generation has a different crux point at which they start to calibrate their understanding of what differentiates Right from Left. Previous generations, it would’ve been things like socialism versus free markets and stuff like that.
When I was growing up, honestly, a lot of the access that helped animate my own understanding of politics was the war on terror. Were you soft on the war on terror, or are you more hawkish against radical Islam? And that kind of thing? For the Gen Zers, I really do think a lot of it comes down to how quick are you to get offended by things. How melodramatic are you going to be about your taking of offence versus how cool are you with being trollish or being playfully offensive and bothersome in that way to the powers that be?
I think that Poilievre has done a pretty decent job. He doesn’t necessarily have a really particularly robust anti-woke agenda, which I think is curious. But at the same time, he does signal that he’s down on wokeness, and he uses woke as a slur and in speeches, even in context where it doesn’t necessarily make total sense. It’s important to him that he signifies that he is in the tribe of the anti-woke. I think there are a lot of young people who don’t necessarily have a coherent, orthodox, conservative ideological understanding of the world, but they know that they’re on team anti-woke. As long as Pierre continues to signal that, I think that he’ll have some resonance with the youth.
SEAN SPEER: One of Poilievre’s latest videos is on what he characterizes as the failures of the harm reduction model to deal with drug addiction and the opioid crisis, which is present in communities across the country, but especially your hometown of Vancouver. This is a subject that you’ve written a lot about—in particular, your own view that the elite consensus in favour of harm reduction is failing to deal with and arguably exacerbating the problem. Poilievre’s video provoked a strong reaction from those invested in that consensus. Why don’t you just reflect on how we’ve gotten to this point and the significance of Poilievre not just treating it as a defensive issue as Conservatives have done in the past but as an offensive one?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life. I’m 38 years old now, and so I very much remember when the harm reduction strategy was first unveiled in the early 2000s as part of the so-called four pillars approach to dealing with what was at the time seen as an unacceptably high rate of overdose deaths, which I believe was just over 100 a year. This was seen as beyond the pale.
They unveiled what was supposed to be a four-pillar approach, which had harm reduction, which was to say supervised safe injection sites in which addicts would have access to clean needles and would be one aspect of an approach that would also entail robust treatment options, robust enforcement of the drug laws against drug dealers, and so forth. Then also conceding that there are some people who are just destined to be users, and so at the very least, we can provide them with a clean space in which to inject with the goal of then helping them get treatment options and so forth.
What’s been interesting to observe in the last 20-some years is just the degree to which the safe treatment has consumed everything else. There is no other approach that is really on the table anymore. I think that that represents a curious ideological evolution on drugs. It was interesting. I was looking at one of the statements that one of the politicians made in regards to denouncing Poilievre’s comments. They were talking about substance use and how we shouldn’t stigmatize substance use. That unto itself is just such an interesting evolution where we don’t even use the language of treating this sort of behaviour as problematic anymore. It is just merely a behaviour.
In fact, it’s a medical condition. We have these ads on the radio in British Columbia all the time that say, “It’s not a choice, it’s a medical condition.” The shift away from even using language that portrays this as a problem to be solved has been really quite interesting. It reflects, like you were saying, a shifting elite consensus in which the mentality always goes towards just less and less judgement, less and less willingness to treat this as anything wrong.
This is just an alternative way of being. It’s a lifestyle and a medical condition and thus something that should not be judged in any context. It should just be managed. Then not only managed but managed safely, which is this idea that fundamentally drug or substance use is a lifestyle that can be on some level safely managed and can lead to, I suppose, a long and happy and satisfied life.
We even have what I think are quite preposterous ads that are all over the place in British Columbia as well, where they have these big pictures of respectable members of bourgeois society, and it’s like father, dad, businessman, addict. Which is the idea that it could affect anyone, and drug addicts are amongst us all. Pierre Poilievre has really pushed back against that because I think that his rhetorical line on all of this is to treat it as a problem. He uses very explicit language. He says, “These people are injecting poison into their bodies. They’re still dying in numbers that are unacceptably high, much higher frankly than it ever was when the four pillar approach was first rolled out.”
Just in his willingness to just state that this is not okay, that massive rates of drug addiction and drug death—despite a climate of non-judgment and accommodation—the fact that this is continuing to go on and that this is not something that we as a civilized society should want, that has got people really in a tizzy because again, it just pushes back so hard on what has been a gradually calcifying ideological consensus that spans all political parties in this province at the municipal and the provincial level. It doesn’t shock me at all that he’s getting as much blowback as he is, but I’m happy that he’s chosen this to be one of his marquee issues.
‘Something will have to give’: The Hub’s writers explain the Alberta election
‘Elite capture’ may be a bigger problem than the Chinese government’s intimidation tactics, experts warn
‘It directly contradicts the Johnston Report’: The Hub Roundtable breaks down new testimony on the foreign interference scandal
SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up on that insightful answer with a question about the role of stigma. You mentioned a couple of times, J.J., that part of the evolution you described has been about abandoning judgment and in turn stigma as a tool that we use to try to encourage certain behaviours associated with positive economic and social outcomes for individuals. What do you attribute the decline in a conception of stigma that is part of the tools available to a society to deal with problematic behaviours like drug use?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s really interesting that you say that because I don’t think as a whole civilization elite, conventional wisdom, whatever you want to call it, has necessarily come to a coherent consensus when it comes to stigma. Because we do stigmatize a tremendous number of activities. We stigmatize smoking, we stigmatize eating unhealthy food. Certainly, during COVID, the power of stigma was very bluntly enforced in order to get people to get vaccinated and wear masks and to socially distance and so forth. There is an understanding that social stigma to shame “bad behaviour” as a tool of getting people to shape up and exert some agency over their own lives and behave responsibly to protect their health and the health of others.
There is a concession that that is something that’s perfectly reasonable to exercise in the pursuit of various public policy goals. I wrote about this once in The Washington Post where it’s the only belief or the only way I can make sense of why we use stigma to promote certain types of behaviour but never use stigma in the realm of hard drug use is that hard drug use is disproportionately a problem that is born by the “underclass” like the lower classes of society.
It just seems to me that there’s a soft condescension that’s going on here where there’s an understanding that reasonable middle-class people have agency over their lives. They can make reasonable decisions to not smoke or to not get drunk and get behind the wheel. If we propagandize them and stigmatize bad behaviour, that it will work in some form. We can change their behaviour.
The condescending attitude comes in the form of believing that lower class people, underclass people, that these people have no agency over their own lives. They’re just completely captured by their disease, the disease of drug addiction, and that they have no independent agency to exert any control over it. The best we can do is just pat them on the head and say, “You poor-poor thing. We’ll put you in a clean room where you can have all the heroin you want, and we’ll do our best to make sure that your lifestyle is not endangered in any way.” Even though it is inherently by definition, a dangerous lifestyle, we have convinced ourselves that these people are sick and diseased beyond any help at all.
It’s actually interesting that just the other day, the Conference of Municipalities in British Columbia, they were debating resolutions of whether or not to formally come out against treatment altogether. Like involuntary treatment, which has become now a stigmatized thing where it’s like, “Well, that’s part of the problem, saying that these people need to be fixed and putting them into treatment against their will.”
It was curious, though, because in some ways, this is now even hypocritical because it’s saying, “They can’t exert any agency over the addiction, but they can exert agency over the decision to get treatment or not. We should never ever, ever suggest that they should seek involuntary treatment because that should be their decision.” Somehow Premier Horgan once got in a lot of trouble for suggesting that as terrible as drug addiction is, it does begin with a bad choice.
He had to walk that back. I do believe that, and I do believe that it’s important that we understand that just as you have agency to make bad decisions initially, you have agency to ultimately go down the path of recovery, and there’s a tremendous amount of success stories that provide evidence for that. It just seems sad and miserable and morally wrong to have a moral understanding of this situation that’s completely reversed.
SEAN SPEER: I know it involves a degree of sloganeering, but I’ve always been taken by a line from former president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, who says, “People are assets to be cultivated, not liabilities to be managed.” There’s an extent to which the harm reduction model comes to see people as liabilities to be managed. If we can shift the conversation a bit, it’s worth noting that Poilievre in a way is building on progress from the Kenney government in Alberta, which had championed a different model sometimes called the Alberta Model focused on treatment and recovery, after taking office in 2018.
J.J., Kenney’s sacking as premier would probably not have been something that I would’ve bet on four years ago, especially if the bet involved Doug Ford also being reelected in Ontario with a larger majority than he started with. As someone with a pretty good intuition about conservative politics, how do you explain Ford outlasting Kenney? What does it tell us about the state of Canadian conservatism?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: That is a very good question because it does defy any ideological explanation, doesn’t it? Kenney has enjoyed a reputation. I’ve been critical of Kenney on several occasions, but there can be no denying that for much of his career, he enjoyed a reputation as the conservative’s conservative. He was a more orthodox thinker in the Stephen Harper government. He was on the Right of the party, but on the thoughtful Right. The guy who had a philosophical pedigree that was beyond reproach. And then when he became premier of Alberta I think there was a great deal of excitement about what that would mean: an indisputably conservative government.
Whereas Premier Ford, I think was always seen as a populist character. There was some hope initially that his government perhaps represented a populist, unapologetic conservative government. This is the thing. Because he gives off that vibe, he gives off the impression of being more ideological and more to the barricades. “I’m going to fight for what I believe, come hell or high water.” He just gives off that vibe. I feel like I might have even talked about this in one of our previous episodes. It does make you wonder just how much of politics is vibes? How much of politics is just what people project onto their political leaders, what they assume they believe, what they assume they think that they’re motivated by, and that’s really all it is.
On some level, Kenney in his manner, he is a more cerebral, more nerdish character, and that people projected onto him—I think within his own party, obviously, and that’s why he got sacked—as being a more moderate and more eager to compromise for the sake of compromise type of guy, a more establishment kind of guy than he probably was ever in his heart of hearts. Whereas Ford, because he is a little bit more brash and a little bit more unvarnished and I think a, let’s say, a slightly less intellectual character, people take some of that packaging around him as a sign that maybe he’s more of a principled fighter and more of an uncompromising figure than he actually is. I don’t know.
This is not a perfectly good explanation because you also then have to factor in how these people resonate with the broader public in addition to conservatives. I do think that it is very just odd to me that Jason Kenney faced and was dethroned by a very powerful challenge from his Right and yet the challenges to Doug Ford’s Right got absolutely nowhere. I know that there were multiple small right-wing parties that attempted to challenge him in the most recent provincial election, and they got nowhere. As far as I know, there was no credible challenger to his premiership, to his leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, and it seems inexplicable to me.
Smarter people than I have written editorials and stuff trying to come up with some theory about Doug Ford’s flavour of conservatism or what it represents for the future of conservative politics in Canada. None of which has been particularly persuasive to me because I think it’s—you guys have talked about this a lot on some of your Hub Dialogues. You had a good one just the other day where I think it was you, Sean, who just characterized Ford as just being a quite reactionary guy, who just bounces from crisis to crisis. And his approach to dealing with any crisis, whether it’s the strike or COVID or whatever is just animated by a guns blazing overconfident brash attitude.
It’s very hard to weave all of that into a single coherent theory and animating philosophy that he’s bringing to government other than he’s just for whatever reason, a guy that a lot of people trust, and that includes people within his conservative base.
SEAN SPEER: The BC Liberal Party, now the BC Union, is set to try to dislodge the BC New Democrats from government in the province’s next election in 2024. We don’t just have a new name for the BC Liberals, but we also have a new NDP premier. Do you want to help our central Canadian listeners understand the state of play in BC politics?
My outsider perspective is that the BC Union’s coalition is fracturing at the same time that politics across the Western world is shifting, in part, from materialistic economic questions to more cultural ones. In that context, you have the conservative elements of the BC Union motivated by anti-woke arguments and the BC Liberal contingent essentially having Justin Trudeau’s views on race, gender, sexuality, et cetera. If you agree with that formulation, is it possible to bring these different factions together in a durable way? How, in other words, J.J., is the union sustainable?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: British Columbia politics is, I suppose somewhat unique in that sense. It’s a much older legacy in British Columbia politics than it sometimes gets credit for. The idea of federal Liberals and federal Conservatives working together. It goes back even into the early 20th century when we actually used to have coalition governments between the two formal parties, and then eventually the Liberal Party became the more successful of those two.
Then the Liberal Party went into a period of decline when the Social Credit Party was on the ascendancy and then rushed back when the Social Credit Party in turn declined. What has kept the BC Liberal Party active and what provided them with multiple back-to-back majority governments during the 2000s was just a deep, deep animus for the NDP. People like to characterize the BC Liberal Party in some corners as being “Well, they’re actually conservative, or they’re the right-wing option in British Columbia,” and there’s definitely a conservative faction of it.
Their animating philosophy, if we’re going to talk about animating philosophies of provincial parties, had always just been a real, real, real doom and gloom attitude towards the NDP. That the NDP, which I think quite objectively mismanaged British Columbia quite badly in the 1990s, that they were just incompetent. That they were these wild-eyed socialists that hated the free market and were just so captive to their ideology. If they were ever allowed back in power again, they would drive the province into the ground and ruin the economy and drive people into Alberta, and so on and so forth.
Those kind of doom and gloom stories were very persuasive for close to a generation in BC politics. They kept the BC Liberal Party continuously getting re-elected. Then the BC Liberals, I think proceeded to govern in a way that wasn’t overly ideological in either direction because that was never their mandate. Their mandate was just to provide better government for British Columbia than the BC NDP alternative. Then the last BC Liberal premier, Christie Clark, she was not popular. Her government became associated with scandal and corruption and just tiredness, as I think any government that’s been in power for, I believe, 15 years, which they had been at that point.
The relevant variable then is that when the BC NDP was very begrudgingly elected back to power—and we should remember that when Premier John Horgan was elected for the first time, it was with this incredibly narrow minority government that he was only able to cobble together with the help of the Green Party—Premier Horgan’s government did not govern in a radical wide-eyed socialist direction. In fact, Premier Horgan himself always represented the moderate faction of his own party.
I remember actually interviewing him years ago, and he made a big show of saying, “I’m not a socialist. I’ve never associated myself with being a socialist. That’s not my identity.” He then proceeded to govern in a rather moderate and pragmatic way particularly, and he doesn’t get enough credit for this on COVID. That we in British Columbia, under an NDP government, had a much more moderate approach than the conservative government of Ontario did.
The point is that the NDP government has proceeded to represent what I think is the new broad centre-left or even centrist governing coalition in British Columbia that appeals to middle-class voters, that appeals to the cities, that is associated with stability, good governance, and so forth. That I think has really taken a lot of the wind out of the BC Liberals’ sails, because that is what they want to run on. That is what they want their identity to be. I think that what is happening now and to get back to your original formation, I do think that there is a existential question now that it becomes the BC United Party. What exactly does this party stand for?
The right-wing of the party is becoming a little bit more ascendant in part because I do think some of the more moderate centre-left people have made peace with the NDP government. As a result, this is why you get things like the rebranding initiative, why you get somebody like Kevin Falcon, who’s the new leader of the party and has often been considered more on the Right of the party. The problem is that I think as the base of the party is getting a little bit more right-wing, the elite of the party is still pretty centrist. It is very based in Vancouver and very hung up on pretty standard Vancouvery-type of issues.
It’s a weird, weird party these days because its base is very rural. They don’t have any support at all in the greater Vancouver area. You basically have to go to Abbotsford or something before you start finding BC Liberal support. You have this very rural-based party that is increasingly defined by a right-wing base that nevertheless is governed and has its priorities set by an urban, I would say, more progressive center-left centrist elite who dictate what the priorities are. It’s a curious thing, and I’m not convinced at all that that’s a winning strategy.
I have often thought that if we just had an open, unapologetic conservative party that just said, “We’re going to run on conservative principles, we’re going to be open and going to call ourselves conservatives, we’re going to identify the NDP as a left-wing party, and we’re going to run on centre-right solutions.” That would just be a much clearer, better political system than this business of trying to have an NDP Party on the one hand and then a party on the other hand that just tries to be all things to all people satisfying no one.
SEAN SPEER: There’s a lot of insight. Thanks for the education on BC politics. Let’s take up Bill C-11 for which you’ve emerged as one of the most articulate and principled critics. To refresh listeners’ memories, Bill C-11 essentially proposes to extend the CanCon regime to previously unregulated online content such that the distinction between J.J. and CTV would be significantly diminished.
J.J., one frustrating part about the debate for me is the tendency for political actors on both sides to devolve into sloganeering, which seems to obscure the fundamental policy issue here. Traditional broadcasters, as you’ve said in some of your comments to parliament, have a point. The system is asymmetric between you and CTV in terms of financial and content obligations. Then the question is how do you go about solving for the asymmetry? One option is to treat CTV the way that you’re treated. That is to say, deregulate traditional broadcasters as the government has done for online content. The other is to do the opposite and treat you like them. The government has obviously chosen the latter.
Isn’t the right approach, though, say for the Conservative Opposition to simply champion getting rid of the CanCon regime altogether and solving the asymmetry that way? It seems to me that would certainly accord with Poilievre’s overarching message of freedom. If you agree, why do you think that’s not quite been the party’s position? What’s standing in its way?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: It’s a good question. I definitely think that that is the most obvious solution. When you’re dealing with a regulatory asymmetry, you can either share the burden to the newcomers, or you can lessen the burden on the legacy players. It just seems to me that the legacy media, and I’ve seen this now because I’ve been in committees with these people, the legacy media people, you don’t get the sense that they’re excited to play with the CRTCs rules. You don’t get the idea that this has been a great boon for their bottom line or for their great expression and their ability to pursue the media kind of media projects that they want.
They just have an idea that government has tied one of their hands behind their back. Now there are people like me come along that don’t have any of those kinds of restraints. We’re just having our merry way and making a ton of money and not having to dance to any government’s tune and that there’s something fundamentally unfair about that. They spend so much time trying to comply with this onerous regulatory burden and that there are other people that don’t.
I believe one of the witnesses in one of the committees that I was at talked about the idea of new media just crashing on the couch that old media has built. I’m sensitive to that, and I think that particularly as well, the old head of the CRTC, Konrad von Finckenstein, came out, and he had a big line where he said, “We’re going to put audience needs first.”
I don’t think that was actually fulfilled by the CRTC, but the idea that the CRTC even felt a need to concede that is a bit of a tacit acknowledgment that the heavy-handed regulatory approach to dictating things like Canadian content quotas and heavy subsidies for different artists and entertainers that some Ottawa committee has deemed are going to enrich the culture in some way, I just think that has been an experiment that has failed.
Canadians have not warmed to CanCon. Canadians in fact go out of their way to avoid CanCon. I think a lot of the stuff that has been heavily subsidized and promoted has not actually made much of a cultural impact on this country, has not actually changed Canadian tastes in any substantial way, and has not weaned us off of American culture the way it was supposed to. In that climate, you have to be willing to concede that this is an experiment that has failed, and what can we do to concede reality and genuinely do to put consumers first? What can we do to make a truly consumer-centric, audience-centric approach to media and entertainment culture in this country?
I do agree this is the completely low-hanging fruit for the Conservative Party. I do think a lot of middle-class Canadians are hypocrites about this stuff. It’s like on the one hand, they will whine and complain and say, “We’re so bombarded with American culture in this country. We have no culture of our own,” and this kind of thing. Then on the other hand, if you look at their actual diet, what are they watching? They’re watching, Marvel movies and Netflix and so on and so forth.
There is this sense that if a Conservative politician came out and said like, “The CRT sucks. Let’s abolish their mandate and get rid of all CanCon requirements and so forth.” You could imagine how that would open them up to a bit of some partisan attacking that would question their patriotism, question their commitment to Canadian cultural sovereignty, and that thing. I do just think that there’s a timidity about it.
Frankly, there’s a Quebec elephant in the room where to this day, I still don’t completely understand the degree to which C-11 is secretly just this Quebec-motivated thing and that we’re all going through this kabuki in which we pretend that this is a very English Canada thing, but really, there’s this hidden agenda that it’s actually just about some very distinct Quebec media ecosystem and Quebec cultural players that the rest of us are completely oblivious to.
The idea that Canadian cultural policy is really just a Quebec cultural policy that goes in under the radar and where Anglo Canada is the collateral damage in terms of our ability to pursue the media that we want. I don’t know. I will give Pierre Poilievre credit. He has signaled the CRTC as one of the gatekeepers that he views as one of the big obstacles in his anti-gatekeeper agenda. It’s still relatively early in his leadership, and who knows? Maybe when the time comes to run in the general election, he’ll have a more fleshed-out theory of a more robust deregulatory approach to Canadian media and entertainment.
SEAN SPEER: As someone who produces content for global audiences at the Washington Post and YouTube, you still produce quite a lot of Canadian content. Can we just talk a bit about that? Do you notice a drop in engagement if your topics are Canadian rather than universal? If not, what do you attribute that to? Is it merely the quality of the content or are people actually interested in Canada?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: My main audience is Americans that are interested in Canadian things, which is interesting because the whole theory of CanCon, in some ways, posits that such people do not exist. The theory is that the audience is in Canada, and that’s why we need to create this walled garden approach in which we make Canadian content for Canadians and keep out the foreign stuff and that kind of thing.
I’ve found that when I make explicitly Canadian content, it often does very well indeed. It incentivizes me to create more Canadian content, not less, sometimes even more than I want to. I’ve been enjoying making a kick of American cultural analysis videos recently. I do that because I think of Canadian and American content as being one and the same. I don’t like to use the awkward phrase “North American culture” because I feel like that gives Canada a little bit too much credit in some ways. I think that we are a cultural extension of a larger American civilization, and that’s fine. That is just part of what Canada is, and I’m fine conceding that.
At the same time, whenever I do those videos, I do get a lot of comments, even from my American audience where they say like, “Can you talk more about Canada? How about Canada? what is the Canadian version of this? What is the Canadian version of that?” There’s this huge appetite to learn about Canada, which really goes against the idea that Americans are either arrogant, know it all about Canada, or that just they’re just powerfully disinterested.
I do think that the internet has really raised awareness in many remarkable and understated ways about just the diversity of the modern world, and that has really wedded a lot of people’s appetites to learn more about these countries that they previously didn’t think that much about. I’m probably outside of mainstream media stuff. I’m probably one of the leading Canadian cultural content creators on YouTube in the sense of making explicitly Canadian content about Canada. Because I do it for an international audience as opposed to appease Canadian regulators who have their own theories of what CanCon should be, in some ways, I haven’t gotten a tremendous amount of credit for what I do, but that’s fine.
I’m not doing it to appease regulators. I’m not even necessarily doing it to appease an international audience. I just enjoy bringing awareness of Canada to the world and being able to work through myths and preconceptions and stereotypes and all of that kind of stuff. It’s been incredibly rewarding because ultimately, at the end of the day, while I’m not the most rah rah patriotic guy in the world, Canada is what I know and Canada’s what I know best and I like talking about things that I know best. I like talking about things that I have deep familiarity with, and that’s what I’ve built my YouTube career on. It’s what I’m going to continue to do.
SEAN SPEER: Final question for you as we approach the end of 2022: What has surprised you in Canadian policy and politics over the course of the year? I mentioned Kenney’s sacking or Ford’s re-election which might be options. Poilievre’s overwhelming victory as Conservative leader, as you said earlier, is probably less of a surprise. The rise of the trucker convoy perhaps. The Trudeau government’s apparent shift on China is interesting. All this to say: what would you include on your list of political surprises in 2022?
J.J. McCULLOUGH: Let me choose a bit of a curve ball here. One thing that did surprise me a bit is the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s death. I have been very anti-monarchy. Basically, it’s one of the very first issues I ever took a position on when I was a teenager was opposing Canada’s ties to the British monarchy, and it’s still something I feel very principled on. I suppose what was interesting was that in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s death, within the small r-republican community in Canada which I’ve been an active member for a couple of decades now, there had always been this understanding that when Queen Elizabeth dies, Canada is going to noticeably shift away from the monarchy. She is the last lingering thread and that people are fundamentally loyal to her on a personal level but not really to the institution per se. I suppose that what has been discouraging for anti-monarchy people like me was just a revelation that there really is no anti-monarchy sentiment at all present in the Canadian elite.
Be it in the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, or even substantially in the NDP. In a lot of other countries, you consider the furthest left party to at least be relatively clear and principled in its opposition to monarchy. At the best, you can say that the monarchy issue is divisive within the NDP and that they don’t have a desire to push hard on it. There is no sense at all that Canada’s establishment is at all eager to start a conversation about this issue, even though the queen’s passing provided an obvious opportunity to do so.
The monarchy has been solidified, it has been reaffirmed, and its relevance has been if anything consolidated in terms of the various ceremonies and pomp and so forth that occurred in the aftermath of the Queen’s death. I do think that’s relevant. The issues that you brought up are a lot more significant in the grand scheme of Canadian politics, but just as somebody that’s been just a very close follower of this aspect of our political system, I do think it’s not insignificant. It’s not insignificant because the monarchy can be seen as a proxy for a status quo bias that I think exists within the elite of this country.
Where there is just a lack of imagination when it comes to re-imagining some of the big questions involving how this country is governed and the component parts of our constitutional architecture. I do think if there’s a lack of curiosity for re-examining something that in my mind at least is as self evidently preposterous and non-functional as the monarchy, then that doesn’t give me a lot of hope that this country’s elite at the very least is intellectually prepared to deal with some of these other important constitutional debates and discussions and re-examination that we have to have.
SEAN SPEER: It’s a good answer as your answers have been throughout now three appearances on Hub Dialogues. As we come to the end of 2022, J.J., you presently hold the title for most appearances on our podcast. We’ll have to send you one of our Hub baseball caps to acknowledge your three times on the show.
I want to thank you for joining Hub Dialogues, J. J. McCullough, Washington Post columnist, successful YouTuber, popular guest, and look forward to having you back on the podcast early in 2023.
J.J. McCULLOUGH: Thank you so much, Sean. Each appearance has been more delightful than the last.