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From south, Canada hears a new 'giant sucking sound'

Kim Campbell calls herself the "Canadian ambassador to the American cultural empire." Actually, she is Canada's consul-general in Los Angeles.

L.A. is the center of the $27 billion United States film and television industry. This immerses the former prime minister of Canada in a cultural-trade dispute between Canada and the US that could become a wingdinger.

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It certainly could be far more important to the US than the ongoing dispute over bananas with the European Community. California's cultural-entertainment business is now bigger than its defense industry.

Canadian and American officials have met seven times since January, including a session this week in Ottawa, to discuss legislation moving through Parliament that would prohibit foreign publications (read American) from selling advertising for so-called "split-run" editions serving the Canadian market.

Under the proposed law - C-55 - companies could advertise in the entire run of a US periodical, but not just in a Canadian edition. This would protect Canada's 1,500 different magazines.

"It matters to us to have our own voices," says Ms. Campbell.

If the bill is signed into law and the US retaliates with new duties on Canadian products, "it will be a major confrontation," she warns.

Campbell was prime minister briefly in 1993 after Prime Minister Brian Mulroney resigned. A quick election nearly wiped out Mr. Mulroney' Progressive Conservative Party. So Campbell was out and Liberal Party leader Jean Chrtien was in.

Campbell is highly articulate, her skills honed by years in politics, including as minister of defense and minister of justice. She is now using her celebrity status to explain why Canada is trying to fend off Readers Digest, Sports Illustrated, and other icons of American culture.

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Appearing in Boston last week, Campbell's first point was that Canada is a Rodney Dangerfield for Americans: It gets no respect. That's an old story for Canadians. But Campbell says it has become especially true since the end of the cold war. Standing geographically "on the front line" between the US and the Soviet Union, Canada was seen in Washington as having strategic importance.

That's no longer the case. Russia is no major military threat to the US.

"Canada has become invisible again," complains Campbell. "Americans have a sense that nothing important happens in Canada."

Of course, hockey player Wayne Gretzky's retirement this week got pages of attention for one Canadian.

But relatively few Americans know that Canada-US trade is by far the largest between any other two nations. Nor would they know that foreign sources, overwhelmingly American, account for 95 percent of the movies screened in Canada and 80 percent of the magazines sold on newstands, and 60 percent of television shows broadcast by Canadian television stations.

Canadians see themselves as having one of the most open media markets in the world. If foreign media threatened to dominate the US market the way the American media overwhelms the Canadian market, it would not be allowed, says Campbell.

But Americans are "largely parochial," Campbell says. They see themselves, not so much as having a special American culture, but as the "norm." Other cultures are "exotic."

"They are not interested in Canadian stories. Because Americans know so little about us, they assume we are the same as them."

Canada does have a distinct society, Campbell argues. But Canadians underestimate their own worth. They often recognize talented Canadians only when praised in the US.

To the US, C-55 is just another Canadian effort to protect politically powerful domestic industries.

There may be something to that.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, so-called "cultural industries" can be protected. But the US won a complaint to the World Trade Organization in Geneva two years ago over Canadian taxes and duties protecting its magazines. Those provisions were repealed last year. C-55 is a substitute measure.

Now the US threatens trade retaliation if C-55 passes. It hasn't said what Canadian products will be hit.

But to Canada, the US "dumps" its magazines on the Canadian market. It costs little to run the press a bit longer to supply that market. Canadian magazines, in contrast, find no interest in the US, making competition hard for them.

Some Canadian magazines could disappear. And Canadians, surveys show, do approve of cultural protection so they can talk to each other.

*David R. Francis, senior economics correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, is Canadian.

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