Saturday 31 October 2009

International creativity contests: Quebecers not wanted on the voyage

At first glance, internet behemoth Google, Esquire magazine, and Cisco Systems don’t have a lot in common – different lines of business, dissimilar in size, and varying widely in global reach. But it turns out the world’s largest search engine, the men’s magazine and the networking giant do have a significant shared feature: their attitude towards me and my province. Specifically, the “no Quebecers allowed” policy in all of their contests and competitions.

While the welcome mat’s out for Americans and Canadians from the other 12 provinces and territories, unfortunately if, like me, you are a Montrealer – or live elsewhere in La Belle Province – you are sh*t outta luck!

Another example of incipient Francophobia? Nope. This is consumer protection run amok, a problem of Quebec’s own making called c. L-6, r.3.1 (Rules respecting publicity contests) of R.S.Q., c. L-6, s.20 (An Act respecting lotteries, publicity contests and amusement machines).

Few of us have ever heard of these laws, but my interest was piqued recently when I read an article in Le Journal de Quebec called “Le Québec membre d’un étrange club banni par Google.” Quebec, Marc-André Séguin wrote, is part of a sad set of outcast jurisdictions — including Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Turns out citizens of these places are excluded from participating in Google’s latest Code Jam, a computer code-writing competition where students and professional programmers, under time constraints, solve complex algorithms on the road to a $5000 US grand prize. Something about this seemed familiar. Then I remembered the Esquire contest.

Several years ago, I quit molecular genetics research to reinvent myself as a creative writer, and one of the most worthwhile tips I received was the suggestion to seek out and enter writing contests. Which is how I stumbled across Esquire magazine’s 2009 fiction contest. The $2500 US prize money was impressive, but the fine print--once again--deemed Quebecers ineligible.

After reading Séguin’s article, I pulled up Paul McNamara’s Buzzblog post, “What does Cisco have against Quebec?” Here again was an ostensibly international competition that banned Quebecers. But this time, instead of computer or literary innovation, Cisco’s I-Prize challenge was, as McNamara put it, to come up with “the best idea for a company," the prize being "a bunch of money and the entrepreneur gets taken under [Cisco’s] big-time corporate wing.” Creative and potentially pretty lucrative, too. By the time the contest concluded in October 2008, some 2500 individuals from over 100 countries had tested themselves and their ideas. In the end, a team from Germany and Russia won with a plan to improve energy efficiency.

Cisco PR officials initially told McNamara they had no idea why Quebecers were excluded. Then someone got back to him, explaining the injury was self-inflicted: “Quebec has one of the most stringent sets of rules and regulations for sweepstakes and other contests set out by the Quebec government.”

Seems our Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux regulates “publicity contests,” meaning any contest offered to Quebecers requires organizers to jump through multiple hoops, among them the filling out of forms, the registration of contest rules and publicity at least 30 days ahead of the start date, an upfront fee based on the prize value (McNamara’s source said 10%), and a final written report at the contest’s conclusion. Then there are the rules addressing complaints and court challenges …

The intention behind the law may be laudable corruption-busting, preventing contest prizes from being awarded to the organizers’ brothers-in-law, for example. But the real-world consequences? Important international engagements of the imaginative spirit that don’t want us on the voyage.

How ironic! Quebec, the loudest of jurisdictions on the value of culture to a society’s health and prosperity, is hindering the creativity at the heart — not to mention the pocketbooks — of our most innovative emerging writers, entrepreneurs and computer coders, keeping our ideas from shining on a global stage. Undoubtedly, the same is happening to Quebecers involved in all sorts of other artistic endeavours.

Talk about working at cross purposes. While one government department tries to foster vital innovation, another simply lets it bleed away.

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