Archived - Open Letter - CBC/Radio-Canada: An essential institution - Graham Fraser

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Ottawa, December 13, 2011

Rudy Desjardins is not a household name from coast to coast in Canada, in either English or French. Neither is Marie-Christine Gagnon or Susan Campbell. But in Alberta, Manitoba and small communities across Quebec, they are critical to the vitality of the audiences they serve. They are familiar daily voices for families in communities that rarely hear their language spoken in public. In addition to their jobs as radio and television hosts, they appear regularly at community festivals and preside over the annual meetings of local organizations. They are local heroes: crucial players in the French-speaking and English-speaking communities of Canada.

A debate is now underway in Ottawa about the role of Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada: its transparency, its accountability, its cost. Some private broadcasters—and some parliamentarians—have argued that it represents unfair competition.

In this debate, there has been little or no mention of the critical role that CBC/Radio-Canada plays in supporting and promoting French-language culture in general, and official language communities, both French-speaking and English-speaking, in particular. It also provides an invaluable way for immigrants to Canada to understand their new country.

For those who hear their mother tongue spoken every day, and have it available at virtually every spot on the dial, it is difficult to imagine the isolation that can be felt when it is not possible to hear your language spoken in public. I lived in Québec City for seven years, and while it was a wonderful experience in many ways, CBC radio and CBC television provided a critical lifeline and connection to the small but vital English-speaking communities across Quebec. Similarly, driving across Saskatchewan, I was thrilled to hear a discussion on Radio-Canada in French.

In some Canadian cities and towns, private television and private radio do remarkable jobs in serving their communities in the majority language. But, with the exception of Montréal and some Ontario communities, where Franco-Ontarians can listen to private stations in Gatineau and Northern Ontario and English Montrealers are numerous enough to support English stations, private broadcasters do not focus on serving official language communities. This is understandable: they are small, scattered across a wide territory and do not fit neatly into commercial business models. Official language community radio functions very well in some markets, but faces limitations inherent to its mandate and resources.

We were all reminded of the limited reach of private broadcasters before the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, when it became clear that had the parliamentary station CPAC not been available, it would have been impossible for private television to broadcast the Games in French across the country. Thanks to the CRTC, Rogers and CPAC—and the fact that Parliament was not sitting—the Games were available in both languages from coast to coast to coast.

Similarly, French-language private television does very little to report on Canada outside Quebec, or on the rest of the world. In fact, TVA is now asking the CRTC to reduce its requirement for Canadian programming. A diminished CBC/Radio-Canada would deprive Francophones of a crucial window, not only on the country, but on the globe.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have an ongoing disagreement with CBC/Radio-Canada about the nature of some of the corporation’s obligations to official language communities. Ultimately, the courts will decide which of our positions is correct.

But let there be no misunderstanding here. CBC/Radio-Canada is an essential part of the lifeblood of official language communities in Canada. It provides a service to these communities that no private broadcaster is willing or able to replace.

There are relatively few institutions that unify this country and provide services in both languages in virtually every part of Canada. CBC/Radio-Canada does that, and provides service in eight aboriginal languages as well.

It is no coincidence that some of the best-known international theorists on communications and cultural diversity—Harold Innes, Marshall McLuhan and Charles Taylor come to mind—are Canadian. Communications and cultural interaction are part of the fibre of this country. It would be a terrible shame if, during the 75th anniversary of Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada’s role in linking the language communities of the country together were weakened and undermined. language barrier/5850115/story.html

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