Letter submitted to the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications on the challenges facing CBC/Radio-Canada in an evolving broadcasting and communications environment

The Honourable Dennis Dawson
Chair
Standing Senate Committee on Transport
and Communications
The Senate
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A4

Dear Senator Dawson:

I am writing concerning your committee’s work on the challenges facing CBC/Radio-Canada in an evolving broadcasting and communications environment. I do not wish to comment on the technical aspects of this evolution, but rather on CBC/Radio-Canada’s obligations as the national public broadcaster under the Broadcasting Act, and as a federal institution under the Official Languages Act. A brief history of the Official Languages Act is provided in Appendix A.

These two laws are complementary and both stem from Parliament’s desire to promote the development and vitality of official language minority communities (OLMCs). Following the amendments that were made to Part VII of the Official Languages Act in 2005, federal institutions now have a duty to take positive measures to meet this commitment and to take OLMCs’ needs into account in their policies, programs, directives and priorities. This applies to CBC/Radio-Canada.

The national public broadcaster’s vital role with respect to OLMCs and linguistic duality has been the subject of various testimonies and reports, including a recent report by the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages titled CBC/Radio-Canada’s Language Obligations: Communities Want to See Themselves and Be Heard Coast to Coast! (April 2014). The House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages is currently conducting a study on CBC/Radio-Canada programming since the last budget cuts. For its part, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission heard from thousands of people in 2012, including members of OLMCs, during its hearings on the renewal of CBC/Radio-Canada’s licences.

English- and French-speaking organizations have taken these opportunities to speak about the key role that CBC/Radio-Canada’s local stations and national networks play with regard to the vitality of the communities, and of the difficulties facing the broadcaster in fully playing that role. CBC/Radio-Canada also has a role to play in promoting linguistic duality by helping bring the two official language communities and their respective cultures closer together through its English and French services, a role the broadcaster has yet to fulfill completely.

The changes made by CBC/Radio-Canada following the cuts over the past two decades have undermined its ability to meet its obligations and to continue playing its vital social and cultural role, particularly in the smaller communities. In several regions, such as the one that is home to radio station CBEF Windsor (a case I investigated), CBC/Radio-Canada is the only broadcaster that airs content in the minority language and that reflects the community. At small broadcasting stations and in communities with limited resources, the slightest cuts can have a big impact.

The national public broadcaster cannot be subject to a market logic alone, which would run counter to its mandate to provide programming from coast to coast in both official languages and to reflect the various communities and cultures, including in minority settings. Because of their size, many communities are not financially viable markets. However, it is precisely in these communities that CBC/Radio-Canada’s presence is all the more crucial for linguistic, cultural and community vitality.

I would like to draw your attention, on the one hand, to a report commissioned by CBC/Radio-Canada and titled Analysis of Government Support for Public Broadcasting and Other Culture in Canada (Nordicity, October 2013). The report shows that, among 18 major Western countries, Canada has one of the lowest levels of funding for its public broadcaster. On the other hand, the Auditor General’s 2013 Special Examination Report on CBC/Radio-Canada concluded that the broadcaster’s resources are managed efficiently, despite its additional obligations—obligations that no other Canadian broadcaster has to meet.

You will understand that the worsening financial situation at CBC/Radio-Canada is cause for concern, because the national broadcaster is already having difficulty fulfilling its role with respect to OLMCs.

CBC/Radio-Canada is focusing on digital media as the way forward. My role is not to determine whether that decision augurs well for the broadcaster. However, I must insist that, as it embarks on this transition, CBC/Radio-Canada weigh the potential consequences of its decisions on OLMCs, particularly the most vulnerable ones, and that this assessment take place in cooperation with the communities themselves as part of an ongoing process based on consultation and transparency. This assessment should take into account broadband access in rural communities, for example.

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation fast approaching, now is the time to reaffirm and update our commitment to the principles that led to our country’s creation. The equality of English and French, and the recognition of and respect for the communities that embody those languages and cultures are part of the very fundamentals of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Official Languages Act. This is at the heart of our identity, and for our identity to be truly shared by all Canadians, strong channels of communication are needed to bring people together. Our national public broadcaster is in a particularly favourable position to be that channel in today’s society, which is driven by knowledge, communications and globalization. I trust that your committee will take full stock of how important the national public broadcaster is to the future of Canada as we approach the 150th anniversary of its founding.

The French version of this letter is enclosed for the convenience of your staff.

Yours sincerely,
Graham Fraser

Encl.

c.c.: Hubert T. Lacroix,
President and CEO,
CBC/Radio-Canada

Date modified:
2020-09-18