Commissioner’s speech for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission public hearing (CRTC)

January 22, 2021
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog


Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission, good afternoon.

Although we’re meeting today on a virtual platform, I would like to acknowledge that I’m addressing you from Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. I’m pleased to be connecting with you today in your respective territories and communities.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer my perspective on the renewal of the broadcasting licences for various CBC/Radio-Canada services. Here with me are Pierre Leduc, Assistant Commissioner of our Policy and Communications Branch; Jean Marleau, Acting Assistant Commissioner of our Compliance Assurance Branch; and Pascale Giguère, General Counsel from our Legal Affairs Branch.

As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have the responsibility to uphold the Official Languages Act, which aims to support the development of official language minority communities and ensure the equality of English and French in Canadian society. It has been my honour to serve in this role for three years now. My background is in academia and the educational sector, and I’ve lived in different areas of Canada throughout my life, starting with my upbringing in a French-Canadian family in rural Manitoba. My life experiences have made me aware of the challenges official language minority communities face, and of how important it is for the diverse realities of Canada’s two linguistic groups to be portrayed on screen and on air.

So far in my mandate, I have had to address issues arising from both longstanding realities and the unique challenges of the present moment.

Many of Canada’s language laws and regulations were written before the rise of digital platforms: part of my work involves looking at how the laws, institutions and practices that underpin our language policy can be brought in line with today’s technologies, while also ensuring that Canadians who do not or cannot access digital services are not left behind.

Additionally, I am hearing more and more about the issue of linguistic insecurity in English and French, which arises when people feel uncomfortable using our official languages in the workplace, in educational institutions, and in wider society. Some people can feel discouraged from practising their second official language, feel judged using their first official language, or be treated differently due to their accent or dialect. I recently published a report that explores this issue in more detail.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year have been far-reaching and have certainly impacted official languages: for example, we’ve seen critical lapses in the communication of safety information in both official languages, which of course is a public health risk. French-speakers and English-speakers alike expect their governments to speak to them in their language in times of need.

The issues I address, both contemporary and long-standing, stem from a question that Canadians have been trying to answer since before Confederation: how can we ensure that members of both of Canada’s official language communities—whether Anglophone or Francophone; majority or minority; urban or rural—have a voice in Canada’s national conversation?

One reason we are still asking these questions is that there appears to be a lack of awareness and understanding of official language communities among Canadians. A sentiment I hear sometimes is that “official languages” is an issue that has been “dealt with” in the past. I’m here to say that official languages are most definitely still relevant, as are the official language minority communities that exist from coast to coast to coast. And these communities need access to forums to share their modern stories, stories that reflect their human experience. It is important for the success of Canada’s official languages, and for our nation’s well-being and unity, to build a greater awareness of the existence of these communities and of their diverse realities, accents and identities. It is also important for all Canadians to know that English and French belong to everyone, regardless of their place of birth or mother tongue.

CBC/Radio-Canada is in a unique position to help build a dialogue between the country’s two major language communities. In keeping with the values already present in the Broadcasting Act, our national broadcaster must reflect the vitality of official language minority communities, raise awareness among the entire population of their realities, and serve to help those who want to learn and understand more about the language and culture of the linguistic minority.

I’d like to draw your attention to some priority areas for your consideration that would help foster a sense of inclusion and belonging among all Canadians in our official languages and that can have a real, lasting impact on the daily lives of those living in official language minority communities throughout our vast country. I want to be clear that my role is not to comment on content-related programming choices. I recognize that the national public broadcaster must maintain its journalistic freedom to broadcast a variety of different views, including views on Canada’s official languages.

In the context of this licence renewal process, we have seen justifiable frustration from many groups, particularly from Francophone communities outside Quebec, who point to a dramatic underrepresentation of their realities in Radio-Canada’s news broadcasts, public affairs programming, and TV series. I hope that the national public broadcaster will seek to ensure that portrayals of each of Canada’s official language groups are accurate, fair, non-stereotypical, and representative of the daily realities of a variety of official language minority communities, including the different varieties of French across Canada.

What is more, in order to carry out their mandate tomorrow, CBC/Radio-Canada must secure the loyalty of the youth of today. Youth from official language minority communities have expressed a desire for interesting content that reflects their lives, values, communities and accents.

One challenge is that official language minority communities do not always have a wide variety of cultural resources available in their language. Therefore, I encourage you to ensure that CBC/Radio-Canada’s conditions of licence and expectations seek to consistently improve both the representation of official language minority communities and access to content in their preferred official language. While there are a variety of options for how best to move forward, it is vitally important not to move backwards.

For example, I was surprised to learn that CBC/Radio-Canada is proposing to not renew certain conditions of licence ensuring ICI ARTV’s distribution and regional representativeness. These conditions of licence have helped to ensure that Francophones living in official language minority communities can enjoy access to artistic content in French and that Francophone communities across the country can get to know one another. I cannot see how removing these conditions of licence benefits Francophone official language minority communities. In this vein, I encourage you to maintain the conditions of licence requiring mandatory distribution of ICI ARTV in English-speaking markets and requiring ICI ARTV to showcase Canada’s regional diversity.

I also encourage you to maintain or even enhance the conditions of licence setting out minimum amounts of genre content broadcast on conventional television. I am concerned that CBC/Radio-Canada’s proposal to lower the minimum amount of genre content broadcast in this manner, in exchange for the creation of expectations setting out minimum quotas for genre content broadcast digitally, will decrease access to this content for members of official language minority communities. Conventional and digital television continue to hold an important place in Canadian households and both must continue to be supported by CRTC conditions of licence and expectations.

The question of how to regulate digital content is a complex and important one, and I commend CBC/Radio-Canada for recognizing the need to reach Canadians on digital platforms, which are, for millions of Canadians, their primary way to access news and entertainment. Certain fundamental questions about how best to regulate digital media are still up for debate—for example, whether digital content minimums should be based on airtime, funding or some combination of the two. I hope that, in the near future, the CRTC will approach these questions with consideration for the views of official language stakeholders. In the meantime, CBC/Radio-Canada should ensure as much of its programming as possible is available on digital platforms that are equally accessible in all parts of the country.

In my view, the conditions of licence and expectations that govern CBC/Radio-Canada over its next licence term should ensure they enfranchise official language minority communities to create content “by and for” their communities. It is of course not my place to tell the national public broadcaster how to hire their journalists or structure their operations; that being said, it is reasonable to suppose that hiring media professionals from within the local community and decentralizing production would help make these principles a reality. I encourage you to ensure that the licence renewal results in increased funding for independent producers in official language minority communities to favour the development of regional production centres.

Representatives of both Francophone and Anglophone official language minority communities have indicated the proportion of independent production investment that would ensure their communities’ vitality. I want to express my support for each of these recommendations.

In my view, the condition of licence proposed by the Alliance des producteurs francophones du Canada, and supported by the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne, is entirely appropriate. It would require Radio-Canada to spend 8% of its total independent programming expenditures on programming sourced from outside Montréal, of which at least 60% would come from outside Quebec. This would support and build up production capacity in minority Francophone communities.

It follows from Radio-Canada’s mandate that content on official language minority communities should be integrated into programming to represent minority Francophone communities across Canada in a fair and accurate manner, including smaller and/or more isolated Francophone communities—for example, those outside Ontario and New Brunswick. This is a means of giving those communities the opportunity to be seen and heard by other minority communities across Canada, as well as by the majority Francophone community in Quebec, which can reinforce Canada’s Francophonie.

I also support the proposal presented jointly by the Quebec Community Groups Network, the Quebec English-Language Production Council and the English-Language Arts Network that would require CBC to spend 10% of its total independent programming expenditures in Quebec. TV and film production has historically represented a major driver of economic development and community vitality in Quebec. In the context of this licence renewal process, English-speaking Quebecers have sounded an alarm about the continuing decline of this important industry as English-Canadian TV and film production becomes centralized in Toronto and Vancouver. The conditions of licence governing CBC/Radio-Canada over its next licence term should seek to reverse this decline by investing in the province’s vibrant English-speaking production sector.

The widespread participation of national groups, community groups and artistic organizations in this licence renewal process speaks to the pivotal role that CBC/Radio-Canada can play in the development of official language minority communities and in promoting the equal status of English and French.

I urge you to listen closely to the concerns of these organizations and to take them into account when assessing CBC/Radio-Canada’s licence renewal application. Doing so is a step towards building the national public broadcaster so desired by members of Canada’s linguistic communities: one that maintains and enhances the vitality of Canada’s official language minority communities; one that allows Canadians of all official language backgrounds to see themselves and their stories portrayed; and one that supports and recognizes our country in all of its vibrant linguistic and cultural dimensions.

Thank you for your attention. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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