For decades, residents of La Ronge, Sask., were comforted by the fact that although their small northern town was isolated from the world, a tiny CBC bureau gave them a voice that travelled well beyond their border.
That will come to an end on March 1, as the public broadcaster relocates the town’s sole journalist to a currently unstaffed studio in Prince Albert, some three-and-a-half hours down Highway 2 in good weather.
The CBC said its office lease has expired and its sole employee’s contract is about to end, and it can do the same job from afar.
The move comes amid concerns over budget cuts at the public broadcaster as the Conservative government looks to trim costs in its upcoming budget. But the CBC says the move is more about efficiency than cost savings – although John Agnew, the managing director of Saskatchewan, concedes money does increasingly matter.
“There was a simply of confluence of events that allowed us to move resources from a community of 6,000 to a community of 40,000,” Mr. Agnew said. “With CBC looking at financial constraints, it seemed to make sense to move to a bigger location without incurring a penalty.”
The town isn’t buying it – and Wednesday night Mayor Thomas Sierzycki will sit with his council and draft a letter protesting the move. The CBC is supposed to reflect the country’s diversity, and that can’t happen if it pulls out of one of the poorest regions of the country and attempts to provide coverage from afar.
“It’s absolutely important we have someone to share our story,” he said. “And it should be a person who is immersed in the culture of this community. I stress that Northern Saskatchewan is the second poorest region in Canada – what message are we sending if we pull resources that can help improve the situation?”
The bureau had been staffed by Tom Roberts for the last 25 years, since his retirement in 2010 Brett Bradshaw has been the town’s voice. The journalists have largely focused on aboriginal issues, something Mr. Sierzycki said is necessary if conditions are to improve for the 2,000 natives living in and around the town (which has a population of 3,500).
One project saw Ms. Bradshaw help residents put their own concepts together for broadcast, so they could tell their stories in their own words. A major focus was the challenge of returning to school after dropping out, as the region continues to battle a high dropout rate.
“It’s important for a community to have those stories told,” Mr. Sierzycki said. “The bad ones, yes. But it’s also important for the good news to be told, to boost the community. And you need someone here to do that.”
It’s not the first time the broadcaster has attempted to close operations in the community. It backed down from a similar proposal in 2009 after the community rallied behind the bureau. A similar reprieve is unlikely, Mr. Agnew said, although the CBC vows to ship a reporter to the community if there is breaking news to cover.
“I’ve spent years north of 60 and I know about small communities and their relationship with the outside world,” Mr. Agnew said. “Something like this is never a good thing, and I’m not trying to sound glib when I say I wish we could staff every community of 6,000 the way we have staffed La Ronge – but we simply can’t.”
Still, many in the community believe the CBC is missing the point. Having a reporter in La Ronge isn’t about covering the town, they say, but about covering the entire northern half of a province that is rich in resources such as uranium but still faces desperate poverty-related issues.
“This isn’t about one community,” said Valerie G. Barnes-Connell, who has worked as a reporter at the weekly La Ronge Northerner for the last six years. “We are about half of the province up here, and the trust levels aren’t high between the north and the south. We live two different lives, and you can’t capture that from Prince Albert.”