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Michael Healey on the nation-building role of the CBC

Bruno Gerussi of The Beachcombers


On Monday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will begin licence-renewal hearings for CBC/Radio-Canada. Struggling with a $115-million cut, the CBC will ask the CRTC for permission to air ads on its Radio 2 service. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting recently brought together Gordon Pinsent, Mary Lou Fallis, Eric Peterson, Vincent Lam and others to speak about the importance of public broadcasting. These are the comments of playwright and actor Michael Healey:

When I was a kid growing up in small-town Ontario, I could not for the life of me figure out what the main economic activity was on The Beachcombers. Eventually it was my eldest brother who told me that these people essentially had a parasitic relationship with the logging industry, and that when trees were cut down and logs were floated to mills on various waterways, they would find the logs that got lost.

This, as you can imagine, had an enormous effect on me, it blew my mind. It taught me a lot about the enormity of the place that I inhabit, in terms of geography and experience, and also the number of weird ways that people earn a living in this country.

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I didn't realize it at the time, but what was happening was that our public broadcaster was fulfilling a role only it is suited for: It was building culture.

On Republic of Doyle, every time Jake Doyle stands in a St. John's street and he makes a joke that somebody in Victoria laughs at, that is value-added citizenship. That's a tiny bit of our culture getting built. It happens slowly, and it happens over time, and it happens indirectly. Republic of Doyle looks like an hour-long, light-hearted detective procedural, but in reality it's a Trojan horse for the building of our culture. So was Mr. Dressup. And so is that bastion of capitalism and rapacity, Dragons' Den. Peter Gzowski was for years the go-to contractor for the building of our culture, but The Friendly Giant built his share of it as well.

The first time I saw Margie Gillis dance, it was on the CBC. The first time I heard Measha Brueggergosman sing was on the CBC. The CBC led me to Northrop Frye, it told me everything I needed to know about Justin Bieber, it made me grateful there was a Stratford Festival long before I'd ever seen a play there. It let me glimpse the North, it showed me who our leaders were and how they were chosen to lead. It added value to my citizenship, and it literally expanded my idea of myself.

A private broadcaster's mission is the acquisition and maintenance of a profit-stream. A public broadcaster's mission is the acquisition and maintenance of nationhood.

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