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As I watch the CBC picketers trudge back and forth with their signs, and read the self-justifying protestations of management, I weep for a lost dream.

The CBC was the dream of the visionary founders of public broadcasting in Canada such as Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt in the 1930s. They wanted a CBC that told our stories and strengthened our sense of nationhood. It was to be a fundamental building block for a united, thriving, self-aware Canada. All this, it was dreamt, to be produced by idealistic creators more missionary than businesslike, such as Ross McLean or Andrew Allan, and led by executives more inspirational than bureaucratic, such as Davidson Dunton or Al Johnson. But the ranks of true believers at the CBC are thinning. Mr. Johnson, a CBC president in the 1980s when I was head of News and Current Affairs, used to tell me: "Dream no little dreams for they have no magic with which to stir men's souls."

Alas, today, even little dreams are hard to come by.

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In the current management-labour dust-up, both sides say they want a stronger CBC, but, in fact, the lockout is a throw of the dice on the future of public broadcasting in Canada. And sad to say, the longer the dispute continues, the more the dice are loaded against the future -- because once you lose audience loyalty, it is all but impossible to get it back. Thus, the dispute seems almost like a death wish.

The CBC is meant to be our Canadian voice seeking a place in a sky teeming with American accents. It's ours, and every Canadian is a shareholder. The CBC's role is to showcase Canadian drama, music, sports, comedy, news, current affairs and documentaries, and to do things the private networks deem too risky, commercially unappetizing or lacking mass appeal. The CBC should not be burdened by an all-consuming lust for advertiser-driven audience tonnage. Audience size is certainly one of the measures of success, but it's not the only one, given what the Broadcasting Act outlines as the CBC's mandate.

Maybe political realities were such that this mandate was an impossible dream to begin with. But given today's bedlam in the air, with hundreds of TV channels, radio stations and the Internet -- mostly echoing American mores -- a clear, Canadian voice is needed more now than ever before. Otherwise, because of private-sector commercial realities, we'll be culturally overwhelmed by our neighbour to the south.

It may sound childishly naive, but the CBC is not, as some say, a business just like any other. The CBC is more a service than a business. That concept seems to be mislaid in the current firefight. It is, of course, critical to run the CBC with as much efficiency as possible, but, in the end, it is even more important for the CBC to be effective.

Both management and labour deserve their share of the blame for pushing CBC up to, if not quite yet over, the precipice.

CBC's management is partly to blame because it has been insufficiently effective in articulating the case for public broadcasting. Labour, at times, has been unrealistic in its demands. But, in fact, neither management nor labour is the real villain.

Tut-tutting in the background for several decades now are the politicians, most of whom say they are profoundly in favour of public broadcasting but refuse to provide the resources to achieve the objectives established in the Broadcasting Act. The CBC is overmandated and underfunded -- and no federal government has put its money where its mouth is for more than a generation. The last prime minister with a deep commitment to public broadcasting was Lester Pearson.

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In the mid-1990s, I remember visiting then-finance minister Paul Martin to urge him to provide more funding for the CBC. I mentioned that his father, Paul Martin Sr., had been an early public broadcasting dreamer and a crucial political godfather for the CBC. I rather impudently asked him: "Are you your father's son?" A long pause ensued and, as he looked to the ceiling, he said: "Of course I am." There was another long pause and then he told me: "But I have to be aware of other priorities."

I can think of only a handful of other priorities that surpass the need to strengthen our sense of nationhood at a time when the bowels of our federal system are being shaken by loud talk of Western alienation and Quebec separatism. Of course, the CBC should not become a puppet for any particular brand of federalism, but it can fulfill its responsibilities to Parliament by simply showing Canada to Canadians.

Over half a century, I've experienced labour-management disputes at the CBC on three levels: as a striker when I was a foreign correspondent and anchor of The National; as a management on-air fill-in when I was head of News and Current Affairs; and in retirement, as a viewer and listener now getting a snippet of news, oodles of repeats and the BBC.

Sometimes, especially in the growing days of television, the CBC was fat and unions painfully aggressive, and sometimes, management was rigid and bloody-minded. And too often, labour disputes seemed like a game -- as they did when a strike broke out just before I started running News and Current Affairs. I was startled at the misguided exuberance of union officials gaily shouting, "Let's hit the bricks," while management set up a war room in a nearby hotel, enthusiastically ordering room service. Leaders of both sides seemed to be having the time of their lives. But it was no game then and it's no game now.

I can hear the ghosts of Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt circling the CBC and angrily muttering, "Don't you guys realize what's at stake? Are you all crazy? For God's sake, make a deal!"

Knowlton Nash is a former CBC director of News and Current Affairs who anchored CBC-TV's The National from 1978 to 1988.

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