CBC/Radio-Canada touts itself as “Canada’s national public broadcaster,” as if the organization operated as a single, seamless network in both official languages and several Indigenous ones. But the separation between the French and English arms of the broadcaster has always been starkly apparent to any Canadian who tunes in regularly to both the CBC and Radio-Canada.
Indeed, considering the recent controversy over a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruling that ordered the Crown corporation to apologize for the use of the N-word during a 2020 on-air discussion on Radio-Canada, CBC/Radio-Canada looks more than ever like two networks warring within the bosom of a single state broadcaster.
A slew of Radio-Canada journalists and on-air personalities, including the anchor of the French-language network’s flagship Le Téléjournal, Céline Galipeau, called on the public broadcaster to “vigorously contest” the CRTC’s June 29 decision. The ruling stated that a radio host and journalist’s use of the N-word – contained in the title of a famous 1968 tract by Pierre Vallières that drew parallels between the plight of Quebec francophones and Black Americans – “did not provide high-standard programming and did not contribute to the strengthening of the cultural and social fabric and the reflection of the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”
The ruling was not unanimous. CRTC vice-chairperson Caroline Simard and commissioner Joanne Levy, a former director of programming for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, wrote dissenting opinions. Ms. Levy warned the decision “will have unintended consequences leading to journalistic chill, silencing discussion and encouraging censorship.”
In a July 4 missive published in La Presse, Ms. Galipeau and more than 50 of her Radio-Canada colleagues similarly slammed the CRTC ruling. While acknowledging that the N-word is a loaded term, “when it is used on-air, which happens only rarely, it is done in factual context that is neither offensive, insulting or dehumanizing, respecting the journalistic standards and practices of Radio-Canada, as well as the intelligence of our institution and its employees.”
The reaction to the CRTC ruling in the halls of Radio-Canada’s brand-new glass headquarters at the corner of René-Lévesque Blvd. East and Papineau Ave. in Montreal contrasts with the near silence at CBC’s Front Street broadcast centre in Toronto after veteran journalist Wendy Mesley was suspended for mentioning the same book’s title in a staff meeting in 2020.
Hung out to dry by her bosses, Ms. Mesley left the CBC soon after, lamenting that she “became a convenient device for cleaning up their brand.” Network honchos faced with allegations from some employees that the CBC was a hotbed of systemic racism chose to make an example of her to cover their own behinds.
CBC’s top managers, led by president and chief executive officer Catherine Tait, are seen by many Radio-Canada journalists as being obsessed with diversity – to the detriment of journalistic integrity. It is as if CBC’s management has decided the broadcaster must be at the vanguard of social change, even if basic journalistic tenets get sacrificed in the process.
In a July 13 statement, CBC/Radio-Canada said it would appeal the CRTC ruling, arguing the regulator “overstepped its authority” and “has attempted to give itself the power to interfere with journalistic independence.” This is true as far as it goes, especially given concerns that the CRTC could seek to regulate online content under powers granted to it by Bill C-11, which is awaiting approval by the Senate.
However, the Crown corporation also said it would apologize to social worker and artist Ricardo Lamour, who filed the complaint about the on-air use of the N-word. “Our mandate is to inform, enlighten and entertain Canadians,” CBC/Radio-Canada said. “Sometimes our programs provoke and even offend, but as the public broadcaster we must take care not to be hurtful.”
Ms. Tait is clearly walking a tightrope. The danger is that CBC’s journalism becomes increasingly tainted by management’s desire to hew to the demands of the English-language network’s woke work force. But that will only further exacerbate the French-English divide at the broadcaster.
In her dissenting opinion, Ms. Simard, the CRTC vice-chair, noted that Mr. Vallières’ book, “though controversial for some, is an essential read for understanding the historical, political and social context of the 1970 October Crisis, the 50th anniversary of which was marked during the same period” as that of the 2020 Radio-Canada broadcast Mr. Lamour complained about.
Ironically, a copy of the book – with its full, uncensored title – is featured in an exhibit on the War Measures Act at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., that ends on Sept. 5. The exhibit provides a reminder of why it is important to stand up for freedom of expression and against censorship. It would be a pity if a museum were to become the only place books such as Mr. Vallières’ are allowed.
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