CBC cutbacks and cultural sovereignty: On the 60th anniversary of the CBC

By TONY SEED*, Shunpiking Magazine, October, 1996

DURING THE past sixty years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has undergone many changes which reflect the developments taking place in Canadian society, especially in the economic sphere which constitutes the foundation of society. Massive cutbacks in this major cultural insitution brings the question of the state of Canadian culture to the fore. This was precisely the question raised in 1936 when the CBC was founded, and has continued to be the issue throughout its existence.

The CBC has developed from a small institution into a state monopoly, one of the few giant monopolies that controls the production and dissemination of culture. As the question of ownership of the capitalist economy – and its direction – is foremost in the minds of people, so too is the ownership – and direction – of culture. The CBC cutbacks bring this question forward with a vengeance.

One of the greatest issues, the question of funding for the CBC, has also been raised in a most dramatic way.

When the Chrétien government was elected, as with the Mulroney government before, it pledged to decrease the federal deficit. The policies of the Liberals and PCs had a devastating impact on the CBC, which suffered big cutbacks.

According to the plan announced last month by Perrin Beatty, CBC president, the government was demanding a further $127 million budget reduction within six months, with the loss of 2,500 full-time jobs. Nor is the government ruling out further cutbacks. Beatty also acknowledged that the CBC is under enormous pressure from private broadcasters to reduced government-funded productions and to get out of lucrative areas, especially in TV. Simultaneously, the Canadian Radio Television Commission has authorized some 24 or more new cable networks to begin in the fall of 1998. In a shrinking market, viewers and advertisers have to come from somewhere; one target is the audience and advertisers of the CBC. There will be no more channels available in most of the larger cities until digital TV is introduced.

Much of CBC’s plans for new production have been crippled, exisiting shows cancelled and regional and local programming in English and French killed, with the news and public affairs shows being concentrated in a few production centres. Advertising is to be introduced into hitherto commercial-free programming.

As well, the plans, publicly announced in the 1980s, to eliminate US programming, have never been taken up in earnest.

People active in the cultural field have raised the question that the cutbacks themselves make the country more vulnerable to the intrusion of American culture; its domination over Canada will greatly increase.

Yet the precise reason for the establishment of the CBC was to counter the import of US programming. Privately-owned radio stations were dependent on American shows as they found it more profitable to import than produce original material. As far back as 1928 the Aird Royal Commission expressed its concern about the influx of American programming and recommended the creation of a public broadcast system because “only a national publicly-owned system could achieve a genuinely Canadian broadcasting system.”

The influx of US capital into Canada tremendously increased after World War Two and a massive economic development took place on this basis. The Canadian economy was strengthened and Canadian capital increased its strength. During the 1960s, as the amount and extent of US capital flooding into Canada increased, the influx of US culture also assumed dramatic proportions.

This created an alarming situation, and a broad protest movement emerged in the Sixties. But, despite mass opposition and the feelings of Canadians, this did not change the course of the Canadian government. The US cultural invasion continued to grow. All successive Canadian governments pledged to change the situation – to assist the development of Canadian culture – but none of them actually took measures to accomplish this.

The sharp cutbacks to the CBC – alongside those in theatre, the arts, libraries, museums, the National Film Board and new tax levies on book publishing – is again sending shock waves through the cultural community. The table by spending by department in the Budget Plan of March 6, 1996 clearly demonstrates the attitude of the federal government; between 1994 and 1999, the cultural sector would have to absorb cutbacks of 30 per cent, three and four times higher than other departments (e.g., Justice, seven per cent, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 10 per cent). Moreover this included millions in Heritage Canada “national unity” propaganda. Not only are jobs being lost but the number of productions will go down and lead to further control of Canadian culture passing into the hands of the US These people argue that there is a relationship between the cutbacks and the domination of the US in the cultural sphere. The main producer of Canadian culture, they argue, will now be forced to increasingly rely on US productions to fill its broadcasting day. They have been protesting against cutbacks but the Chretien government is carrying its decisions through.

What is the state of Canadian culture – in particular national culture?

This question brings forward another broader question, a question that relates to the fundamental question of Canadian culture. What is the state of Canadian culture – in particular national culture, the culture that is connected to national character and identity?

The varied activity in which individuals participate in society, from economic production to the educational, political and social spheres, and the struggles which ensue, mould the national character and identity of a people. But if there is no consistent work in the cultural sphere to draw out the experiences of the people, the features of important events, the achievements of historical development, then our national culture or our national character and identity remains weak and its building is left to chance. Not only does the general problem of domination of culture by a foreign country, and in our case by the United States, create great difficulties for this involved in this sphere but, most importantly, the building of national culture and national character is left to chance. The state does not commit itself to this. On the contrary, it seems that it poses the question of foreign domination as a ruse and states that it is opposed to it … but it does nothing about it.

Who does the weakening of national culture serve?

Leaving the building of a national culture to chance has grave consequences. Those who do not have the best interests of Canadians at heart will do everything possible to degenerate culture in order to make people accept the domination of others. It can lead to passivity and paralysis in the face of this danger. It can be seen today that the propaganda of the US has a wide echo in Canada.

Along with anti-social music, Hollywood films, theatre and TV programs, its misinformation is spread far and wide and the culture of the people comes under sharp attack. A racist opinion is given that because Canadians and Americans – or Maritimers and New Englanders – have such similar origin (part of the Anglo-American world and, secondarily, acknowledged with great reluctance, the European world), then their culture must also be the same. It is forgotten that nations have their own interests. I may be right and I may be wrong but, in my view, the interest of the United States is world domination. These interests are expressed in the sphere of culture.

This “cosmopolitan” culture – also called transculturalism and eurocentrism – is a major trend to be vigilant about. And there is a global dimension. The world market is characterized by works glorifying the “American way of life.” It is aggressive. It is not some benign force or trend passively adopted by people because it is “popular.”

In my view, the “freedom” for cosmopolitan culture on the world scale necessitates the elimination of the cultures of peoples and nations, or their marginalization to a “quaint” “way of life,” which is supposed to be experienced by the sampling of “exotic” food, song, dance and dress.

Canadians do not have the interest of world domination, nor do a lot of Americans, although the Canadian government does share the American ambitions. And powerful Canadian economic and political giants, including media monopolies, have their own dreams of empire-building, and they see no harm in US domination of Canadian culture. The weakening of national culture serves their interests as well.

It is quite clear that the government sees no harm in cutting back funding to the CBC. In the same fashion, it does not see the building of a national culture as one of its responsibilities. The leaders of the government declare their adherence to pragmatism and they have a pragmatic attitude towards national culture as well. This society, which is based on the division of the rich and the poor, must have a division in the sphere of culture too. What one section thinks to be good for the national character, the other vehemently opposes. It can be seen that a differentiation between the culture of the people and the exploiter has markedly appeared. The government does not care about national culture, while Canadians – including Maritimers – not only need and demand such a culture, they go into action against the domination of culture by the US as well. The protests against the CBC cutbacks and other cultural measures clearly shows the aims of two opposing camps.

We invite your response.


*Note: I am heavily indebted to an article by B. Paul and P. Ray in The New Magazine, 1986, on this theme.

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