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Canada became what it is
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Canada became what it is

Written by
developing institutions that promote our identity
says Richard Nimijean
Published by
Toronto Star
August 29th, 2005

CBC is still a necessary national institution.

Here in Ottawa, where I teach Canadian Studies, the CBC plays a central role in the life of the national capital. Political junkies get a steady fix of news. Artists, community groups, and activists receive considerable support and access to the airwaves.

I was therefore surprised when a friend (an avid CBC listener) told me she has not really missed the CBC during the current lockout. Many Canadians have expressed similar sentiments.

With specialty television, the Internet, and all-news stations, people wonder if we still need a comprehensive, publicly funded, national broadcaster.

So why do we need the CBC? Because it is a national institution that reflects and tells us about Canada's diversity.

Canada became the country it is by developing institutions that negotiate our internal differences in order to promote a distinct Canadian identity. Bilingualism, multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights and even federalism, are examples of citizens trying to forge a Canadian whole from a diverse and complex society.

Even though some Canadians are unhappy with these institutions, polls consistently show that they are central to the Canadian identity, especially in terms of distinctiveness vis-à-vis the United States.

This is part of the paradox of being Canadian: The institutions that define us as distinct citizens in the world are often contentious domestically.

The CBC remains a vital national institution because its mandate of providing comprehensive and accessible news and entertainment from a Canadian perspective is not provided elsewhere.

To be sure, elements of CBC programming and services are found in the private sector. However, when taken collectively, no other media organization allows Canadians the opportunity to understand and appreciate Canada's extensive diversity.

The CBC is much more than the home of Hockey Night in Canada, Coronation Street, Peter Mansbridge, or the local morning radio show.

The northern service broadcasts in eight aboriginal languages and connects northerners to Canadians in the south. In rural areas, CBC Radio is often the sole Canadian outlet available over the public airwaves. Radio-Canada provides French language programming, especially important for francophones outside of Quebec and a francophone perspective on Canada.

Whether it is a CBC National documentary on Canada's presence in the north, a regional agricultural show, or a national radio phone-in show like Cross Country Checkup, the CBC provides a unique and readily accessible outlet for Canadians to learn more about their country.

Historically, the CBC filled a gap in the cultural marketplace because of a lack of Canadian content. This role has been transformed, reflecting the new media universe. CBC on Demand, Galaxie, and Radio 3 show how the CBC is embracing new technologies, and continuing its longstanding support and promotion of Canadian cultural creators.

Funding the CBC helps the federal government address other policy objectives. Ottawa wants Canadians to learn more about their country.

CBC's growing provision of archival material on the Web is a wonderful teaching and learning resource unmatched by private media.

The federal government celebrates diversity as central to the Canadian experience. It promotes Canada (and its artists) in this fashion internationally.

For example, the theme of the Canada Pavilion at the World's Fair is "the wisdom of diversity." Through its Internet service and Radio-Canada International, the CBC helps the world, and not only Canadians, appreciate Canadian diversity.

Critics state that public support for the CBC should be cut because of the many media choices available, or because they don't watch or listen to it. They even complain that the CBC has properties that make money. Hockey Night in Canada and other profitable sports properties should be on private media. The CBC should be restricted from showing blockbuster movies.

These complaints ring hollow. Such properties subsidize other CBC programming.

Critics ignore the CBC's historical role in supporting Canadian sport. They ignore the fact that many Canadians do not subscribe to cable or satellite television and do not have Internet access. They forget that outside major cities, media choices fall considerably. They forget that shared institutions, even if you don't always use them, remain a bond of citizenship.

Critics cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that the CBC should shed profitable activities and deliver "non-profitable" programming, but continue to pressure Ottawa to reduce subsidies needed for that programming.

Ultimately, the CBC is missed, despite the presence of media substitutes elsewhere, because it helps us understand ourselves as Canadians.

Many Canadians, even during the lockout, remain fiercely attached to different parts of the CBC's extensive programming: For some it is radio, for others, the National.

Taken together, the CBC's various services make Canada richer.

If the CBC disappeared tomorrow, taxpayers might save a bit of money, but Canadians would be much poorer.

Richard Nimijean teaches in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

© Toronto Star

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