Canada’s broadcasters, all of them private corporations, strenuously opposed government regulation of their extremely profitable businesses. Knowing that Canadians favoured the maintenance of a uniquely Canadian national identity, they did not oppose Canadian content rules directly. Instead, they opposed public broadcasting, the vehicle for delivering it. Arthur Dupont, the radio director of CKAC Montreal (owned by La Presse), advocated for a privately owned and advertiser-funded system, arguing that “competition results in better programs, whereas public ownership [or regulation of any kind] would result in political meddling.” While the politicians gabbed, American content became more and more entrenched. By 1929, the most influential stations in Toronto were actually becoming affiliates of major American networks: Rogers joined CBS, while Gooderham and Worts joined NBC, bringing iconic programs like Amos ’n’ Andy to Toronto audiences.
While private industry clearly had the upper hand, the balance eventually tipped towards Canada’s national, cultural interest. Citizen activism was a big reason why. A vocal, prodigious, and extremely well organized lobby emerged to promote the Canadianization of the broadcasting system. Led by Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry, this group of culture crusaders simply refused to accept the Americanization of Canada’s airwaves and, through them, the Americanization of Canadians themselves. Plaunt and Spry co-founded the Canadian Radio League (in many ways the predecessor to FRIENDS), speaking eloquently of broadcasting as a public service with huge potential to shape of public opinion. Spry was passionate in his belief that “our national problem of creating a distinct nation [...] can be enormously hastened and facilitated by the new weapon science has given us—the radio.”
Spry brought his message to the Aird Commission, and the message got through. In its 1928 report, the commission stated that in a country as vast as Canada, broadcasting would “undoubtedly become a great force in fostering a national spirit and interpreting national citizenship.” The commission was rightly concerned that overexposure to American programs, with next to no Canadian programs in the mix, would “mould the minds of the young people in the home to ideals and opinions that are not Canadian.”
Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett got the message too. Following incessant lobbing by Spry and his coterie, Bennett was convinced that radio had the potential to be an extremely effective instrument in nation-building, so long as it was controlled and operated by Canadians. So, in 1932, Bennett created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s first public broadcaster and predecessor of the CBC. In a House of Commons debate in 1932, Bennett called the newly formed corporation “a great agency for communication of matters of national concern and for the diffusion of national thought and ideals.”
Bennett’s proposition enjoyed the support from some members of the opposition, cementing the importance of cultural objectives as the highest priority for Canadian broadcasting; Bennett himself was completing a project set in motion by his Liberal predecessor. Years later, when speaking about television regulation in 1951, Liberal James McCann echoed Bennett in expressing the view that TV should be developed with the aim of benefiting Canadians, ensuring an adequate amount of suitable Canadian programs.
Parliamentarians recognized that broadcasting wasn’t just another industry: it was a critically important mechanism for maintaining Canadian independence, in the most literal sense. Responding to McCann, one MP categorically stated: “there are no more serious problems facing Canada than the gradual control of the press and radio... Unless the tide [of American control] can be stemmed or reversed, another generation or two will witness the absorption of our country by our powerful neighbour.”
This could not be achieved without public broadcasting.