What if the CBC struck being distinctly Canadian from its mandate?

Graphic by Carleen Loney @shloneys

We should re-examine how the CBC defines Canada’s national identity.

The CBC exists to “be predominantly and distinctly Canadian”, according to the Broadcasting Act. This presents a dilemma when millions of Canadians do not feel represented by the CBC.

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre’s pitch to defund the CBC has resonated strongest with his base, but also with the wider public. According to a 2023 study by Spark Advocacy, only 55 per cent of Canadians value the CBC and want it to be maintained.

Poilievre wants to get even with the CBC because he believes the broadcaster is partisan, biased and out of touch. I disagree. However, this begs an interesting question: can the CBC claim to be “distinctly Canadian” when millions of Canadians don’t mind shutting it down to save money? I contend that the CBC should rethink the role of nationalism in its journalism and entertainment programming. 

How does the CBC define Canada? My family is Portuguese and Canadian, and I grew up in Portugal. Comparing the CBC to its equivalent Portuguese public broadcaster RTP may shed some light on this nebulous subject. RTP is a generalist channel—it hosts O Preço Certo (The Price is Right), telenovelas, but also a theatre and concert archive, and a tool for teaching Ukrainian refugees Portuguese. 

RTP follows what Portuguese audiences want. Meanwhile, the CBC had previously made peculiar choices such as eschewing American television for reruns of Coronation Street. In my experience, the CBC “narrowcasts,” while RTP broadcasts. Maybe there’s even a missed opportunity for the CBC to broadcast for American audiences, who don’t have the good fortune of a strong public broadcaster.

I grew up watching the CBC by osmosis from my Canadian mother’s side of the family, and as someone with progressive politics and settler-Canadian origins, I am close to the imagined audience for CBC programming. Yet, I realise that the CBC spoke to me in a way that fit my pre-existing ideas of what Canada is: a nation with a common identity, united by things like language, values, shared references. In many ways, a nation like Portugal; but Canada is different. 

The CBC’s national identity mandate has colonial origins. As Canada practiced—and continues to practice—settler colonialism, television and radio create a national culture synonymous with European, settler Canada. In a talk entitled “News” given at Columbia University, journalism researcher and sociologist Michael Shudson reflected on how journalists are often “handmaidens to the powerful.” Therefore, the CBC is a handmaiden to colonial society. As a result, the CBC has been criticised for using extractivist methodologies in its reporting on Indigenous communities—taking Indigenous stories, and then re-packaging them for settler audiences.

Public broadcasters in other countries including RTP also have nationalist mandates, but the context is different. Laws like Portuguese music quotas are in part a defensive act to protect home-grown industries from foreign competition, and these policies become even more pressing in a journalistic culture where there was censorship until 1974. Portugal doesn’t have two solitudes, it has the oldest borders in Europe. The European national broadcaster model doesn’t work in Canada.

Canadians are diverse, and many belong to diasporas and have strong ties with other countries, including myself. The preference for “distinctively Canadian” journalism ignores that Canadians are connected to foreign lands, and is often rooted in a “founding nations” colonial definition of Canada. Things being as dire as they are, maybe what the CBC needs is a radical reinvention in line with what makes Canada distinct.

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