Multiculturally, we’re world class, claimed Frances Bula in the Vancouver Sun last December about the picture the 2006 census painted about immigration, citizenship, language and mobility. The percentage of foreign-born in Canada returned to a level not seen since 1931, and is second only to that in Australia. Metro Vancouver had more foreign-born residents than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City, and the first language of 40 percent of its residents was neither English nor French.

That kind of rapid social change is often followed by a transformation in socio-cultural infrastructures. Next to family and personal networks, the infrastructure most important in immigrant adaptation to the adopted country is the depth and breadth of ethnocultural networks (including immigrant-serving organizations and religious or cultural groups) and the availability of media in their language of choice.

Often invisible in Canada’s mediascape, ethnic media are a key part of immigrants’ integration and their ability to negotiate cultural diversity in everyday life. But little is known about the communication infrastructure that enables these ethnocultural service networks in Canada or the nature of their interaction globally. Growth in allophone populations has led to more local media start-ups, especially in the unregulated print sector, and more importation of foreign satellite services being authorized by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The social functions of ethnic media in bridging ”œhere” and ”œthere” are well known. It is generally accepted that local ethnic media, in partnership with international sources, represent for migrants a means of maintaining and tightening links with their own culture while mediating their integration and recognition within the host country. Those disseminated in a ”œnon-official” language are mainly aimed at the first generation, which has not always mastered the language or cultural and social codes of the host country. They act as information hubs, facilitating in-group and out-group contacts. They connect, providing a map to what goes on around them, promoting and reinforcing mobility goals, creating a cultural space in which to enrich lives " information about home ownership, entrepreneurship, education.

Do ethnic media serve an integrative role? Surprisingly few studies around the world explore this question, and the answer seems to be yes and no. As a social institution, the ethnic media reinforce immigrants’ sense of we-ness, so yes. But if this excludes others and lowers the incentives for individuals to expand networks to include others, the answer is no. Within-group collaboration is desirable between ethnic civil society organizations and community media, but more understanding is needed of how this interface functions.

So how does this often invisible infrastructure in Canada’s ”œMTV” cities " Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver " work in adapting to their newcomers? How can policy improve the integration process? A recent study carried on in Vancouver help shed light on these questions. We will see that policy silos and restrictive regulations are barriers to economic growth of the ethnic media and present obstacles to the bridging of cultural and linguistic differences.

In 2007, the Centre for Policy Studies on Culture and Communities at Simon Fraser University (SFU) examined the ethnic print outlets and independent TV production sector in that province. It found that the number of such operations is much larger than the official estimates: there are 144 outlets in the traditional media (excluding the Internet) serving 22 languages. The study also showed that the sector is extremely volatile: 20 undertakings folded in 2007 while 9 started up. One-third of the total had started up since 2000.

To probe the ethnic media’s comparative geographic orientation between ”œhere” and ”œthere,” the SFU study compared 19 of the major ethnic newspapers and TV sources in four of the largest immigrant language groups " Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Punjabi " with seven of the mainstream outlets (see table 1). The geographical focus in ethnic media is definitely translocal: 50 percent of the news was international and 40 percent was local. The local content was higher than in similar studies in Los Angeles, suggesting that in BC, ethnic media had a stronger local communication infrastructure but an in-group focus predominated.

In the mainstream English media, 28 percent of news leads were international and 22 percent were local.

The BC data support the widespread assumption that there is a division of labour in content production among mass (or mainstream) media and ethnic (or minority) media in many countries. Thus the English mass media tend to handle national integration, citizenship, rights and general civic literacy issues, while the ethnic media handle the relevant news from the source country " political and international news, particularly when it is helpful for immigrants’ adjustment, and entertainment. Thus there is a complementary niche strategy in the competitive positioning of the democratic duties assumed or imposed by regulation or market realities (protecting the dominance of the majority-language media vehicles).

The BC study suggests that in the ethnic media there is very little national news reporting " indeed, there is silence on stories of major national interest, such as the war in Afghanistan. In the mainstream media, in contrast, the international reporting focuses almost exclusively on Afghanistan and Canada’s role in NATO. Furthermore, story analysis showed very different news priorities across the linguistic groups, and little inter-ethnic coverage. For example, the Asian media offered little exploration of the Air India inquiry, which suggests that Canada has traded twin solitudes for multiple solitudes. But under some conditions such editorial diversity can be a civic benefit, particularly if it fills gaps in the English media, which may be insufficiently diversified or open. Indeed, media concentration over the last years has resulted in fewer editorial resources for foreign news reporting in English news media.

This niche strategy works for ethnic media when the community is still small, as countries in Europe are finding, but it may be less efficacious when the community is larger. The strategy is stable and conducive to integration if it is predicated on:

  • an effectively bilingual readership " at minimum, dual media consumption " to construct the two parts of the migrant experience

  • a stable satisfaction among secondor later-generation immigrants

  • reasonable competition policy, ensuring some fairness

Unfortunately, each of these postulates is easy to unravel.

A significant proportion of new immigrants (almost one in two) functions in a unilingual news environment. A 2006 syndicated study of 3,000 new Canadians in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, by Kaan Yigit of Solutions Research Group, found that 31 percent of Chinese respondents read only in their own language and 17 percent do not follow the news in either their own language or English. But 33 percent of Chinese read only in English while 19 percent are bilingual. We can conclude, then, that the concerns set out by Paul Howe (University of New Brunswick) about recent immigrants’ persistent use of media in other languages may be well founded, at least for almost half of them.

Second-generation immigrants are increasingly attractive as an audience to both ethnic and mainstream English media marketers. But this group’s dissatisfaction with both mainstream and ethnic media sources (which are seen as perpetuating segregation, not integration) is balanced by their desire to remain linked to their heritage (about one-third of second-generation immigrants, according to Solutions Research Group). Young Canadians of recent immigrant origin want ”œinterculturalism” and ”œmore interaction with each other,” according to Yonah Martin of the Corean Canadian Coactive Society in Vancouver. They are looking for more co-ventures across ethnic media, as in Source, a Vancouver magazine for the younger generation that is bilingual and multicultural-cosmopolitan and bills itself as a ”œforum for Diversity.”

A key issue regarding ethnic media is that they fall between at least three different policy silos for managing cultural or linguistic differences. The first is print news media, where there are only minimum laws restraining libel and hate speech in all languages and a reasonably ”œhands off” ambit for operation. There are fairly well-developed regional press councils, yet none of the ethnic print media in BC belongs to the BC Press Council, and membership in the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada (dominated by executives from Toronto) is low. This is a reflection of its mandate, which is less activist than, for example, those of similar organizations in the US. Membership in self-regulatory bodies is higher in the regulated TV sector, but no organization has a professional code on intercultural news reporting, which is identified by the Council of Europe as a high priority for development in 2008.

Name-calling, personalization and similar techniques of expression are tolerated by ethnic media, yet avenues for citizens’ complaints are not well developed. By the same token, there is not much recognition of high-quality journalism in languages other than the official ones. The Jack Webster Foundation in BC, for example, offers awards for reporting in the Chinese press but overlooks the media in some of the fastestgrowing immigrant groups. A concerted effort to understand the different news cultures, encourage professional dialogue on news standards in intercultural reporting and recognize excellence is needed. A professional code on intercultural reporting must be a high priority for development in media infrastructure for multiculturalism.

The second silo is broadcasting policy. The CRTC’s policy on ethnic broadcasting has inadvertently introduced classes of immigrant services. Some of the early entrants " such as Fairchild or Talentvision " have become thriving enterprises in Canada, successfully adapting their national satellite services to the multicultural realities by negotiating local news inserts from their major Chinese-Canadian markets. Later arrivals like the Asia Pacific Network operate under licensing conditions that preclude local news inserts from Vancouver, despite its large South Asian population. Furthermore, the CRTC’s decision to aggressively liberalize the carriage of foreign news satellite services (brought about by its former chair after being directed by the cabinet to review its policy on imports) fundamentally limits the capacity of later-arriving language groups to build the domestic critical mass needed to start their own hyphenated Canadian ventures " too much foreign competition may have a chilling effect. The question facing the CRTC today is how to allow more flexibility in the licence terms so existing ethnic specialty channels can change and respond to second-generation audiences and those interested in acquiring facility in the language concerned. A review of caps on hours in the third language and a change in the regulatory treatment of dubbing or subtitles are also required.

The third and final silo is competition policy, between media and within local markets. Recent major media policy reviews (the Lincoln Committee’s parliamentary review of broadcasting, Senator Joan Fraser’s review of the future of the news media and the review of diversity conducted by Konrad von Finckenstein at the CRTC) overlooked ethnic media. Yet in the US, evidence suggests the emerging third-language Hispanic media is an important factor that is reshaping the media landscape there. Ethnic media are the last bastion of a relatively healthy diversity of ownership (like the community newspaper sector), but it too may be about to fall.

The unique Canadian licensing experiment for multicultural channels " seeking new local owners across the country " is now subject to market consolidation. The pending sale of the successful M Channel in Vancouver to Rogers, which will be debated at an upcoming CRTC hearing, will have a profound impact on the autonomy of local news production. It is often argued that rationalization of licences may, in some cases, lead to greater editorial investment in high-value news and investigative journalism; however, the example of the English news media has not been stellar. The BC study suggests that the rise of independent local news and current affairs media to serve these multilingual ventures is an important element in a healthy local communications infrastructure.

The CRTC’s multilingual ethnic broadcasting policy, then, has played a key part in stimulating a healthier balance of local news in the ethnic media in Vancouver, compared, for example, with Los Angeles. But other policy support is lacking. In most Commonwealth countries multicultural broadcasting policy is weak, and state intervention in the form of public broadcasting, media subsidies or other measures tends to favour media in the language of the majority. Few public broadcasters (except for the Special Broadcasting Service in Australia) have separate, dedicated services in minority languages with subtitles, although entities like the BBC may create autonomous ”œdiversity” units, in South Asian programming, for example.

In Canada, the CBC neither cedes news program time to diverse programming nor introduces blocks of current affairs programs in other languages with subtitling. The absence of a multilingual newswire feed from Canada’s public broadcaster is a missed opportunity to ”œlevel up” the quality of multicultural news with that seen in other countries. However, a case can be made that the CBC is progressing on diversification of its entertainment programming in English (for example, Little Mosque on the Prairie) faster than private broadcasters. Remedying the underrepresentation of Canada’s multicultural and multiracial reality on mainstream TV, as identified by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ 2004 self-study of diversity, has been slow.

The Simon Fraser University study of British Columbia’s ethnic media found that the dynamic growth of the market is leading to extensive, unmonitored experimentation in joint ventures. CanWest was ridiculed for its effort to produce the Vancouver Sun in Korean via instant translation on its Web site, which was comically error-prone. It quickly adapted by forming a co-venture with Canadian Express, a Korean paper that will translate its feeds for new audiences. M Channel has editorial agreements with CTV as does Ming Pao with the Sun to exchange news. Mergers and takeovers are on the rise, as the sale of M Channel proves. As print media increasingly converge with electronic media, the continuing challenge for the CRTC will be to ensure there is no diminution of editorial diversity.

If Statistics Canada is right in saying that by 2017 half of Canada’s population will belong to a visible minority, the need to critically examine the communication infrastructure of multiculturalism is evident. Although the country has largely eschewed public subsidies and other ways to support media expression by its recent allophones, it has allowed such media to spring up. Canada’s ethnic media are absorbing many of the costs of integration, and they now risk having the cream of their audiences skimmed by the English market leaders.

The major story about ethnic media in Canada is their autonomous development: how they sprang from immigrants and entrepreneurs in civil society, so to speak, the print media subject to little or no regulation (and therefore facing more competition) and the broadcasting media blocked from entry into some of the fastest-growing language groups.

They mostly depend on their ability to scratch out a living. These niche ethnic media " some subnational, some transnational " do not function as national media have in the past, and we urgently need more information about their interaction with public opinion. Canada badly needs a major study of the communication infrastructure of immigrant groups, the impact of media on belonging and political engagement and the implications for policy reform.

At the very least, it is time to revisit the national policy tools that promote the expression of diversity in this sector and build the local ties that bind. Government spending on advertising services must be broadened and diversified. This will stabilize ethnic ventures and create the incentives to improve intercultural editorial investment. To adapt a metaphor from Keith Banting, Tom Courchene and F. Leslie Seidle in their volume Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada, while there is no need to fear Canada is sleepwalking into segregation, our analysis suggests Canada is sleepwalking out of segregation in the multicultural media infrastructure.