I’ve been asked to share with you the story of Canada: A People’s History, and what I learned about Canada through that television project. Later, I want to talk to you about television again, this time, how it will affect our future.
The project to make the first history of Canada for the tel- evision age was a six-year expedition into the past ”” a some- times harrowing expedition that brought together 60 producers, historians actors and cameramen, from the French and the English sides of the CBC, to produce 32 hours of televi- sion each in both French and English, two books, home videos, a large Web site, and an entire curriculum guide for schools.
We had modest audience expectations ”” it was Canadian history, after all, and the conventional wisdom was that Canadians thought their history was boring. So weren’t expecting what happened when the series aired.
Those 32 hours became the most viewed documentary in the 50 years of Canadian television, matching the ratings for the Olympics and the Stanley Cup playoffs. The two- volume books became the best-selling non-fiction books of the year in Canada, selling more than the Beatles Anthology and the Guinness Book of Records at Christmas; the video sets became the best selling videos in Canada. In our wildest dreams, we did not expect this. It seemed as if we had been prospecting in the fields of Canadian identity and memory, when we unconsciously drilled into a pressure dome that blew us away with its intensity.
That was the first ”” and most important ”” lesson we learned: There is a profound and powerful yearning in the Canadian people to understand our identity and our collective experience. This is not a search for nostalgia, this is a search to understand who we are, and what we represent, and what our place in the world is. When you’re reading everywhere that borders are disappearing, that nations are an obsolete concept, that we are entering new hemispheric and global constella- tions, that we should adopt the American dollar, forget about medicare ”” then a sense of loss develops, and you think about your identity. If you’re going on an uncertain voyage, you pack the essentials. On the verge of Canada’s global journey in the new millennium, what are the essentials? Who are we? What values do we represent? What makes us particular on earth ”” not better than anyone ”” just particular?
The experience of refuge, the experience of arrival in a strange and alien place of terrifying beauty, the fear of an uncertain destiny ”” this is the common link of the Canadian experience. We are not bound by blood. But we are inextricably linked by the common memory, however ancestral, in our families, of refuge and hope.
Post-Aboriginal Canada was founded on two abandoned or displaced peoples. A French colony, occupied by the British and abandoned by the French Empire, who didn’t even want it back after the Seven Years’ War, and traded it for the tiny sugar island of Guadeloupe. The second people ”” their ancestral English rivals from the American colonies, who had been driven out of their homes.
The experience of refuge is at the core of the Canadian identity. We are all children and grandchildren of great dis- placements. The Loyalists were fol- lowed by the Scots displaced by the Highland Clearances, by the English of Susannah Moodie’s generation, a marginalized class England no longer wanted, and by hundreds of thousands of starving Irish families displaced by landlords and famine who crossed the Atlantic in fever ships.
They, in turn were followed by the great migration of the landless from Eastern Europe ”” the Ukrainians, the Galicians, the Mennonites, the Poles, all fleeing war, persecution of famine. Thousands of Chinese young men crossed the Pacific Ocean to flee poverty, and spent gener- ations sending their paltry earnings home to families they would never see again. Thousands of British orphans were sent here in a systematic migra- tion of the abandoned.
These migrations of the hopeful grew in the 20th century to embrace the Sikhs, the displaced people of the Second World War (which is my par- ents’ immigration), the refugees of the Holocaust, the boat people of Vietnam, the peoples of the great Caribbean migration, and now, the Sudan, the Horn of Africa, the Balkan Wars.
We are all boat people. We just got here at different times. The col- lective Canadian experience, however recent or buried in the ancestral past, is the memory of displacement and loss, followed by the collective experience of endurance and redemption. Almost every one of us, somewhere in the root of our past, has a piece of the same story, whether we are descended from the filles du roi, the street children of Paris, villages of Galicia or the Selkirk settlers of Prince Edward Island. History shapes identity. Nations sometimes acquire defining character- istics, and their citizens begin to perceive their role in the world in keeping with those identities.
Since most of us are descended from a migration ”” mostly a migration from adversity ”” it’s not only in our genetic memory now, it has evolved into an active idea. That’s who we are, that’s what we’re always going to be, that’s what this place is. This is what we choose to value: Take the second largest land mass on the planet, a place of numbing vastness and sometimes terri- fying beauty, and bring to it, over the centuries, the adventurous, the dispos- sessed and the displaced. We covet no land, our armed forces will mobilize only for liberation or protection, and we embrace no ideology, no religion, and ask only that you live in peace and industry. This is our noble vision of our- selves, our iconology. This is our vision of that which is best in our character.
We are different from the Old World. We are disdainful of class and privilege ”” there is no greater social sin than trying to pull rank, or jump the cue. It is unacceptable to be rude to a waiter or waitress in this country, because your son or daughter is going to be one at some point in their lives. We are suspicious of government and ideol- ogy, because we are the refugees from governments, armies and ideology. We are vigilant about our rights and very uncomfortable with the idea that some- one might have more rights than others. Canada ”” cranky, litigious, a perpetual living negotiation of its constituent parts. To the frustrated question : ”œWhen are we finally going to settle all this?” the answer is, of course, ”œNever. That’s not the problem, that’s the point.” The genius of Canadian history is the constant search for equilibrium.
Some people suggest we have a tepid history because we don’t have Napoleonic armies of a quarter of a mil- lion soldiers. In fact, one article by a prominent Canadian writer predicted our series would fail because, let’s face it, we don’t have exciting ingredients like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. But the Canadian experience has created one of the great mysteries of history. We have all the ingredients, all the toxins to create a Sarajevo or a Northern Ireland. Two major religions, two languages, contested land, racial and ethnic divi- sions. How we didn’t become Sarajevo, or the West Bank, or Vichy France, is a far more intriguing mystery and far more pertinent to the modern world.
What I learned from the experi- ence of the project is the following:
Canadians have a very refined and clear idea of who we are, where we came from, and what civic princi- ples we stand for. This is not a coun- try confused about its principles.
They are, if anything, deeply wor- ried about and resentful of any erosion of those principles.
We like our American television programs, but we are not about to accept the American cosmology that goes with it, in fact, the diver- gence of values seems ever more pronounced.
Canadians are open to the world, but, make no mistake, they are also in a firmly nationalist mood.
So I’d like to talk with you now about television, and about our future.
If you accept the proposition that this highly diverse country lives in a cul- ture of perpetual dialogue, perpetual negotiation of its constituent parts, that the civility of its democratic process depends on the maintenance of this dia- logue and equilibrium, then you’re inevitably drawn to the conclusion that radio, television, and digital highways are absolutely essential to the survival of the country as we know it. These are the arteries through which we maintain our collective sensibility. We are vitally dependent on these arteries of cultural communion ”” be they concerts or comedies, sporting events or mini-series.
And here, there is very little cause for optimism and every cause for alarm about the state of Canada’s electronic culture, because in the economics of the digital age, our stories are being drowned out
On the one hand, the availability of televisual product has grown expo- nentially ”” I don’t need to tell you we live in a thousand-channel universe, that electronic borders have disap- peared, and we’ve never had more choice. The internet will combine with television to increase those choices beyond anything we’ve imagined. On the other hand, never has the propor- tion of Canadian choices in the medi- um been more threatened.
What has happened is that the commercial television industry has successfully hijacked the rhetoric of democracy, liberty and choice. In the cornucopia of choices, they will argue, you have pure democracy at work, and the viewer ultimately decides what will be aired or not aired. You’ve heard the arguments. People are voting with their eyeballs. If they wanted more Canadian programs, why are they watching Lost? The question of freedom of choice has been defined, by the commercial indus- try, as the freedom to pick between two hundred channels’ worth of their par- ticular advertising clusters.
But freedom of choice ”” in radio, television or cinema ”” should be defined as the freedom to produce television, not just to consume. Like any Canadian, I want my American programs. I like American television; my daughters like it. I don’t want anyone restricting our access to it and I don’t believe in electronic Berlin walls. But how did we come to delude ourselves that everything that appears on our screens must be arbitrated totally by what is essentially a massive consumer distributing industry, and one that is preponderantly American?
As I mentioned, the experience of Canada: A People’s History is painfully pertinent. For years, not a single Canadian corporation would become a sponsor of the series. Not until the last minute when Sun Life , and later Bell, came on board.
That series would never have seen the light of day if it had to meet the market consumer delivery test. Even if it did reach millions, after all, there are cheaper ways of reaching millions of people. You can get 3 million viewers by buying CSI at a miniscule fraction of the price of producing an equivalent quality Canadian program.
This is how Canadian program- ming is strangled daily. Not because Canadians don’t want it. Not because we can’t compete with the world. But because it’s not the most efficient return on investment, or not the most efficient demographic targeting device to sell consumer products.
Because we live next to the most powerful commercial market in human history, we’ve been conditioned to accept this is the norm. In fact, at the dawn of television, that commercial model was the aberration. Public broad- casting owes its genesis to the British, who set up a completely public system and only allowed commercial competi- tion decades later. Radio and television was not in the same column of the eco- nomic register as department stores, but in the same column as schools, high- ways, railways and the post. And that’s the way it initially developed in Japan, Italy, Germany and France ”” in fact, in most countries of the world.
In public television, the economic model is different. Large audiences mat- ter, don’t let anyone fool you, and they should matter. But the unit of measure really is one person/one vote. In com- mercial television, the unit of measure is the number of consumers. In public tel- evision, the unit of measure is the num- ber of citizens.
The health of a mixed private and public system has to be measured in its balance. Both public and private networks will produce chil- dren’s programs, both will produce comedies. But one, the public half, will produce children’s programs regard- less of the particular needs of the toy manufacturers, and comedies that appeal to more than the highest con- sumer demographic. Britain, for example, has a healthy, balanced system. Private net- works make strong profits, and the BBC is widely cher- ished by the audience too. In Canada, however, we have a fatal imbal- ance, which is hurting us domestically and internationally.
It is not necessary any more to have to persuade anyone that information industries are the central battlefield of the 21st century. It is the Information Age. Yet Canada enters that age with a dangerously weak media sector. The newspaper industry is gripped by monopoly. The national magazine sec- tor is moribund. In books, though we are probably living in the Golden Age of Canadian literature, the publishing industry is financially precarious and being taken over by multinationals. The English Canadian movie system can’t get off the ground. And the broadcast- ing industry is totally dependent on the importation of American series ”” in other words, on decisions made in New York and Los Angeles.
The largest unit ”” the public broadcaster ”” is still in the recovery ward after a decade of divesting itself of a generation of talent and entire production departments. If we set out to design a system by which Canada would lose in the global information economy, then we’ve found it.
There is no Canadian national industrial strategy for the Information Age. There may be a document some- where; probably a dozen. But our strategic planning is, in practice, dif- fused between the Ministry of Heritage, the Ministry of Finance, the regulatory agency, and a cacophony of federal and provincial funds and tax credits best understood by lawyers and riverboat gamblers.
This chaotic drift derives from the fact that for almost two decades, suc- cessive governments have made it clear that national broadcasting is not a significant priority of national poli- cy. It is a mystery to me how Canada failed to identify this as one of the top two or three key strategic economic areas in the new global order.
The explosion of channels is global. This infinite channel universe is so hungry for product that it has given birth to a global boom in televisual and cinematic material. It’s essential that we position ourselves to become major producers, on a global scale. To do that, we have to put our house in order.
There is no way we are going to become world-scale competitors in pro- duction without restoring the public- private balance in Canadian television. When it comes to the economics of tel- evision production, we are a colonial economy, dependent on the American television marketing system. In any economic sector, be it lumber or aero- nautics or agriculture, you have to invest in production infrastructure if you are going to develop a domestic industry that can trade internationally.
The public networks have tradition- ally been the engines of production and development. But the public sector in television has shrunk to a miniscule pro- portion of the channel spectrum. Out of about 100 English channels most cable systems bring to a Toronto home, for example, only three are public sector: CBC, Newsworld and TVO. That’s around one-twentieth of the shelf space. (On the infant digital tier CBC has one channel, Country Canada, and shares in the Documentary Channel.) That’s just on the crude measure of space on the electronic shelf.
The CBC’s appropriation for every- thing ”” all services and platforms, radio and television, in all languages ”” is around $946 million. Now, let’s turn to the BBC in England. The BBC’s budg- et is $7 billion. Britain’s population is larger than Canada’s ”” twice as large ”” but it’s not seven times as large. Britain understands the emerging global market in information. The British television industry, public and private, dominates world production as much as the US does because of the national investment in the BBC as a driver.
A comparison among 18 major Western countries demonstrates that Canada has the third lowest level of pub- lic funding for its public broadcaster. At $33 per inhabitant, Canada’s level of funding is only ahead of those of New Zealand and the United States. What’s more, Canada’s funding for public broad- casting was less that one-half of the $80 average across the 18 Western counties. And Canada’s level of funding was about one-fifth of the level of the leading country ””Switzerland ”” among those includ- ed in the comparison. There’s more.
The federal government supports an array of cultural institutions ”” from Telefilm, to the Canada Council, to museums, art galleries and archives. Between 1996 and 2004, the federal government’s expenditures on culture ”” excluding the CBC ”” increased by 39 percent. In fact, government spend- ing on everything, except for national defence and debt repayment, went up by 25 percent. So, while the general cultural portfolio increased by 39 per cent, and general spending on every- thing else by 25 percent, spending on the CBC, for the same period, declined by 9 percent. In fact, in just one two- year period, the CBC’s government appropriation dropped by 31 percent. The expenditure on the public broad- caster is totally disproportionate to all cultural expenditure, and totally dis- proportionate to all other government spending. We haven’t been neglecting public broadcasting; for at least eight years, we’ve been selectively, con- sciously and systematically starving it.
While Canada has been starving the public broadcaster, it has been generously subsidizing the com- mercial broadcasters. Private broadcast- ers in Canada are not pure market-driven enterprises that survive entirely on their wits while the public broadcaster is funded by the govern- ment, although the commercial televi- sion sector would have you believe that.
The Canadian government pro- vides direct economic support to the commercial sector in a number of ways ”” simulcast protection, which blocks, for example, the American feed of Desperate Housewives and substitutes the Canadian feed, with Canadian commer- cials. Then there’s the Income Tax Act, which discourages Canadian advertisers from advertising in foreign program- ming. And, Canadian specialty services are given effective monopolies and protected from foreign and domestic competition. Without this market protec- tion, a vast number of American services would enter the Canadian market- place and destroy most spe- cialty services’ business. So English Canadian commer- cial channels are heavily protected, and even subsidized, by the government. The dollar value of these protections has been estimated at over $300 million annually. That’s more than CBC English television gets from its annual appropriation from govern- ment. In other words, the Canadian government gives more financial prefer- ence to the Canadian commercial televi- sion system than it does to the public television system. The point bears underlining ”” the Canadian govern- ment subsidizes commercial television broadcasting in English Canada more than it subsidizes public television.
As the CBC’s appropriation from Ottawa declined, costs inevitably continued to rise, and the CBC turned more and more to cutting costs and rais- ing commercial revenue. This led to the massive regional cuts, the elimination of internal departments, and an increasing dependence on commercials. CBC English television now gets more than half of its operating budget from earned revenue ”” mostly commercials. The public broadcaster is, in effect, no longer a pure public broadcaster, but a mixed public/commercial enterprise So Ottawa has starved the CBC while it has been favouring the commercial sector, and in the process, forcing the CBC to be more and more dependent on the principles of commer- cial television. If these trends continue, and they show every sign of doing so, then we can imagine that a decade from now we may no longer have a national public broadcasting system left in Canada. It’s half gone already.
Ottawa has drifted very far from the founding principles of national public broadcasting.
Public broadcasting was established under a Conservative government in 1932. Prime Minister Bennett, when introducing the Broadcasting Act into the Commons, did so with these words:
This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources, free from foreign inter- ference or influence…No other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of broadcasting… I cannot think that any govern- ment would be warranted in leaving the air to private exploitation and not reserving it for the use of the people.
I think the biggest single threat to the integrity of Canada’s cultural vitality is the alarming and precipitous erosion of the national broadcasting system. That system is critical to the survival of this country. The airwaves are our national arteries of discourse, the means by which we tell our stories, negotiate our political and social values and communicate across regions and generations. These air- waves, these digital arteries, are more vital to us than to many nations on earth, because we are a vast country made up of a thousand diversities and particularities. We are a living negotia- tion, an evolving narrative.
We need a vital national broadcast- ing system as much in the digital and internet age as we did at the dawn of radio and television ”” perhaps even more. The digital deluge of channels and broadband services is global in scale, and all borders are disappearing. We have to have a national strategy for this Information Age before our own stories, our own agenda, disappear in the digital deluge. We can’t afford to lose the arteries that link us ”” and make no mistake, we’re losing them. We have to reinvest in them, rebuild them and revitalize them. We have to have a con- certed national surge of energy and imagination to renew our regional pro- gramming, to exponentially increase the production of Canadian drama and cinema, to support and nurture the arts, to nourish the music of our children.
We cannot sit out the New Information Age and abdicate our cul- tural vitality and our national discourse to the economic Darwinism of the North American television marketplace. That system will not link our communities of interest, it will not serve our national needs, it will not tell our stories.
We need these vital arteries not only to maintain our civic and cultural space, but also to participate in the global information age. We have to compete, to project our stories and our music and our arts to the world. All of this cries out for the urgent creation of a national strategy to renew the elec- tronic highways of Canada, and to assure that our voice is heard in the new global information order. In the global village, we’re going to need an address.
I’ve worked for over 30 years in the production of Canadian stories ”” from As It Happens to Sunday Morning, from The Journal to Canada: A People’s History. And what I’ve learned is this: ”œIf you build it, they will come.”
Excerpted from the Symons Lecture, at Charlottetown, November 8, 2006.