Three days after the Trudeau government released its cultural policy framework, the political ground shifted beneath our feet. Jagmeet Singh was elected leader of the NDP and became the first person of colour to lead a federal political party in Canada. Over the course of the leadership race, I had grown tired of reading and hearing descriptions of Singh’s bespoke suits, the colourful turbans, his self-confidence (sometimes portrayed as conceit), his training in a martial art and, of course, the fact (gasp!) that he had signed up thousands of fellow ethnics on his way to winning the leadership race. I found it troubling that reporters and commentators felt it necessary to air so many shallow stereotypes in the space of a few sentences.
Given this tone-deaf, patronizing coverage, Singh’s meteoric rise is an even more singular achievement.
I would love to say that Canada’s existing policy on cultural industries contributed to Singh’s success by ensuring that his policy platform and persona were fairly represented in the media. Or that our content policies increase the likelihood of another visible minority rising to the top of our political system. Alas, neither of these is true.
For a multicultural country, we have a rather monocultural media landscape. Our newsrooms and media organizations no longer reflect their audiences. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly missed an opportunity to make a policy intervention that would have at least nudged some reform.
Canada’s multicultural media has been decimated in recent years. There were budget cuts in multicultural programming at the Rogers-owned OMNI Television. A promising media enterprise that published a string of multicultural and community newspapers went under in 2013. It was ironic that the Mississauga-based Multicultural Nova Corporation was being subsidized by the Italian government. These and other outlets help Canadians weave a shared narrative around what it means to be Canadian, at a time when our “ethno-cultural” (to use a favourite expression of bureaucrats) makeup is rapidly changing. Our ethnic media remain as fragmented and resource-strapped as ever.
“Canada’s ethnic and third-language communities do not have access to enough news and information programming in multiple languages from a Canadian perspective,” the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Jean-Pierre Blais said in May.
The fact is, Canada is rapidly changing before our eyes, but we continue to sleepwalk through this transformation.
While media organizations and journalism schools appear to have given up measuring the representation of minorities in newsrooms (the last credible industry-wide study was in 2004), the government is aware that this lack of representation is a major handicap for new immigrants. A June 2014 study titled “Evidence-based Levels and Mix: Absorptive Capacity” (bureaucratese for how well Canada integrates its immigrants) stated categorically: “There is no clear commitment to achieving diversity in Canada’s newsrooms or in Canadian news content.” (The study was commissioned by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and it was released under the Access to Information Act.)
The government’s new cultural policy did little to shift the conversation to the emerging media players who are redefining journalism for a new era. It failed to state the obvious: a shrinking cohort of media organizations that have monopolized national discourse are headed for irrelevance, because neither their audience nor their newsrooms are reflective of Canada at large.
This lopsided media structure means that folks like me don’t get to tell our own stories on our own terms. Somebody else uses the lens of their lived experience to interpret our immigrant stories. A cultural and content policy written in 2017 ought to have been much more mindful of this shift – roughly 40 percent of Canadians are either foreign-born or the children of immigrants (the bulk of them have Asian roots, like Jagmeet Singh). The minister should have outlined specific goals to foster and sustain the kind of journalism that reflects a new Canada where the rise of a sardar (turbaned Sikh) is not a leap of faith, but a fact of life.
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I write this as somebody who is well aware of the perils of “government support.” Not all governments are benign actors. In Dubai, the owners of the newspaper where I once worked found themselves on the wrong side of the ruling family. We had a dedicated “reporter” whose job was to relay diktats from the government to the editor. At another outlet in Doha, the newspaper was owned by the country’s then foreign minister. It was my job as managing editor to walk the gauntlet between censorship and shackled freedom. The country even had a director of censorship, who subsequently became the editor-in-chief of an Arabic language newspaper.
Not all journalists welcome government support. The Canadian nonprofit media organization that I run has lost editors who couldn’t live with any form of government funding. We’ve viewed these grants – including those from the Canada Periodical Fund – as seed money for an enterprise that serves the collective public good. I’d like to think that we exist because we fulfill a need. Joly missed an opportunity to signal a shift of tax dollars towards content that enables new players to take advantage of gaps in the marketplace of ideas.
I also know first-hand that editors and newsroom managers are loath to take the bold steps that will change the demographics of their newsrooms. There’s a lot of lip service being done out there and little concrete action. The cultural industries policy statement could have made a big difference by offering incentives to correct this imbalance and foster the growth of alternative media platforms that cater to niche markets.
Instead, the headline coming out of the policy statement was focused on Netflix and its promise to make investments in Canadian productions, as if this would in some way feed this country’s desperate need for a new narrative and a new conversation. Entertainment seemed to take precedence over journalism in the policy announcement, although both embody the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell the rest of the world.
However, fact is more important than fiction. Facts are sacrosanct and the need of the hour. The phenomenon of “fake news” can only be addressed by true and tested journalism. The opinions of Canadians need to be shaped by solid, on-the-ground reporting done by journalists who are embedded in their communities and share the lived experience of the places they call home. This includes newcomer journalists who offer unique perspectives about their communities and are informed by the day-to-day trials that immigrants face in buying or renting homes, finding employment, enrolling their children in schools and becoming full members of the society around them. There is a public interest in ensuring that their voices are heard, not just through niche media and ethnic platforms but also in legacy newsrooms.
The federal government has rightly supported Canadian culture and content since the days of the Massey Commission in 1951. A Canada of 35 million people, or an imagined one of 100 million, will live or die on the ties that bind its people together. Old-fashioned journalism ought to be the bedrock of a more globalized, more multicultural Canada.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author.
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