As a child growing up in the shadow of the big city of Toronto, it might sound slightly disingenuous, even somewhat contrite, for me to speak of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a common thread that weaves together the rich, diverse tapestry of the Canadian experience. However, in a time when Canadian political discourse overtly seeks to exploit national solitudes through various wedge issues, competing identities, and threats to national cohesion, I believe that Canada’s public broadcaster has an increasingly invaluable role to play in uniting communities from coast to coast to coast.
Historically, the CBC has been entrusted with fulfilling two primary political objectives. Their first task is the implantation of the values of good citizenship and advocating the notions of popular sovereignty. The second function is the production and dissemination of news, opinion, and debate that is fundamental to the proper functioning of democratic government. Throughout the 20th century, the CBC served these objectives honourably, while acting as a framework for the building of national unity in spite of the nation’s vast geographic limitations.
On a personal level, the presence of the CBC was formative in my development. Growing up, I loved going with my father to visit the CBC museum on the ground floor of the national broadcasting centre in Toronto. Seeing pictures of Knowlton Nash, Barbara Frum, and all the old-time gear gave me a great appreciation for the technical and artistic crafts of journalism. Spending time in the online archives and listening to radio pieces on Trudeau-mania and the creation of the Canadian flag inspired in me a profound fascination and curiosity of Canada, its peoples, and the world. In hindsight, it was stories like these and shows like The Journal and Undercurrents that ignited my desire to be a journalist, with the hope of ferreting out ‘the truth’ while working towards a greater projet de société.
As a journalist, and as a Canadian, it saddens me to see the signs of erosion starting to take hold. No doubt, economic challenges have taken their toll. With the loss of Hockey Night in Canada, the CBC has lost a large swatch of their commercial marketing revenue. Moreover, being strung along by continued short-term, year-to-year government funding models has forced the broadcaster to cut back on original documentary programming, for example, as well as being gun-shy of bold new projects.
I fear that if the status quo order holds, the CBC that I loved growing up could soon be no more. What will this mean? This endgame means that journalists will be further stretched in holding the powerful accountable and the quality and diversity of reportage from the remote areas of Canada will continue to decline. Thus, not only would we suffer from a scarcity of information but our espirt de nation, as Canadians, would be irreparably damaged.
Democracy is expensive, but continually tightening the belt on our national institutions, such as the CBC, could work to suffocate our democracy. In that instance, united we will all lose.
Brent Jolly is a Junior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto.