Good morning, Madam Chair and members of the committee.
I would like to thank you for inviting us to appear today as part of your study on the media and local communities. My name is Sylviane Lanthier, and I am the chair of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada. With me today is our director of communications, Serge Quinty.
In nine provinces and three territories, 2.6 million people chose to live part of their lives in French. We can truly talk about linguistic duality because there are dynamic and diverse francophone communities in every region of this country. They embody one of our basic Canadian values. The FCFA is here today as the main advocate for these communities and the people who live in them, people who are determined to live in French.
We are honoured to share this table today with the Association de la presse francophone and the Alliance des radios communautaires du Canada or ARC. The presence of these two organizations in particular very clearly illustrates a fundamental reality of our communities: if we wanted to have local media in French, we had to create them ourselves, for the most part. Developed by and for our communities, our community newspapers and radio stations are the only media, aside from Radio-Canada's regional stations and a few private-sector media, that talk about the daily reality of Canada's francophone population in various parts of the country.
However, our media are suffering today. Last year, one of our newspapers, L'Express d'Ottawa, folded and another, L'Eau Vive in Saskatchewan, suspended publication for a few months. A benefit concert for this newspaper will take place next week, in fact.
When it comes to radio, three of the ARC member stations no longer have paid staff. In places like Halifax and Peace River, the problems are so serious that the station's survival is at risk.
How did we get to this point? The digital shift certainly played a part. When the federal government made the shift to using the Internet for all communications with the Canadian public, advertising in our media suffered. The drop in advertising had a major impact on many of our radio stations and newspapers, as it prevented them from conducting the day-to-day activities that benefit the community they serve. Like the APF, the FCFA filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages over the government's decision on advertising.
More broadly, government support for community media is still seriously lacking. Many media outlets are located in places where the advertising market alone is not enough to support a French-language outlet, and that is why the private sector does not have a presence. However, even though these radio stations and newspapers have significantly reduced financial viability, their cultural and social viability is not in doubt. The very existence of these media shows how important they are to the community they serve. Conversely, if they don't receive better support, they will disappear, which will be an irreparable loss for Canada's francophone population.
People will talk about how technology has changed, and we recognize the growing importance of digital technology and social platforms in the consumer habits of Canadians, including the francophones who live in our communities. However, I would like to draw your attention to three considerations.
First, we live in a time where the vast majority of television, radio, and news content on digital platforms is produced by the traditional media. As our colleagues from the ARC will tell you, radio has never stopped being popular, even among young people.
Second, high-speed connectivity in Canada has not yet reached the point where everyone can easily access online media products. It is difficult for an Acadian in Nova Scotia to listen to the radio online when he has a dial-up connection rather than high-speed Internet. You can't expect a francophone in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories to watch videos online when he pays an exorbitant monthly price for bandwidth. As we told the CRTC a few weeks ago, there are still many places in Canada, especially rural and remote areas, where the government needs to invest in infrastructure so that francophones can fully be part of the digital world. In these places, radio, television, and newspapers remain the tools of choice.
The third consideration I would like to draw to your attention is as follows. In a multi-platform world where some people choose to read their newspaper online and others in print format, where some listen to the radio over the airwaves and others on a mobile device, content is king. Of course it is important to invest in digital technology, but it is even more important to be able to gather and deliver that content. That is why I encourage this committee and the federal government to support the ability of our media to talk about everyday happenings in our communities.
With that in mind, we would welcome a program to support community media and provide our radio stations and newspapers with the minimum resources they need to do their jobs. This program could also support our community media as they adapt to the digital environment. Many major media outlets are having a hard time making this shift, so imagine what it is like for our newspapers and radio stations.
Basically, as we see it, we have two choices as a society. We can let market forces take their course and run the risk that with the continued erosion of resources, even more media will stop broadcasting or publishing. In that case, we can wait and see whether or not appropriate alternatives emerge from the digital shift. Alternatively, we can invest to strengthen the ability of our media to do their jobs and operate in a digital, multi-platform environment. In that way, our media will remain rooted in our communities.
I would now like to talk briefly about Radio-Canada.
The FCFA estimates that the public broadcaster's regional stations are the only source of local French-language television content for 58% of francophones living outside Quebec. Since these are provincial stations, you will understand that I am using the word “local” pretty broadly.
You and I know the situation Radio-Canada is in right now. In recent years, our communities and the rest of Canada have seen whole swaths of the Crown corporation's programming disappear. Since the CRTC did away with the Local Program Improvement Fund, the regional stations outside Quebec produce almost no television programming aside from news. Youth programs, cultural magazines, and variety shows have all but disappeared. News programming has even been cut from 60 to 30 minutes everywhere except in Ottawa and Moncton. Once again, there are fewer opportunities to talk about day-to-day events in our communities on television and fewer human and physical resources to do so.
The Government of Canada will announce new funding for CBC/Radio-Canada in the upcoming federal budget. At least that is what we hear. That's wonderful, but there is absolutely no guarantee that that new money will benefit the corporation's regional French-language stations in our communities. For one thing, after years of cuts, many areas badly need to make up for lost time. For another, as the chair of the CRTC said at the recent public hearings about local and community television, it is the board that makes the choices that guide the corporation, a board that does not include any representation from our communities, I might add.
In his report on CBC/Radio-Canada funding, commissioned last year by the governments of Quebec and Ontario, consultant Michel Houle recommended that the government reinstate an annual subsidy, over and above basic parliamentary appropriations, to be used exclusively to enhance locally relevant programming on CBC/Radio-Canada radio and television stations outside metropolitan areas. That is something worth exploring. We also recommended to the CRTC that a fund be created to support local French-language television programming outside Quebec.
We urge the federal government to ensure, one way or another, that the money invested in our public broadcaster is used, at least in part, to enhance the French-language television and radio stations that serve our communities. We ask that the government require CBC/Radio-Canada to meet this condition in order to obtain new funding.
In closing, when we think about newspapers and local radio and television stations, we most often think in terms of markets, but when we do we lose sight of two important facts. First, in most of our communities, francophones lack the critical mass for a truly viable advertising market. Second, our French-language media exist to serve not markets, but communities made up of people who are determined to live in French and need these media to find out, in French, what is going on where they live.
We, the 2.6 million francophones living in nine provinces and three territories, need our community newspapers and radio stations. We need Radio-Canada's regional television and radio stations. Even in a digital world, these media have the know-how and the presence in our communities to tell our stories and reflect our realities.