House of Commons Hansard #122 of the 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was accused.


Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

Western Arctic Northwest Territories


Ethel Blondin-Andrew LiberalSecretary of State (Training and Youth)

Mr. Speaker, I am sure it is of absolutely no surprise to the members opposite that CBC is a rather unique institution. It is an arm's length institution. It has institutional bodies that guide it, that set its priorities.

I am really pleased that there is a debate on CBC North. It is the public broadcaster for Canada's north. CBC North has the mandate to serve all Canadians living in the north regardless of language, culture or locality. It was created in 1958. CBC North brings public broadcasting services to remote and isolated communities which are not economically viable for commercial broadcasters.

Indeed we do have a very unique relationship with CBC. In fact it would be safe for me to say that northerners have a visceral attachment to that public broadcaster. It has made their reality more real to the rest of the world, to the rest of Canada for sure. It has brought in a sense to some of the remotest regions the world news, world events and those in the rest of Canada. It has been a unifying force in this country politically, culturally, economically. I would say that northerners have a unique relationship and a very deep attachment to that public broadcaster.

I do not believe for one moment that I have remained silent or mum on this issue. I may not be broadcasting my views as such for political purposes because I feel that there has been real pain. Really difficulty decisions have been made. Those are difficult things. I think in a sense to go out there and parade around politically on this issue would not be wise.

I am trying to be very careful in picking my words because I do not want to offend my colleagues. I know that they have an equal

attachment and respect for the people who work in the north in that public broadcasting institution.

CBC's northern service is part of the corporation's public mandate as reflected in the Broadcasting Act to reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences and to contribute to shared national consciousness and identity. All that to say CBC North currently produces 220 hours of radio programming per week in 10 different languages. It serves a total audience of over 100,000 Canadians from across the north in radio production centres in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Inuvik, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Montreal.

CBC North gathers and exchanges the news of daily life in northern Canada. Regional, national and international news is presented every day. It is drawn from CBC's extensive news gathering sources.

Radio truly is a lifeline service for northern Canadians. Mr. Speaker, if you have ever had a Delta experience in the north, for example in my riding where I come from, you will know about sitting in a fish camp and being able to get very important messages about the changing weather, about transportation, about medical services or about any such necessities that are there for the people who live on the land. You will know that CBC is a very real and big part of northern people's lives.

Having said that, on television CBC North produces four weekly current affairs programs in seven languages. Television production centres in Yellowknife, Iqaluit and Montreal present multilingual coverage of major events.

The CBC recently announced decisions to address budget reduction measures. We must get our fiscal house in order, and that means reductions in government expenditures. No federal department or agency has been immune. Everyone has had to tighten their belts. Ministries have cut, departments have cut, crown agencies have also had to cut. The CBC recognizes that it must do its part in this exercise.

In reference to the comments of my colleague from Yukon, this does not make it easy for me to say that it has been easy, that it has been draconian or Machiavellian, that it was easy to do. It was not easy to do. I am not here as a government apologist. I am here to say that there are circumstances beyond the individual, beyond this government.

Yes, we could make our forays to the Minister of Finance, to the minister of heritage, to any minister in this government, but we must remember that the CBC is an independent agency. Its board of directors and senior management are responsible for making decisions on how best to manage its operations within its resource allocation.

On the resource allocation, yes the government has cut programs all across the board. Agencies and departments have cut. That is true. Yes, we wear that. Yes, we assume the responsibility. But the CBC is an independent agency that sets its own priorities.

Government also sets fiscal targets and it is the CBC's responsibility to determine how best to meet those goals. The CBC is guaranteed journalistic, creative and programming independence under the Broadcasting Act, and Parliament must respect and uphold that relationship. The CBC will decide the appropriate budget for the northern service in the context of its public mandate, overall operations and resource allocation.

The hon. member opposite would be the first to complain if we were to interfere with the journalistic integrity of the CBC. The member would be the very first, I am sure. I would understand that. To be quite honest, the CBC would not tolerate having the government's fingerprints all over its priorities and planning. It would not appreciate that. It would not accept that and the member opposite knows that it would protest vehemently. I would also understand that.

The president of the CBC announced decisions in September with the details of implementation and what it means in terms of layoffs still to be determined in some places. No CBC service is exempt. There will be reductions in both staff and programming in English and French radio and English and French television. However, CBC is not abandoning its public mandate to serve Canadians. In fact, it is returning to its roots as being as Canadian as possible and offering a truly public broadcasting service. It will continue to tell the story to Canada and to present a world seen through Canadian eyes.

New avenues have also opened up. Let me say that I am saddened and unabashed about the sadness and the feeling that I have. I do not perhaps share the priorities that put CBC North in its present position. I would have liked it to be different. I feel there has been a disproportionate cut.

I know the north and I understand the remoteness and the people who work there. The north is a small place. Both my colleague and I know intimately people who work there. So it is not a matter of not caring, it is the reality of the fact that the CBC is an independent agency. It has to set its own priorities.

Yes, we as government officials are responsible for the overall fiscal restraint we operate under and the goals that we set as a government. However, we do not interfere at the departmental or agency level or with the crown corporations that set their own specific priorities.

I feel the north is a priority. I believe it provides a unique service. I would like to continue to work with the people who have the authority, but that would be protested. It would be interfering. I am not allowed to do that.

We have heard the issues raised in the House when ministers of the cabinet have interfered with quasi-judiciary bodies. It is not tolerated. In that sense my hands are tied.

I can only tell northerners how important we feel the work that the broadcasting corporation has offered to us over the years. We cannot thank it enough for that work. We must recognize that the CBC has made a valuable contribution to the north and for the unity of the country and for Arctic sovereignty. Over a whole range of issues it has been a unifying force, a cultural promoter. It is a wonderful institution that should be supported.

I support the CBC but there are realities which are beyond my capacity. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this issue.


Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Restigouche—Chaleur New Brunswick


Guy Arseneault LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Canadian Heritage

Mr. Speaker, I would first like to congratulate the member on her initiative, because I think we both believe in the value and importance of CBC northern services and we are both concerned that Canadians in remote and isolated communities in the north continue to receive the CBC television and radio services that link them to each other and to their neighbours to the south.

CBC North has a mandate to serve all Canadians living in the north, regardless of their language, their culture and their location. The northern cultural landscape is one of great wealth. The national and regional programs of CBC North bring the various peoples of northern Canada together.

The CBC northern service shares the Corporation's public mandate, which is to reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences. CBC North's mission statement, drafted by its employees, provides for serving the peoples of the north by helping them understand each other and by enabling them to communicate with each other and the rest of the country.

At the moment, CBC North produces 220 hours of radio programming a week in English, French and 8 native languages. This programming is a combination of local programs and the national programs of CBC radio. CBC North's radio service had an operating budget of $9.7 million in 1995-96.

The CBC delivers its northern television service with two and a half hours of northern produced programming that is combined with CBC's national service programming. It produces four and a half hour programs over 26 weeks in Cree, Inuktitut, three Dene languages and English. It reaches 96 communities in the north with over 100 hours of television programming per week. That is, by any measure, a very impressive operation.

The budget for CBC's northern television service was $3.3 million in 1995-96. We have heard many members speak today with regard to CBC North. We have to recognize the reality of this. We must get our fiscal house in order and that means reductions in government expenditures throughout. The budget that was announced in February 1996 gave the CBC the time necessary to plan responsibly and make the appropriate decisions to manage its operations, including CBC North, in light of the new fiscal targets.

The CBC is an independent crown agency and Parliament must respect that relationship. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for the government to intervene in CBC's internal decision making process concerning budget allocations, including the budget for CBC North. These are tough decisions but the government has every confidence that CBC's board of directors and senior management will manage its resources efficiently and will treat its people and the regions fairly.

We do not yet know all the details of the announced measures to meet the budget reductions and what it means specifically for CBC North. However, I would like to assure the hon. member that CBC's obligations under the Broadcasting Act "to reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences" will be fulfilled. As part of the service of our national public broadcaster, CBC North ensures that the interests of Canadians living in the farthest regions of Canada are served. This is CBC's mandate and it will not change.

Fundamental and unprecedented changes face the people of the north. In 1999, two new territories will be created through the division of the Northwest Territories. Land claim settlements are creating aboriginal governments equal in scale and resources to public governments. Economic development is poised to unfold in many areas of the north which will expand communities and build new ones. Meeting this change is a small population with a history of survival under harsh conditions.

Now, more than ever, northern Canadians need to be joined together through their public broadcasting system to share their stories and to see and to hear themselves and other Canadians. Cable and in the near future direct to home satellite and other wireless services are breaking down the north's media isolation but these new communication bridges to the north are delivering signals from the south, many of which are American.

On the other hand, the small population base in most centres make it difficult for Canadian private television services to operate economically. There are only two private radio stations serving northern centres.

There are great opportunities for broadcasting in the North, and CBC North is well placed to take advantage of them, but the CBC needs to use new technologies if it is to really take advantage of those opportunities.

Digital conversion in the North is inevitable, given the anticipated conversion of the radio and television broadcasting industry as a whole. Digitization involves a rather high initial cost for broadcasters, but it offers them the unique opportunity to consolidate their operations and to realize greater economies of scale. Conversion to digital will also make it possible to provide superior signal quality.

The broadcasting distribution infrastructure is undergoing fundamental change throughout North America and, indeed, throughout the world. Once we have gone digital, there will be opportunities for all broadcasters in the north, public and private, to share infrastructure costs and achieve greater efficiencies in distribution.

Digitization provides a common technical platform that will encourage a network of networks between CBC North, TVNC, private radio and television broadcasters in the north. Growing from the humblest of beginnings as radio stations transferred from the military, CBC North has built a pan-northern service across four million square kilometres of Canada. In the future CBC North would be a vital link in Canada's northern information highway.

As mentioned earlier by the hon. secretary of state, partnerships will be increasingly important in this complex world where we must do more with less. In particular, partnerships will be critical for building the bridges that will construct our information highway for the millennium and beyond. As a service of our national public broadcaster, CBC North will be an important partner in helping to build the north's information highway.

I thank the hon. member for bringing to our attention this very important subject today.

Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Milliken)

I should advise the House that if the hon. member for Yukon speaks now she will close the debate.

Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.


Audrey McLaughlin NDP Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate my colleagues from the Liberal Party and the Bloc Quebecois for addressing this issue seriously. I might not agree with all of the responses, but I do feel that it has been an important debate.

I am saddened that the Reform Party has not seen fit either to participate or to be present for this debate because I think that they too-

Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Milliken)

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. member, but she knows that she is not allowed to refer to the absence of members from the House. Perhaps their lack of participation in the debate is fair comment, but not their absence from the House. I would draw that rule to her attention. I know she is aware of it.

Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.


Audrey McLaughlin NDP Yukon, YT

Yes, certainly, Mr. Speaker. I withdraw the comment about the House. However, participating in the debate I think is important because it affects all parts of the country.

I listened very carefully to all members who spoke on this matter. I listened to their arguments. I am a bit puzzled by some of the arguments.

The hon. member for Western Arctic said that CBC North is a lifeline that deserves support. I would agree. In terms of the many services that are provided by the CBC it is a lifeline that deserves support. At the same time, the member for Western Arctic said that there are fiscal constraints. We recognize that. I believe the member for Western Arctic said that we must get our fiscal house in order. Again, I agree.

However, there is another debate which we also need to have, which is: What is the house that we are getting in order? It is the country. How do we preserve, maintain and develop the culture and the unity of that house that we are trying to get in order?

My point, by this motion and by my comments today, is that the debate around the CBC is not just a funding debate, it is about the house that we are attempting to get in order. We may do so well at getting it in order that people may not feel the same allegiance to the house as we lose social programs, health programs and national institutions such as our rail system and the CBC.

That is why I proposed that we have a vote on this motion and that we refer it to committee, although my proposal was defeated.

I understand the argument made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the hon. member for Western Arctic that the CBC is an independent agency in which there should not be government interference. I do not object to that. However, it is impossible to maintain an appropriate service and a stable service without appropriate funding. It is the Government of Canada which provides that funding.

I assume that my two colleagues who spoke before me are not suggesting that providing funding constitutes interference.

I would like to draw their attention to the fact that during the 1993 election there was a very clear promise from the Liberal Party, its members and its leader, that there would be adequate support and maintenance of the CBC.

I draw my colleague's attention to the definition of the word promise from The Concise Oxford Dictionary . It states:

an assurance that one will or will not undertake a certain action

assure, confirm

That is a promise.

This Liberal Party promised to support the CBC. Support, according to the same dictionary, means "keep from falling, sinking or failing; give strength to or encourage".

I do not think all the people who are speaking out in support of CBC can define what the Liberals had meant by supporting the CBC because it is certainly falling, certainly sinking and certainly failing.

That also is at the heart of this argument. There was a clear understanding by the Canadian people that the Liberal Party, were it to become the government, would support our national broadcasting system.

The two members from the government side who spoke said that they liked the CBC and realized that there are constraints, as we all do, but they did not know what they could do as it is an independent agency. What they could do is advocate within their caucus, within their government and within their cabinet that there be sufficient funding for the CBC to continue.

Why is it that so many Canadians are speaking out about what is happening to the CBC? Are my colleagues on the government side suggesting that people like Margaret Atwood, Karen Kain, Atom Egoyan and Norman Jewison who have come together with other celebrities, Pierre Berton for example, to support the CBC are wrong, that they do not know anything and that they do not understand the fiscal house? Are we to assume that the group called Safe Our CBC does not understand what is happening? Are we to understand that Friends of Canadian Broadcasting does not really understand the situation in Canada, that the many constituents I have heard from and I am sure the member for Western Arctic and the Member for Nunatsiaq have heard from do not understand Canada?

I think they understand Canada very well. I think what they and many of us fear is that it will no longer be a vehicle to help Canadians understand each other, to define our country to each other, to define our culture to each other and to maintain it in a way that it will be able to do these things.

It is fine to say that we like the CBC. We love the CBC but we are not going to advocate for enough stable funding for it to run appropriately.

I think what all of these groups are trying to say, what I am trying to say today and what my colleagues from the Bloc Quebecois were saying is that not only do we have to get our fiscal house in order, as we and all of the groups and individuals I mentioned understand that, but we also understand that this country is important. Some of the institutions will of course be adapting to change but some of the institutions like our national broadcasting system is what will help to preserve the house.

I understand the arguments that are being put forward about inference but I think it is a hollow argument, I am sorry to say. It is a hollow argument because no one is asking the members across the way and the government to interfere with the CBC board. What we are asking for is stable funding for Canada's national broadcasting system for the preservation of a very important Canadian institution which contributes to not only national unity but to the development of our culture and understanding of each other as Canadians.

Cbc NorthPrivate Members' Business

7:25 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Milliken)

The hour provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired and the order is dropped from the Order Paper.

It being 7.30 p.m. this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 2 p.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7.30 p.m.)