Madam Speaker, I am very proud to rise in the House representing the people in my region of Timmins—James Bay.
I am speaking with a heavy heart about what is being discussed today. I was afraid there would come a point when we would have to discuss this issue because we would come to a point where a government attack on the CBC would lead us to a situation where the future of the broadcaster would be a topic in the House.
In an attempt to forestall this day coming, I was on the heritage committee last year and it initiated a study of the CBC so that all members of Parliament would fully understand the role and importance of the CBC, and we could get all parties to buy-in to a vision of a reformed broadcaster. At that time, the NDP worked closely with its allies, the Bloc, Liberals and Conservatives, to bring forward a plan. Unfortunately, the plan that had been laid out by the heritage committee to address the many problems being faced with an underfunded CBC was ignored by the minister. The ensuing crisis is part of the problem now.
The loss of jobs that the CBC is facing comes at a time of unprecedented crisis in Canada's local and regional broadcasting markets. Private broadcasters' local television stations are being closed across the country. Once proud, independent television stations that grew into larger conglomerates are now being thrown aside as somehow having become a junk product, when for decades they built audience share and a local voice.
No better example could be given than CHCH-TV in Hamilton, which provided such a unique role. It was brought up in the Canwest chain and is now being discarded. That is an example of the kind of broadcast crisis we are facing. It is not just in terms of radio and television. It is in terms of newspapers. Many great local papers, some of which have been around for more than a century, are being bought by massive chains.
Every time we see more media concentration, the result is always clear, they cut more staff at the local level and get rid of local voices, to the point where many of the local newspapers across this country, that have served communities for decades or even a century, do not even have local editorials any more. Whoever is in the meagre stable of whatever media oligarchy is running that section of the country will present a national editorial. What happens each time is that local people feel their stories are disappearing. It happens bit by bit. Now we are in a full-fledged broadcasting crisis.
Let us talk about the CBC. The importance of the CBC in the Canadian broadcasting context is that it is a conversation. It is a conversation between Canadians. At its best, that is what public broadcasting is supposed to be and it is a job that private broadcasters cannot do. It is not to say that private broadcasters do not have their niche in their markets and serve their roles well, but the notion of a national conversation is only possible within the context of a public broadcaster.
I will give an example. When I was much younger, I was involved in media. I ran my own independent media magazine and online service as a regional voice for the north. I worked as a broadcaster for Studio 2, a provincial service. I did some work with the CBC and went to the CBC through my work in the arts.
When I was much younger, my band recorded the first Grievous Angels cassette. Even before we had a record we had a cassette, and we had the idea that if we got the cassette to Stuart McLean, he would play it on the radio and he did. Our first national public broadcast was by someone running up to Stuart McLean on the street and saying, “Here is a cassette, Mr. McLean. Would you play this on a national radio show?” The next thing I knew the band was being interviewed by Peter Gzowski on Morningside. That day the group went from being a very small local band to a band that was being asked to play across the country.
I am saying this not to brag, but to say there is no other broadcaster in the country where it would be possible for a song of a band that is completely unknown to be played once on radio, and then to be invited to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, right across the country, because people heard it and identified with it.
That has been the role of the CBC right across this country in terms of creating voices for new artists, new writers, new thinkers. When they are interviewed, whether it was by Gzowski in the old days or even today on Jian Ghomeshi's Q, or any of the other programs, people hear that and they feel they are part of this conversation. When the cuts that we are talking about today happen, they happen in a way that affects the ability of regions to speak to one another.
Nowhere do I see this more so than the cuts we are going to face in northern Ontario at CBC Sudbury and CBC Thunder Bay. In this market, CBC Sudbury represents a region that is about the size of western Europe. To cut 8 out of 16 jobs at CBC Sudbury means that the ability of this station to represent to Canada, in the multitude of communities that are as far flung as the shores of Hudson's Bay and James Bay, right across isolated communities in the north, has been terminated. It is no longer possible for that station to do that job.
The cuts will mean that we will have a morning show or an afternoon show. We will not have both. Let us say we lose the afternoon show out of CBC Sudbury. What does that mean in the grand scheme of things? It may mean nothing to people in other regions, but without an afternoon show, we now lose the one show that promoted local writers, regional artists, regional voices. Great performers like Kate Maki, who built a national name, do not get their start because they are not going to be heard on the local afternoon show. The local role of CBC Sudbury has been to cover an entire region.
The other role that CBC Sudbury plays, which is absolutely invaluable in our region, is that we have a francophone service representing the very large francophone population of the northeast, and we have English radio. It is the one format where the francophone and English populations actually speak to each other.
We have programming on CBC North where the hosts of the various shows speak to each other, so that the English milieu is hearing and understanding what the issues are in the francophone community. When we cut those wires, that conversation ceases. It has a profound impact and it draws us back to this fundamental question. What role does a public broadcaster play?
If we are going to cut regional services like this, we are essentially saying that we are turning out the lights in parts of our country. Nowhere else could I think of the effects than in my isolated communities on the James Bay coast. Those communities are served by Wawatay Cree Radio, where the communities speak to each other, but their only ability to speak to a much broader context is through CBC.
When St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany burned to the ground, it was a story that everyone in our region shared because CBC was there. When two young men burned to death in a jailhouse fire in Kashechewan, CBC brought that story to the nation, but now, two years later when we are actually having the hearings on what happened to those two men who burned to death in that makeshift jail cell, we will not have the budget to have CBC Sudbury cover that.
In fact, one flight now to Kashechewan, if CBC were to do its job, would probably wipe out CBC's budget for the year in Sudbury because there is no money to do these services.
By making these cuts, it has to be really understood that the lights are going out in certain parts of our country. The ability of certain parts of our regions to speak to one another is being turned off.
I was at an event in the little community of Kennebec, Ontario, on highway 65 west. An elderly woman came up to me and said, “If these cuts go ahead at CBC Sudbury, how will we speak to each other?” In that part of northern Ontario, the one unifying voice is the CBC link, so the cuts that are happening are profound and cannot be underestimated.
Let us talk about how we got here. CBC is the most underfunded public broadcaster in the world. When we look at the motion of my colleague from the Liberals, we will certainly be supporting the motion, but we need to address the elephant in the room, that bridge financing alone would not have gotten us out of this problem.
Bridge financing and a government that was willing to work would have helped address the immediate problems in the crisis. However, it would not have addressed the overall systemic problem we are facing, and that is years of underfunding, years of respective governments undermining our public broadcaster to the point that we were at the tipping point with this recent crisis. My colleague said that bridge financing would maintain 2008 staffing and service levels. I wish that were true. If the government had been willing to work with the CBC early on, we might have addressed many of the job losses.
It has to be pointed out that if we go back 10, 12, 14 years and look at the government's response to the obligations to a public broadcaster, it has been to undermine it. It has been to ridicule it. It has been to make it come and beg every March for the $60 million extra appropriation, and the government leaves the public broadcaster dangling and does not tell it until the very last minute. It is a situation that no other public broadcaster would ever face. It has undermined the ability of the public broadcaster to do its job.
Even with the years of underfunding and the lack of commitment toward the role of the public broadcaster, Parliament, the heritage committee, Canadians in general have asked more and more from our public broadcaster. In response we have CBC TV, Radio-Canada, Newsworld, Radio 1, 2, and now 3, RDI, and Première Chaîne Radio. We have a network that is on in five and a half time zones with eight aboriginal language services. That is outreach no other public broadcaster in the world would have to face. BBC plays to one time zone with one English market. It is much more concentrated than what CBC is having to face.
Yet even with all these challenges, we see that in the last few years, English language television now has the number two market share in the country on the 8 to 11 spot at night. All-Canadian fare is beating the all-American lineup on Global. Radio-Canada television is seeing a market share of almost 20% in prime time and it is continuing to increase. CBC radio services are enjoying historic highs, almost 20% for Radio-Canada in each market, 14.1% for CBC radio. With respect to the CBC website, we have called for CBC to get involved online and now it is getting four million hits a month. Two million podcasts are being downloaded every month. The online CBC.ca program has a quarter of a million members.
As Hubert Lacroix, the president of CBC, said, if we go back 40 years, we will not find an example of a public broadcaster being this successful. It has been successful, despite the fact that it has been doing it on a shoestring. It has met all the requirements that parliamentarians, politicians and the audience have pushed on it. Not only that, but when I was on the heritage committee, it would be regular to say that we wanted a new plan for expanding television or for expanding radio, but there was never a commitment at the government level that addressed the fundamental problem which is the underfunding.
When we look at the recommendations that were brought forward by an all-party committee in order to address the CBC, if the government had accepted the recommendations that were offered to it by the heritage committee, we would not be in this situation now.
There were numerous recommendations in terms of the mandate and how to ensure accountability at CBC, but there were a couple of key benchmarks that needed to be met. One was the ratification of a seven year memorandum of understanding between the Government of Canada and CBC that would set out the respective responsibilities and obligations. That seven year memorandum of understanding would allow the corporation to note clearly what Parliament expected in terms of its regional services, its commitments to the arts, its commitments to official languages, and then it would have the financial appropriations to be able to do its planning over seven years. The Conservative government never accepted that motion.
One of the other motions was that we have multi-year funding and that the one-time funding of $60 million, which comes at the end of every March, and the minister has just announced it, would actually be added to its permanent core funding so it would not have to come and beg and it could actually make the planning.
Recommendation 4.4 I think was the key one, that after consultation with broadcasters, consultation with experts, we settled on the figure that we need to move the core funding to $40 per capita. It did not have to be done in one year, but that was the benchmark we needed to move toward.
Funding of $40 per capita is still much lower than the funding that is offered to public broadcasters anywhere else in the world. To get from $34 per capita to $40 per capita over a three- or four-year timeline would give us the resources to put CBC in the position where we want it. We did not get that from the government. We have seen a rather cynical approach to an institution that the government has been very ambivalent about. Many of the government members have ridiculed CBC. Many of them have said that they oppose the public broadcaster; they think the private sector would do it better. Yet, they have watched this public broadcaster try to bend itself in circles in order to address the competing mandates of the government.
One of the arguments always is that it should compete with the private sector, go more to the private sector. Our public broadcaster is becoming increasingly dependent on advertising revenues and when it is completely dependent on advertising revenues, the Conservatives ask, “Why does it need to be a public broadcaster? It is acting like a private sector broadcaster. Why does it not do what a public broadcaster should do?”
The CBC is caught in a television simulcast war against the U.S. giants, in which we are actually doing very well, thanks very much. It is the unwillingness of the government to set a clear course.
What would $40 per capita mean? If we could move CBC television out of the advertising game wars, that money would be freed up for the private sector. That would be one way of helping to address the crisis. CBC television would be able to provide Canadian content all the time. There has been much ballyhoo about the fact that it had to buy a few American shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and I am certainly not interested in watching Vanna White on the CBC, but I recognize it is having to buy programs because it cannot afford to make programs on a limited budget. There is no commitment from the government to make it possible.
If we had moved up the appropriations to $40 per capita, and we did that over a number of years and we set in place the other all-party recommendations, we could get CBC where it needs to be, which is to play a role that no other broadcaster in this country plays. That role is to make it possible for regions to speak to one another and to understand one another. It could let the young writers from Acadie be heard in other parts of the country, in order to allow a discourse about ideas and culture that is simply not available from the private broadcasters.
At this point we are looking at a government which has sat back and allowed a unique and proud institution to start to crumble because of the government's unwillingness to provide the bridge financing and its unwillingness to commit to a long-term vision. We are at the point where, because of all the cuts that have come before, because of what is happening now, if any further downturn happens, the future viability of this public institution and public commitment will be so challenged we are going to have to talk about the potential death of the CBC in certain parts of this country. It is having to sell off its assets. It has to be dependent on the minister to support it in those sales. Those assets are being sold at a time of market collapse. If it does not get the value for them, then more cuts are coming; that is the reality. I am not really clear where else we can cut at this point in terms of the loss of regional programming, the loss of what we are seeing in terms of the television market.
This is a debate I am very sorry we are having in the House today, but as members of Parliament we need to stand and say that we do believe in a revitalized commitment to a full and strong public broadcaster. That commitment has to be made. The cuts that are starting to affect our regions and our television and radio services are not acceptable, because once those things are gone, there will be no replacing them. The private sector is not moving in to deal with the losses we are seeing at the CBC.
We need a strong public broadcaster. We need to send a message from Parliament that we commit to CBC, we want to rebuild CBC and we want to make CBC the broadcaster for the 21st century that it should be.