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Chris Sankey: Changing a lyric in O Canada is not a path to reconciliation

Commentary

She only changed one word, but Canadian R&B singer Jully Black attracted a lot of media attention when she altered the lyrics to Canada’s national anthem at this year’s NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City.

Black sang “our home on native land” instead of “our home and native land”—referencing the fact that Canada literally exists on traditional Indigenous lands.

As an Indigenous Canadian, I appreciate any efforts to help move reconciliation forward. However, changing the anthem is not how true reconciliation works. If anything, this only benefited Black’s career.

If she wanted to get noticed, what better way than to do something that would shock the world at the NBA All-Star game? I had no idea who she was until her anthem rendition made headlines. I even had to replay her performance to hear what she said because at first, I thought I was hearing things.

When CBC commentator Shireen Ahmed subsequently wrote an online opinion column applauding Black’s gesture, it struck me as just another instance of someone from another ethnic background proclaiming they are doing Indigenous people a favour. Of course she needed to write about it. Why not? It made world headlines.

Ahmed’s article stumbled when it resorted to name-calling figures like Jordan Peterson and others as right-wing because they disagreed with changing the anthem. Peterson actually has strong ties to Indigenous communities in Canada and Native American communities in the USA. There are people from all political backgrounds who both disagreed and agreed with the lyrics change; many were Indigenous people themselves. This is a nuanced topic, but Ahmed’s simplistic framing has only inflamed racial tensions.

Individuals like Ahmed and Black may think they are doing hallowed work, but if we as Indigenous people are going to abide by our protocols then we must hold others to the same standard, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like our national anthem.

We already have many amazing Indigenous singers who beautifully perform our anthem in Indigenous languages from various nations throughout Canada. Many sporting events do land acknowledgments prior to the game starting; if Black understood protocol, she would have acknowledged the Native American tribe on whose land the All-Star game was played.

Instead, all she did was make it harder for us to move forward in this country. Individuals like her need to understand that Indigenous people want and need to live with 34 million other Canadians.

Although Canada’s land mass is the traditional territory of 600-plus Indigenous communities, our goal is to work together with Canadians to be meaningful partners and good neighbours. We are making strides to be a part of mainstream society. We don’t need any more people making decisions on our behalf or any more virtual signaling messages that only create further divisions.

What Black did is exactly what we so often decry governments for doing: making decisions without the knowledge and permission of Indigenous communities

Many older Indigenous people I have spoken with have mixed feelings about her actions. Most of all, what we’re trying to do is achieve better relationships and tangibly improve not just our own communities, but our country as a whole. The last thing Indigenous leaders need is to make the hill that much more difficult to climb. Perhaps there could be more consensus amongst Canadians if this issue had been broached in a spirit of good faith before action was unilaterally taken.

I am as patriotic as the next Canadian. I have values, including an emphasis to love my neighbour, country, culture, and community. I strive to make sure we find middle ground between mainstream Canada and Indigenous peoples. Not everyone will like every decision that gets made in trying to move forward, but we must work together instead of pushing people away. We need to be respectful and meaningfully engage with the broader society we are a part of. After all, we have a rich Indigenous culture that we want to share with the world.

Moving forward, it is important to keep a clear sense of what reconciliation looks like, and how we can meaningfully contribute to it so that all Canadians feel that they are a part of something special rather than singled out. God knows Indigenous people are all too familiar with that. But as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Let’s be better. Together we are stronger.

Richard Stursberg: Defunding the CBC but not Radio-Canada defies fairness

Commentary

Pierre Polievre has argued that CBC television should be eliminated; he has proposed to leave Radio-Canada’s TV service intact. He appears to believe that since CBC’s audiences have declined significantly, there is no point in continuing to support it. He is certainly right that CBC TV has lost audience share over the last decade (now just 5 percent of prime time) and performs very poorly compared to its French counterpart, Radio-Canada’s Ice Tele (25 percent of prime time).  

Why is this?

First, the English broadcasting environment has always been much more competitive than the French one. Over the last 30 years, CBC has had to compete not only with dozens of Canadian rivals in its home market (CTV, Global, CITY, TSN, etc.) but multiple American ones as well (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc.). This has never been true in the French market, where Radio-Canada has only one significant rival, TVA. It has been insulated by language. The Americans do not broadcast in French.

The result is that it has always been a challenge to make English Canadian entertainment shows that Canadians will watch in large numbers. Producing dramas, comedies, and documentaries that can compete against the flood of expensive, attractive U.S. programs has historically been very difficult. It can be done, but it requires proper financing, creative talent, fine producers, and luck. Of these, the only one in the control of the government is money. For many, many years, CBC has been one of the most poorly financed public broadcasters in the world. 

Second, CBC’s advertising revenues have fallen substantially, like those of all the other broadcasters. Advertisers prefer Google and Facebook’s digital ads because they are more efficient. More than 55 percent of Canadian ad revenues now flow south to Silicon Valley rather than staying in the country to support the creation of Canadian content. The losses are much more significant in English than in French. 

Third, the arrival of the big foreign streaming services (Netflix, Disney, Amazon, etc.) has further eroded the market share of CBC TV, as well as that of the private Canadian broadcasters. With their enormous budgets, the streamers have created huge quantities of high-quality programming. Unlike Canadian broadcasters, however, they are not required to spend any of their revenues commissioning Canadian shows. This not only gives them substantial financial advantages over their Canadian competitors, but it also erodes the money available to finance Canadian drama, comedies, documentaries, and kid’s shows.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, CBC suffers from chronic underfunding. The government provides roughly $1.25 billion to CBC/Radio-Canada. That works out to about 33 dollars per capita for CBC and Radio-Canada combined. The split of the $1.25 billion is not, however, the same for CBC and Radio-Canada.

About 44 percent ($550 million) of the public subsidy goes to the French services and 56 percent to the English side ($700 million). This split does not reflect the relative size of the two major language groups in Canada. French is spoken by only 21 percent of the Canadian population. Given that Canada’s population is roughly 38 million people, this means that the 8 million French-speaking Canadians receive a per capita public broadcasting subsidy of almost 70 dollars, while the rest of the country receives 23 dollars. In effect, this makes Radio-Canada one of the better-financed public broadcasters in the world and CBC one of the worst.

This disparity is compounded by the fact that the costs of producing programs in French and English are dramatically different. An average Canadian English language drama costs $1.7 million per hour; its French equivalent costs almost exactly half that. The situation is even starker when it comes to children’s shows. An hour in English has an average cost of $850,000 and in French $200,000, a more than four-fold difference. 

This is a very strange situation. Radio-Canada gets almost three times more money per capita from the federal government than CBC, although it faces dramatically less competition in its home market and enjoys very significant cost advantages in program production. It is hard to understand how this is either fair or reasonable.

Television is the most important cultural medium in the world. In English Canada, the only broadcaster that has consistently made Canadian entertainment shows is the CBC. If Pierre Polievre were really concerned about CBC television’s poor performance, he should concern himself with these disparities. He should argue not for eliminating CBC but for financing it at the same level as Radio-Canada. This would require an injection of $1.4 billion to the English side. If he also considered the different program production costs, the number would be significantly higher still.

Pierre Polievre’s attack on the CBC and not Radio-Canada seems to defy the test of simple fairness. Why would he choose to go after the side of the public broadcaster that faces the more challenging environment and that has been systemically disadvantaged by the federal government? If French Canadians were receiving almost three times as much per capita for health care or education, he would surely object and argue that the money going to French Canada should be reduced. Or better still, that English Canada should be put on the same footing.