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Antony Anderson: Things are bleak now, but don’t despair—Canada’s history has a bright future

Commentary

It can be a humbling odyssey to raise Canadians to know their country—especially if you’re raising them in Canada. When Jack Granatstein fired his impassioned salvo a quarter century ago, I was already on the ramparts, working on various Dominion Institute documentaries alongside The Hub’s executive director, Rudyard Griffiths. I was all too familiar with the institute’s polls that showed again and again that Canadians were largely strangers in their own land, oblivious to the why and who and when and what had happened to create this incredible political and cultural miracle in North America. I was determined to make sure my daughters would grow up consciously Canadian. 

The sheer intensity of the night feedings and the ear infections and the diaper changes compelled me to take stock, and I decided to hold off on introducing the concept of responsible government until after toilet training was completed. This would be a long campaign of skirmishes. I had no master plan.

In those early, formative years, I learned the sheer scale of the obvious. We don’t just live next door to the world’s dominant cultural extravaganza; we live right inside American culture. It is fused into our neurons, like a birthright, and it’s not an invasion—it’s a willing seduction. I did what I could to buy Canadian alphabet books and maps and I scoured the dial (as it was then) for Canadian TV, but the distinctions were subtle and my children couldn’t care less which books or movies were American or Canadian, as long they were entertained. Indeed, for a viewing season, the city of London—thanks to Peter Pan, The Great Mouse Detective, 101 Dalmatians, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the most vivid place in the world for them. I could never find a Canadian equivalent of all those wonderful stories. And incursions would come from out of the blue. 

On one trip to New York my youngest was enlightened by a well-meaning U.S. immigration officer at the airport about some magical creature called American Doll. We now had no choice but to find the humungous spawning centre in Manhattan—entire floors of the thing—where my daughter bought her own special companion, each one fiendishly fashioned to have the same hair, skin, eye colour as the owner. I was instructed by the other member of the household management team to cease and desist all rants of cultural invasion. 

So while waiting for those precious openings to talk about, for instance, Mackenzie King and his penchant for seances, this business of raising Canadians was also calling for restraint on my part. After a class trip to see an animated movie, my eldest, then in grade four, returned home happily singing the film’s theme song which included the cheery line, “We’re the kids in America.” I wanted to shout, “No you’re not!” But I let it go. Maybe she’d forget it. She did. Clever me. On another day, my youngest returned from school singing about taking country roads “home” to West Virginia. Again, I wanted to rage but held my tongue. Choose your battles.

I fell to my knees in gratitude when her music teacher introduced the class to folk songs from Quebec and Newfoundland. The resistance! The first time we watched the CBC’s hit sitcom, “Kim’s Convenience”, I remember with a measure of dismay how my youngest exclaimed in delight, “Hey, that’s Toronto!” Yes indeed, that is an amazing, strange and very Canadian experience to see your world suddenly reflected, validated, reinforced in your own culture. I remember with more dismay when one of my young nephews who had discovered the incredible world of Marvel and DC comics, piped up one day, “How come all these superheroes are in New York? How come they’re never in Toronto?” It is to weep!In 2018, I discovered a wonderful Canadian-made self-published comic book called “Group of 7” (created by Chris Sanagan and Jason Lapidus) featuring the fictionalised World War 1 exploits of notable Canadians like Frederick Banting, Norman Bethune, Francis Pegahmagabow, and Lester Pearson. My nephews loved it.

Raising conscious Canadians in Toronto is made more difficult by the lack of any strong sense of place or of geography. We don’t have Vancouver’s mountains or Victoria’s inlets or a harbour, like St. John’s or Halifax’s, that hasn’t been walled off by condos or the great river that encircles Montreal. Toronto has modest amounts of historical architecture but nothing compared to Ottawa or Quebec City, so I couldn’t even point to landmarks when we went out for family walks; and when we did, successful indoctrination was not always guaranteed. 

One promising Sunday afternoon, I demanded we spend Father’s Day in the Winchester Necropolis. While marching my brood to behold George Brown’s headstone (Father’s day, they had no choice) we kept encountering endless gravestones for very young children; as if every single diseased 19th century Torontonian had been buried here. My daughters began to wonder, then worry, then panic that they too would die untimely deaths. I had to abandon the mission in search of life preserving ice cream. 

My most successful excursion came when I took them to see Brock’s Monument in Niagara Falls. It worked because I had my daughters standing in the exact spot where grand adventures had happened. “The Americans came down those hills right there and crossed that river right there and climbed up these hills beneath us and Brock died in this very forest.” For a brief shining moment, I was able to capture their imaginations until they demanded we head off to the hotel pool. I wisely complied.  

In this long campaign, I came to understand how little support I was getting from the provincial curriculum in Ontario, where Canadian history makes fleeting appearances. I waited with bated breath for Grade 7 and the section on New France but that proved to be a disaster. The very nice teacher was out of her depth. I did my best to fill in gaps but those incredible stories were dying in the class room. Grade 10 brought redemption. The history teacher was passionate, committed, and inspired my youngest which made it possible for me to add my own enthusiasm, sparking a virtuous cycle. I helped her with projects on conscription and World War 1 and the 1995 referendum and she was amazed to learn the stories, see the connections resonating into the present day. But this excellent adventure was contingent on the teacher, not surprisingly, and I know all too well, I am not an education system.

Allow me to end with one final anecdote. For much of my daughters’ early lives, I was writing a book about Lester Pearson and may have mentioned him in passing at dinners, walks to school, movie line-ups, subway delays. One day my youngest, who had betrayed me so cruelly with her devotion to American Doll, casually mentioned that the school librarian had made a presentation about the flag. He had asked the kids if they knew where the Maple Leaf came from. I’m sure he expected the usual collective silence. But my daughter’s hand shot up and she spoke about Pearson and the flag debate and the original design with three leaves and blue bars and even the Red Ensign. Apparently, the teacher was startled. Perhaps he felt an urge to call Children’s Aid. When she told me this, my daughter was glowing. I glowed that day too. Good God! She had actually been listening, taking it in. Small victories are good victories. 

We live in dysfunctional times in a curious country where the current narrative demeans or denies the incredible things we have done together. But, mercifully, the pendulum inevitably shifts, conventional wisdoms rot, the revisionists are themselves revised. Perhaps it is possible that the provincial ministries will come to their senses and make Canadian history mandatory across the Dominion in every year of primary and secondary school. I can dream and I do.Since my own journey raising Canadians, social media has erupted and now the resistance is much more pervasive, varied and creative. Who could have imagined podcasts in those primitive days of linear television and radio? So Canada is out there, dear parents. Your kids probably already know how to find it. Until then, we cannot indulge in despair. We need to stay on the ramparts so that one day, a future historian can write a charming polemic entitled, Who Brought Canadian History Back to Life?

Dave Snow: The CBC prioritizes allyship over objectivity in Saskatchewan parental consent coverage: An empirical analysis

Commentary

A common argument in favour of defunding the CBC is that its news content exhibits ideological bias. In particular, it has been subject to criticism that it is too progressive and Liberal-friendly, including for instance in its recent coverage of the Israel-Hamas war and Chinese interference in Canadian elections.

However, the assumption of the CBC’s progressive bias has rarely been tested empirically. To remedy this, I conducted an analysis of the CBC’s coverage of an issue that became a sustained national news story this past fall: Saskatchewan’s parental consent policy for children’s gender pronoun changes in schools. 

The public debate around Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy involves complexity, competing perspectives, and evolving public opinion. It’s the sort of issue for which the role of the news media is presumably to establish and situate the facts, present the different points of view, and help Canadians work through the nuances. Yet, as my analysis shows, that’s not how the CBC’s reporting handled the issue. 

Before describing the CBC’s coverage, it’s necessary to briefly describe the genesis and substance of the Saskatchewan government’s policy. In August, the government announced it would require parental consent for students under 16 to change their names or gender pronouns at school. The policy was challenged in court by the University of Regina Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity (“UR Pride”), and on September 28, Justice Megaw of the Court of King’s Bench issued an injunction pausing the operation of the policy because of “the potentially irreparable harm and mental health difficulty” for students “unable to find expression for their gender identity.” 

Later that day, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced that his government would respond to the injunction with a law invoking the notwithstanding clause. On October 20, that law, called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, was passed. The law stipulates that if a child under 16 requests that a “new gender-related preferred name or gender identity be used at school,” teachers and school employees “shall not use the new gender-related preferred name or gender identity unless consent is first obtained from the pupil’s parent or guardian.” 

As a high-profile issue involving a clash of rights, Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy serves as an ideal case study to examine how the CBC covers contentious social policy disputes. To do so, I conducted a content analysis of all of the CBC’s written articles about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy from August 22, 2023, the day the government announced its initial policy, to October 22, 2023, two days after the Parents’ Bill of Rights became law. During this period, the CBC published 38 news stories in which Saskatchewan’s policy featured prominently, six of which were written by journalists working for the Canadian Press

Even before reading the articles, the headlines betrayed the direction of the CBC’s coverage: while no headline made an explicit argument against the policy, fourteen (37 percent) contained what I call “attributed criticism” of Saskatchewan’s policy—denunciation from someone other than the reporter. Examples include “Families of trans kids, activists say they’re angered, scared, disgusted by Sask.’s pronoun law” and “Sask. Opposition says pronoun and naming policy motivated by politics, transphobia.” By contrast, not one of the 38 articles contained attributed praise of the policy; the closest, “Sask. premier touts survey showing support for informing parents of name, pronoun changes in school,” referenced the Premier himself.

As these headlines show, CBC reporters relied heavily on outside sources to describe the policy’s purported impact. To determine who those sources were, I coded every person or organization quoted in the 38 articles into three categories: supporters of the government’s policy, critics of the policy, and sources who were neutral towards the policy (I excluded quotes from the government, politicians, and the judicial injunction itself). I also distinguished between those whose opinions were clearly sought by the CBC and those whom the CBC quoted from the public record

Across 38 articles, the CBC quoted more than five times as many critics of Saskatchewan’s policy as supporters (81 critics, 15 supporters, and five neutral). Moreover, supporters were grouped into a small number of articles, with six of the 15 supporters quoted in a single story about competing public rallies. Only 16 percent of the total articles (six of 38) quoted at least one supporter of the policy, compared to 95 percent of articles (36 of 38) that quoted at least one critic of the government’s policy. And support was never presented independent of criticism: all six articles that included a quote from a supporter also included at least one quote from a critic.

The critics quoted by the CBC were also far more likely to be in a position of authority, while supporters were almost entirely laypeople. Of the 59 critics whose opinions were sought out by the CBC, 26 were what I classify as “experts”—lawyers and legal scholars, professors, school board presidents, health professionals, and LGBTQ organizations—and a further six were teachers. The focus on expertise was even higher from those quoted from the public record: of the 22 critics who were quoted from the public record, twenty (91 percent) were experts or organizations representing experts. By contrast, CBC reporters did not seek out a single “expert” to speak in favour of Saskatchewan’s policy. Of the 13 quotes from supporters that were sought by the CBC, nine were from community members or protestors at rallies, while four were from the leaders of three small socially conservative interest groups.

The only expert the CBC quoted in defence of the rationale behind Saskatchewan’s policy (from the public record) was Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist and a trans woman who presented an affidavit for the Saskatchewan government in court. The CBC article presented Dr. Anderson in a negative light, calling her a “vocal critic” of youth gender transition while failing to mention her decades of research and clinical experience. Most egregiously, the CBC article did not quote from Dr. Anderson’s affidavit even though the affidavit was the topic of the article (and even though much of it was quoted in the publicly available judicial injunction). Yet the same article included a quote from UR Pride’s legal counsel criticizing Dr. Anderson’s affidavit.

The selective presentation of content was even more apparent when it came to the CBC’s reporting on public opinion polls. Between August and October 2023, three Canadian polls were released regarding pronoun changes at schools. To understand the content of these polls, it is important to conceptualize of three policy options when it comes to informing parents when their child seeks to change gender pronouns at school. These fall along a continuum: 

  • Option A: Require that a child’s parents must be informed and require consent for any pronoun changes. This was the policy Saskatchewan ultimately chose.
  • Option B: Require that parents be informed, but not require their consent. 
  • Option C: Neither inform parents nor require their consent. 

On August 28, the Angus Reid Institute released a poll (though its data had been collected before Saskatchewan’s policy announcement). The poll showed that 50 percent of Saskatchewan residents believed parents should be informed of and provide consent for any changes (Option A); 36 percent of Saskatchewanians thought parents should be informed only (Option B); and only 10 percent said parents should be neither informed nor provide consent (Option C). 

The day the poll was released, Saskatchewan’s Premier posted its results on X, highlighting that 86 percent of Saskatchewan residents support “some level of notification for parents when children want to change their gender identity in school.” This, of course, was a sleight-of-hand: Premier Moe’s statement elided the fact that only 50 percent of respondents thought parental consent should be required, which was his government’s policy.

“Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the lack of curiosity present in the CBC’s reporting”

Yet the CBC’s reporting engaged in a similar sleight-of-hand. In the CBC news story about this poll, its subhead read “Survey shows split on whether schools should require parental permission.” The CBC article framed the issue as permission vs. non-permission (Option A vs. Options B and C combined) where a 50-46 split indeed existed. However, none of the critics of Saskatchewan’s policy quoted by the CBC, in this article or in any other, recommended Option B. Of the 81 criticisms of Saskatchewan’s policy quoted across 38 CBC articles, not one said, “We think the Saskatchewan law goes too far, but we support a middle ground where informing parents should be a requirement.” By framing the survey results as “split,” but only giving voice to sub-position within one side of the split that had 10 percent support in Saskatchewan, the CBC overstated the extent to which critics of the law had public support for their position.

Even more concerning was how the CBC reported (or didn’t report) two subsequent polls. On October 12, polling firm Leger released survey results on gender identity and sexual orientation. Unlike the Angus Reid poll, this poll gave respondents only two options: “Schools should have to let the child’s parents know” about pronoun changes (combining Options A and B above), or “schools should not have to let the child’s parents know” (Option C). Although not as strong a divide as the Angus Reid poll, respondents still supported informing parents by an almost three-to-one margin, with 63 percent saying parents should be informed, 22 percent saying no, and the rest unsure. 

As the Saskatchewan government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to pass its law, the Leger survey also asked respondents “How much would you support or oppose your province using the ‘notwithstanding clause’ in the Constitution to ensure schools must inform parents if their child wishes to be identified by a different gender or have their gender pronoun changed?” Respondents supported the use of the clause by a roughly three-to-two margin: 46 percent supported the use of the clause, 31 percent opposed it, and 22 percent did not know.

A day before Leger released its poll, polling firm spark*insights had also released a poll commissioned on behalf of Egale Canada, an LGBTQ advocacy group that was involved in the litigation against Saskatchewan’s law. Unsurprisingly, this survey framed its questions rather differently. On the question of informing parents, spark*insights asked respondents whether a teacher should have “the discretion to not inform a parent if there is a credible risk to believe telling a parent could put the student at risk.” The inclusion of “credible risk” led to different results than the Leger results: 51 percent of respondents agreed that the teacher should have the discretion, while 49 percent said the teacher should have to inform the parent (the numbers for Saskatchewan residents were slightly more in favour of teacher discretion, 55 percent to 45 percent). 

On the notwithstanding clause, the spark*insights survey prefaced its question by saying “A court has ruled that the policy will likely cause irreparable harm to affected children under the age of 16.” With the inclusion of the language of “irreparable harm,” only 27 percent of respondents agreed that Saskatchewan should “use legislative powers to immediately overrule the court and enact the law,” while 73 percent said the government “should allow the courts to review the policy before taking further action” (the numbers were 32 percent and 68 percent for Saskatchewan residents).

Of course, by inserting the language of “credible risk” and “irreparable harm,” the spark*insights survey is a textbook example of how not to frame unbiased polling questions. This is clear when the results are contrasted with the Leger poll released only a day later. Whereas Leger’s neutral framing showed a three-to-one ratio on informing vs. not informing parents, the spark*insights “credible risk” ratio was one-to-one; whereas Leger’s neutral framing showed a three-to-two ratio in favour of the notwithstanding clause, the spark*insights use of “irreparable harm” produced a nearly one-to-three ratio on the same topic.

Thus two surveys with differently-worded questions released a day apart produced very different results. How did CBC report on this disjuncture? Simple: it reported on the spark*insights poll, but not the Leger poll. 

Whether deliberate or not, the omission of any mention of Leger’s poll was arguably the most damning aspect of the CBC’s coverage of Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy. Indeed, the CBC published 11 articles about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy in the 10 days after Leger’s survey was released, none of which mentioned the poll. And it is not as if the poll flew under the national radar: it was the subject of a news story written by a Canadian Press reporter and published by CTV News, Global News, The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star. The CBC had even used a Canadian Press story about Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy by the same author a month earlier. Yet somehow, a poll that happened to complicate the CBC’s preferred narrative on Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy was simply not mentioned in the CBC reporting.

The above analysis lends empirical weight to what many have long suspected regarding the ideological tilt of the CBC’s news coverage. Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the lack of curiosity present in the CBC’s reporting on Saskatchewan’s pronoun policy. The 38 CBC articles were written by a combined 15 reporters, 13 of whom were CBC employees. Yet there was virtually no attempt to understand the justifications for a policy of informing parents about their children’s pronoun changes. The articles weren’t just one-sided; they were entirely predictable.

Perhaps this can explain why Canadians are increasingly shrugging their shoulders at the idea of a defunded CBC. If the CBC continues to push allyship over objectivity—and to do so in a way that leads to a less informed public—its $1.3 billion annual public subsidy will become increasingly harder to defend.