Statement made on 04 June 2009 by Senator Claudette Tardif
Hon. Claudette Tardif (Deputy Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, today I want to continue the inquiry of the Honourable Maria Chaput, who on April 2 called the attention of the Senate to the government's inaction on CBC/ Radio-Canada's urgent financial needs and the disastrous consequences of this inaction on services to francophone minority communities.
I would like to begin by reminding you of certain facts. On March 25, CBC/Radio-Canada announced that because of an anticipated shortfall of $171 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, it was forced to lay off 800 people and make major changes to its services. These layoffs represent close to 10 per cent of the corporation's employees. Nearly half of all the job cuts are at the French network.
In western Canada, nine full-time and four part-time positions in the French network will be cut. In Manitoba, five employees and one manager will be let go; in Saskatchewan, one person will be laid off; in Alberta, one full-time position and one part-time position will be cut; and in British Columbia, four people will lose their jobs. The local noontime programs have all been cancelled, and Saturday programming will be consolidated for the entire western part of the country.
On March 31, to press the government to act, the Liberal Party introduced a motion in the House of Commons urging the government to give CBC/Radio-Canada an advance on the funding it needs. The motion read as follows:
That this House recognizes the indispensable role of CBC—Radio Canada in providing national, regional, and local programming including news coverage and services to linguistic minorities throughout Canada, and therefore regrets the financial hardship and substantial lay-offs that CBC—Radio Canada currently faces; and urges the government to provide CBC—Radio Canada with the bridge financing it requires to maintain 2008 staffing and service levels.
Unfortunately, Conservative members voted against this motion. The government could have taken measures to limit the damage, but it refused. It is clear that the government is failing CBC/Radio-Canada on three fronts. First, it is cutting $63 billion from the corporation's funding in the 2009-10 main estimates compared to the 2008-09 estimates; second, it is refusing to provide $125 million in interim financing; and third, it is delaying the annual supplementary payment of $60 million.
And yet the government has known about CBC/Radio-Canada's financial problems for some time. It has ignored the recommendations of various parliamentary committees, which recommend providing stable funding to the corporation. In spite of these interventions, the government did nothing to prevent layoffs or the cancellation of regional broadcasts. The government's refusal to advance funding has placed the corporation in a precarious situation. And yet, the government plans to help private broadcasters face the current economic crisis while refusing any financial assistance for CBC/Radio-Canada.
On April 27, Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO of CBC/ Radio-Canada, appeared before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, where he talked about some serious concerns. He insisted on the fact that the corporation's funding model is no longer adequate for the efficient delivery of services that Canadians expect. He reminded the committee that, under the Broadcasting Act, CBC/Radio-Canada has a unique mandate under which it provides Canadians with programming that is accessible everywhere and at all times, based on their choices and availability, through 29 services and various platforms such as television, radio, the Internet, satellite radio and digital audio across five time zones and in two official languages. It provides a very broad and diversified range of services. In addition, the current economic crisis has accelerated the loss of advertising revenues.
Mr. Lacroix said that $125 million in transitional funding would have enabled them to balance the budget and reduce the number of jobs affected by the economic downturn. The request for funding was refused, so the corporation is being forced to sell off assets to cover the difference. It is clear from his comments that CBC/Radio-Canada is making an effort. As he said:
. . . we control costs in the best possible manner and . . . we are aware of our obligations to French-speaking and English-speaking communities.
Mr. Lacroix aptly demonstrated that CBC/Radio-Canada is a great deal for Canadians. He referred to the Nordicity Group's study, which showed that CBC/Radio-Canada costs $34 per year per Canadian. On average, each of the western nations in the study spends $76 per citizen per year on their public broadcaster. Great Britain spends $124 per person on the BBC.
The president of the Syndicat des communications de Radio-Canada, Alex Levasseur, commented on the difference between funding for Canada's public broadcaster and that for foreign broadcasters. He suggested that the government is partly responsible for that. He said:
The $171 million budget shortfall is due in part to lower advertising revenues, but the really big issue is the structural problem of funding. The government is largely, if not entirely, responsible for that. The party's intentions and approach are very ideological.
Honourable senators, funding for CBC/Radio-Canada is critical to helping the broadcaster survive competition and essential to ensuring that the government fulfils its responsibility to linguistic communities.
It is crucial to support CBC/Radio-Canada's local presence, especially in French, because it is already a bare-bones operation. I repeat: the cuts to the French network represent close to half of all the jobs cut by the broadcaster. Is the government meeting its commitments to anglophone and francophone minority communities? By not providing the bridge financing the corporation needs, it is depriving these communities of a service that is vital to their cultural identity and one of their only sources of news in either official language.
The current government also seems to be forgetting that many isolated rural communities depend on CBC/Radio-Canada for access to the news. The cuts are very disappointing and harmful, because if the bridge financing had been approved, some positions could have been saved and, more importantly, CBC/Radio-Canada would have had the stability and flexibility it needs. The government is leaving the corporation in limbo and forcing it to make major decisions that are hurting the regions and having serious consequences.
If CBC/Radio-Canada is not given the means to carry out its mandate, particularly given the current economic climate, the corporation could well fall back onto safe, risk-free programming, which will make it even more like private broadcasters by prompting it to invest less in youth programming and local stations and reducing funding for international news, which should be the corporation's flagship service.
It is too bad that the government does not understand what a pivotal role CBC/Radio-Canada plays with its unique offerings and its high-quality programs that cover topics private broadcasters often ignore. CBC/Radio-Canada must have the resources it needs to carry out its mandate effectively and successfully, to continue to provide the best possible service to all Canadians and, most importantly, to avoid having to face agonizing decisions that affect our communities.