Education and Public Service: The CBC as a National Broadcaster

In recent years the future of Canada's public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has been in doubt. The current Conservative government is no fan of the CBC and many times since they took power in 2006 they implied that the country would be better off without the CBC. They believe it has a left-wing bias that naturally slants their coverage against the right-wing Conservative movement. Recently, it's been suggested that the CBC switch to a purely online format ala Netflix as a means of securing its survival. How do such present concerns reflect on the origins of Canada's public radio?

It seems we have a peculiar predilection for radio here on Clio's Current, as we have discussed it in full or in part many more times than we would have guessed. Radio, as we have explained before, is a fascinating communication medium that greatly affected the 20th century. In Canada, it had immediate and long-lasting effects on the politics of the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps it's only natural that we would in time address the foundations of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Radio first came to Canada at the turn of the century. In 1901, the Department of Marine and Fisheries built two Marconi wireless stations on the northern approaches of the Strait of Belle Isle, that separates the island of Newfoundland from the Labrador peninsula. One was on Belle Isle itself, the other on the Labrador coast and linked to Montreal by telegraph. In December, a station at Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland, was where Marconi sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic to Cornwall, England. Since the Department of Marine and Fisheries had traditionally been in control of placing telegraph cables and had a fisheries-signals department, it was the licensing body for radio broadcasting in Canada. For a time from the First World War it was under the control of the Department of the Naval Service, but in 1922 it was returned to the Department of Marine and Fisheries. 

By the late 1920s, commercial and amateur radio was expanding across the nation. The Liberal government of Mackenzie King was increasingly worried about the Americanization of Canadian radio. Canada had already seen a similar outcome during the spread of the film industry and had experienced the heavy hand of American culture in its production. Movies had become for all intents and purposes an American cultural vehicle as famous stars like Mary Pickford were easily drawn south of the border despite their Canadian birth. The rise of a Canadian nationalism in English-Canada after the First World War coincided with the spread of commercial radio broadcasting. In November of 1926, Prime Minister Mackenzie King gave a short speech on British radio through the British Broadcasting Corporation, and left suitably impressed and aware that Canada had no such national capability. At the same time, Minister of Marine and Fisheries P.J.A. Cardin revoked the radio license of the Bible Students Association over their religious content and a storm of controversy erupted over the government intervention in radio.  It was unclear who had control over it. One of the most prolific historian of the Canadian broadcasting, Mary Vipond, summarizes the impetus behind the project nicely: “Thus, although there had been very little explicit discussion of radio as a vehicle of Canadian culture prior to 1928, the sudden revelation of difficulties in the broadcasting system occurred in an environment of considerable interest in questions of national unity and cultural identity in English Canada particularly.”

So on December 6 1928, Prime Minister Mackenzie King established a Royal Commission (the most popular tool of government work in Canada!) headed by Sir John Aird, President of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Throughout 1929, the Commission held a series of private and public consultations. Its members visited the United States and Britain to explore their radio broadcasting systems (the National Broadcasting Corporation [NBC] and the BBC respectively) until returning to Canada to hear how Canadians felt about the project. A wide variety of opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of public control of radio over private broadcasting were heard. After securing provincial support for the possibility of a national radio broadcaster, the Commission submitted their report in September of 1929. Their findings were clear: “Canadian radio listeners want Canadian broadcasting.” Ultimately, they recommended “the establishment and operation of stations by a government-owned and financed company.” The Aird Report rejected the idea that the listener was better served by stations competing for their attention. They believed a national radio was valuable for “education in the broad sense,” “public service” and “fostering a national spirit and interpreting national citizenship.” Radio would promote national unity and mould the “minds of the young people to ideals and opinions that are ... Canadian.” Though just as Mackenzie King was about to present a far-reaching bill in 1930 to establish the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company, he called an election and the bill was never introduced in Parliament.

King lost that election to the Conservative leader R.B. Bennett. Canada's new Prime Minister was initially less concerned about national radio. In response to his lacklustre initiative, the Canadian Radio League (CRL) was founded in October 1930 and began actively campaigning the government to act on the Aird Report. It was the work of two men, Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt. Both were democratic socialists, and although Plaunt died young at the age of 37 in 1941, Spry had a long and fruitful political career. Both were integral in organizing the campaign for a national broadcasting service. With access to the Aird Report, they and the other members of the CRL printed pamphlets and wrote articles. Their supporters included future political leaders Brooke Claxton and Louis St. Laurent, as well as Georges Pelletier of Le Devoir, and publishers like Joseph Atkinson of the Toronto Star and J.W. Dafoe of the Winnipeg Free Press. One of their first campaigns was actually over a Quebec case about radio jurisdiction, where Quebec argued the provinces could legislate and license radio broadcasting. The case eventually rose to what was then the highest court in the land, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England. In February 1932 the Privy Council declared that since radio was not explicitly mentioned in Sections 91 or 92 of the British North America Act that clarified provincial and federal jurisdictions, it was under federal control by default. Within a week, Prime Minister Bennett reacted to the decision and established the Radio Committee in the House of Commons to “advise and recommend a complete technical scheme of radio broadcasting for Canada.”

After months of debate, both inside and outside of Parliament, between the supporters of a national radio broadcaster and supporters of private radio broadcasting in May of 1932 Bennett tabled the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act. He introduced it while echoing the Aird Report's recommendation for Canadian control of broadcasting. “Without such control,” he said to the House, “radio broadcasting can never become a great agency for communication of matters of national concern and for the diffusion of national thought and ideals, and without such control it can never be the agency by which national consciousness may be fostered and sustained and national unity still further strengthened.” Bennett spoke too of the “equality of service” provided by a national broadcaster to sparsely populated areas as well as the Privy Council decision that gave Ottawa the “jurisdiction” of the air and the responsibility to reserve its development for the people.

The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (the CRBC) was not given a total monopoly, as private broadcasters were still allowed, but it was the only national network and the regulator of all stations. A three person committee was established at its head. Unfortunately for Plaunt and Spry and the other members of the CRL, Bennett's Conservative government had little desire to appoint any of them to control the CRBC, as they were wary of their “left-wing sentiments.” Instead, the government relied on partisan appointments and the executive was nominally under government control. When Mackenzie King returned to government in 1935, the Liberals revisited the Broadcasting Act. After another series of committee meetings and parliamentary debate, the CRBC was renamed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It would have a nine governors representing Canada's geographic regions, it regulated private and public radio broadcasting, make recommendations on new prviate licenses, and importantly, remain nominally non-partisan. Ultimately, the CBC was granted financial and political autonomy. The Board of Governors was a buffer between the corporation and the government and the CBC could hire its own staff without going through government approval.

By the Second World War, the CBC had expanded immensely and was fully prepared to report on the global conflict to Canadians across the country. It quickly became a cultural institution that would only increase in influence as Canadians became more concerned about their cultural survival in the face of American media, especially after the popularization of the television in the 1950s. That, along with the creation of Canadian Content regulations, is a blog for another time.

State sponsored media outlets are seen with some suspicious today, luckily the CBC has survived at arm's length from the government and served Canadians well since its creation.  It now sits under the Department of Canadian Heritage. We don't have an answer about the future of the CBC in 2014. It may be important to remember the origins of the CBC and its value in encouraging a national identity – a goal that was clearly laid out in the 1920s and throughout the 1930s. But, when faced with a government that does not agree with the Canadian identity that the CBC seems to espouse, its fate is less clear. Hopefully, whatever outcome occurs, the CBC remains a strong pillar of Canadian culture so that it can continue to serve its original purpose as a tool for education and public service.