Non-Fiction

Citizen Can

Twenty-eight. That’s the number I can’t get out of my head. There are a lot of figures and statistics in Wade Rowland’s cri de cœur for the decline to near-terminal status of the once proud and nation-defining CBC, but for this reader the one that jumped off the page and put it all in perspective appears in a breakdown of the comparative per capita subsidy for public broadcasting among countries who have such things. In Norway, for one example, the average taxpayer shells out $180 per year; Germans pay $124, British citizens $97 for their beloved BBC. And here in Canada, where the lurking presence of a culturally rapacious behemoth neighbour makes the nurturing of a strong national voice arguably more urgent than anywhere else? Yes, it’s $28, and no, that’s not a typo. Less than a dime a day. It’s just not enough.

Canada Lives Here
The Case for Public Broadcasting

Wade Rowland

Linda Leith Publishing
$16.95
paper
240pp
9781927535820

Canadians above a certain age tend to look at the past through very selective glasses, forgetting that plenty of CBC programming has been frankly dire. (Do you remember This Is the Law? If not, count yourself lucky.) But it’s crucial to bear in mind that even when it was bad, it was our bad, and that when it was good – Kids In the Hall, The Beachcombers (hey, they still love it in Germany!), Brave New Waves, name your favourite – it was very good, the kind of good that can only come when, as Rowland eloquently puts it, broadcasters “serve their audiences as citizens first and consumers second.”

For all the data Rowland has marshalled, he makes Canada Lives Here a smooth-flowing read, and as in any good narrative, heroes and villains emerge. There’s former CBC radio head Margaret Lyons, the visionary responsible for As It Happens, Quirks and Quarks, and This Country In the Morning. But then there’s one-time head of English-language TV programming Richard Stursberg. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry upon reading that our national network was being run, for a time, by someone whose idea of a quality TV show – a foreign benchmark to which we, as Canadians, should be aspiring – was Desperate Housewives. It’s all you can do not to picture some of these bean counters twirling a moustache and cackling “Mwa-ha-ha!!” as they blithely cut children’s programming. Did these people never watch The Friendly Giant?

It is, of course, a perfect storm of rottenness that has put the CBC where it is today. The digital revolution, a federal government that at times has appeared actively hostile to the institution’s very existence … I could go on, and Rowland does, lamenting how the CBC has engaged in a no-win game of perpetual catch-up when what they should and could be doing, with technology in such flux, is providing “a beacon of reliability and trustworthiness in a chaotic information landscape, sifting information from noise.”

Rowland has performed an invaluable service. His breakdown of what has gone wrong is rigorous and sobering; his proposed program for righting the ship – in a nutshell, go back to first principles and, for Pete’s sake, jack up the funding – is cogent, clear, sensible, and, yes, affordable. Whether anything like it has a snowball’s chance of actually being implemented in the current climate, even with the change of government, is a whole different question. I won’t be holding my breath. But I will still be setting aside that eight cents per day, and will be prepared to dig deeper still. mRb

Ian McGillis is books columnist for the Montreal Gazette and author of the novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry. His memoir Higher Ground will be published by Biblioasis in 2017.

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