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Poilievre's pitch to defund CBC, keep French services would require change in law

OTTAWA — If Pierre Poilievre wants to "defund the CBC" while maintaining its French-language programming, he'll have to overhaul the country's broadcasting law in order to do it.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, March 31, 2023. If Poilievre wants to "defund the CBC" while maintaining its French-language services, he'll have to overhaul the country's broadcasting law in order to do it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — If Pierre Poilievre wants to "defund the CBC" while maintaining its French-language programming, he'll have to overhaul the country's broadcasting law in order to do it.

That's according to the Crown corporation, which has found itself in a back-and-forth with the Opposition leader over his pledge to cut the roughly $1-billion in taxpayer dollars it receives annually.

Past Conservative leaders have also taken aim at the CBC, which receives its share of public money through Parliament when MPs vote on its federal budget.

Poilievre's pitch to strip the CBC of its public funding is widely popular among Conservatives and earned loud cheers from the crowds who packed rooms to see him during last year's leadership campaign.

But he has also suggested he supports Radio-Canada's French services.

When asked for comment on how he reconciles those two things, his office pointed to a media interview he gave the outlet in March 2022, in which he suggested maintaining support for services tailored to francophone minorities.

In another sit-down interview last July with right-wing outlet True North, Poilievre explained that the only justification for having a public broadcaster is to provide content the private market does not. He argued that is not the case for CBC's English services.

"Almost everything the CBC does can be done in the marketplace these days because of technology," he told host Andrew Lawton.

"I would preserve a small amount for French-language minorities, linguistic minorities, because they, frankly, will not get news services provided by the market."

He added he did not think the CBC's English-language services on TV or online "provide anything that people can't get from the marketplace."

Making that happen, however, appears easier said than done.

In a statement, CBC/Radio-Canada said funding only Radio-Canada "would change the very nature of how programs and services are funded in Canada to target public money at only one language group."

A spokesman said doing so would require the Broadcasting Act, the law outlining its mandate, "to be rewritten."

The law requires the corporation to provide programming in both French and English, and it does not give the government sway over how resources are allocated to accomplish that.

It also stipulates that the broadcaster maintain "creative and programming independence" and provide a range of both television and radio services.

"CBC/Radio-Canada is the country’s only media company that serves all Canadians, in both official languages (and eight Indigenous ones), from coast to coast to coast," corporate spokesman Leon Mar said in a written statement.

It is the corporation's board of directors that determines how the funding it receives is spent. In 2021-22, the CBC received more than $1.2 billion in government funding, a decrease from about $1.4 billion in 2020-21.

Peter Menzies, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said reducing funding for the CBC is one thing, but prescribing how it can use the money would be difficult "unless you redo the legislation entirely."

He said a future government could provide the broadcaster with a new mandate specifying what kind of services and on what platforms and in what languages it provides — but said that leads to the problem of "picking winners and losers."

"I'm not sure politicians really want to go down the (road of) ... 'We are going to give francophones better service with public money than we're going to give anglophones,'" he said.

Menzies added that while he believes changes should be made to the CBC, "it's a lot more complicated than people think."

"Preferring one piece of it over another piece, particularly linguistically, I think that opens a door you probably don't really want to open."

He also pointed out about 40 per cent of CBC's revenue already flows to Radio-Canada, even though the proportion of French-speaking households in Canada is much smaller.

Poilievre touts that slashing CBC's overall funding would equal savings for taxpayers, and has also suggested he has plans to sell off its buildings.

Speaking to a crowd gathered in Calgary last August, the then-leadership hopeful accused the corporation of putting "all the money into these big, gigantic temples they call headquarters in Toronto and Montreal." Montreal is the home of its Radio-Canada headquarters.

"There's some savings right there," he added.

In a statement Thursday, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Poilievre's proposal caters to the most devoted parts of his base and that Radio-Canada serves an essential role for Quebec and the French language in Canada. He accused the Tory leader of wanting to hamper those efforts.

A spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, Laura Scaffidi, added that both CBC and Radio-Canada are invaluable "in smaller and official language minority communities."

While visiting Edmonton on Thursday, Poilievre was asked whether he was prepared to amend the federal broadcasting law as it pertains to the CBC and its French-language services. He did not answer, but instead called it the "biased propaganda arm of the Liberal party."

It comes after he asked Twitter to add a "government-funded" label to accounts that promote "news-related" content from CBC English, but did not ask the same for its French counterpart.

The corporation contends that the description is inaccurate, saying its editorial independence is enshrined in law. It also draws a distinction between "government" and "public" funding because of the fact that the money it receives is granted through a vote made in Parliament.

After such a label was applied to the BBC, the broadcaster pushed back and Twitter eventually changed the tag to "publicly funded media."

Relations between the federal Conservatives and the CBC further soured earlier this year when Catherine Tait, the broadcaster's CEO, told the Globe and Mail in an interview that Poilievre's criticisms amounted to a slogan the party used to raise money.

That is just what the party did following her comments. Poilievre said Tait's words showed CBC had launched a partisan attack against him and it could not be trusted.

The exchange followed an invitation Tait had made to Poilievre to meet just days after he was elected leader last September.

By the end of November, Tait reached out again, expressing disappointment in a response she said she received back from his office that he would not be able to meet — despite the party continuing to attack CBC and its reporters as biased.

"These fundraising efforts do not acknowledge the scope and value that CBC/Radio-Canada actually delivers to Canadians, or the implications to this country and its economy were it to be 'defunded,'" Tait wrote in a letter to Poilievre.

La Presse first reported on the letter, which it obtained with an access-to-information request. The Canadian Press also obtained a copy.

"As the head of the public broadcaster and as the leader of the Opposition," Tait continued, "I think Canadians can rightly expect that the two of us have a responsibility to discuss the implications of your promise."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2023.

— With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa and Ritika Dubey in Edmonton.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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