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A new model for the CBC: Finding our place in the world

April 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that the people of Quebec have settled on their future — opting to stay in Canada with their dismissal of the Parti Quebecois — what are we to do about our second biggest problem: the CBC?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been around since the mid 1930s, one of the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, public broadcasters. It created the first national radio broadcasting system, and pioneered in television. At one time, the CBC was both competitor and regulator of the country’s private radio and TV networks. Today, it’s struggling to survive.

The litany of CBC problems is almost endless. Reduced government grants (albeit at a still healthy $900 million per year). Splintered audiences, divided between itself and three private networks and rendered almost invisible by the rise of cable channels and new off-broadcast operations like Netflix.

The outlook is so dicey that Andrew Coyne, the perceptive national affairs columnist of the National Post, figures there is no hope for the CBC but to “limp on, purposelessly, through successive ‘action plans’ and ‘reinventions,’ for no reason other than that no one can be bothered to do anything else — and because no one expects them to.”

This is due in part, Coyne says, to our having  a government without ambition or ideas.

If those qualities are lacking in Ottawa, there is no shortage of suggestions elsewhere — including from this blog.

51mZDR75IYL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_The problems of the CBC became critical at least as far back as 2004. CBC television was attracting the smallest audience in its history. Everybody has an opinion on what was wrong: too left-wing, too right-wing, too commercial, too boring.

That year, the powers that be thought one man, Richard Stursberg, might have the answers. He blew into the Mother Corp’s inner sanctum on Toronto’s Front Street with the force of a prairie whirlwind. He left in his wake a demoralized staff cowering in the detritus of a dust storm.

Stursberg has told the tale of his tempestuous time in The Tower of Babel: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). He described his job as Head of English Services as the one “I had loved as no other in my life.”

It’s not a pretty story. Under Stursberg’s watch, the CBC locked out its employees, lost the TV rights to major global sports events (but not the National Hockey League), cut 400 jobs, fought the news department (“Fort News”) and won ratings success with new shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragon’s Den. He also had terrible flops.

A new round of CBC navel-gazing has arisen following its loss of National Hockey League games to Rogers Communications, who shaped a $5.2 billion deal to take over broadcast rights. Bizarrely, Rogers is allowing CBC to carry Saturday Night Hockey, but  will keep all the ad revenue, will pay CBC nothing, and will make it bear certain production costs. Another 600+ jobs wiped out.

Surely the time has come to redress the set.

The CBC’s most fervent boosters, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it’s time to cut loose from  “political interference.”  It says 83% of Canadians believe the CBC protects Canadian culture and identify; 78% tune to the CBC every week, and 81% believe the CBC helps distinguish us from the United States.

Back in 1965 a noted public servant, Robert Fowler, headed up a committee to look into how the CBC could better serve Canada. Its No. 1 conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”

Now a myriad of ideas have been put forth on how to save the CBC. Some see it as a PBS North, sustained by viewer donations. Others, mindful of the ever-growing content brought to us through the Internet, would turn the CBC into a Netflix-style pay to view channel. Then there’s the Coyne alternative; to simply limp on.

Whatever form of technology the CBC might use to reach people, it’s essential that we hold on to this vital instrument of Canadian being. But at its most basic, the CBC should not be a commercial channel for the purpose of delivering, as is now the case, viewers to advertisers. Programs like Four Small Rooms and Recipes to Riches can be fun to watch, but they don’t belong on a public broadcaster. We need no more cheap comedies and simplistic reality shows.

The CBC must stay loyal to the minorities of viewers who wish to leaven their commercial TV with programs that inform, entertain, and appeal to niche interests; Canadian public affairs and news; quality drama, music and art, book talk and intelligent discussion of the world around us, superb children’s programming, all an antidote to the garbage of the Fox Network and Sun  News.

Let the CBC keep commercials on its News Network; no advertiser dares tamper with Stursberg’s nemesis, “Fort News.” But free the CBC’s main channel of having to deliver seat bottoms to hucksters. Finance the CBC through public funding, viewer donations, and a surtax on the profits of private broadcasters. Let it be different, and let it help to shape our better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

Adventures in learnng French

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?

A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.

I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.

Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?

Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.

And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.

Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.

How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!

A flaneur footloose in Paris

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Paris being one of the great walking cities of the world, it’s not surprising that it’s the metaphorical home of the Flaneur – the idler, the walkabout, the wanderer of the city’s streets. If I had more time, that’s what I’d become during my present visit!

I first became aware of the term from the work of Fred Herzog, the famed photographer of Vancouver street scenes. He entitled his shot of an untroubled gentleman staring at passers-by, The Flaneur. My English-French dictionary defines only the verb: flaner – to stroll.

I would like to think of myself as a flaneur, but I am not. I do, however, have a regular stroll that I enjoy very much. It begins (or ends) at the Edgar Quinet metro station one stop before Gare Montparnesse.  In the morning,  I go up rue Delambre to the corner of Monparnasse and boulevard Raspail (site of Le Dome and Le Rotonde, across the street from each other), and proceed up Raspail to Alliance Francaise. On that route, I see Paris in miniature: there is no shortage of boulangeries with their baguettes and croissants, la poissonnerie with Scottish salmon at E20 per k, small hotels that promise rooms “tout confort,”several sandwich shops, and numerous restaurants and bars. As well as une epicerie, un nettoyage, and the other necessities of everyday life.

According to Stephen Scobie of Edmonton, author of “The Measure of Paris,” there is no satisfactory English translation for flaneur. The character probably emerged in mid 19th century Paris, at a time when the streets had been cleaned up and sewer systems put in. Before that, Scobie observes, one would have hardly wished to walk the streets for pleasure: “narrow, unmapped and filthy, often with open sewers.”

Those who idly contemplated the true character of the flaneur have concluded that he (and only a man can be a true flaneur) must wander without a specific destination, being both present and detached from his surroundings, and without regard for urgent business that might require his presence elsewhere. “Unlike Hemingway hurrying to work,” Scobie says, “the flaneur has nowhere to go.” The reference is to Hemingway’s having written of choosing streets that would lead “back fastest to where you worked.”

Presence among, but detachment from the crowd is apparently the key to flaneur life. In 1863, Baudelaire wrote:

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd … The observer (flaneur) is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.”

The problem is we all have somewhere to go. The masses of workers hurrying from the Metro in the morning suggest to me the work ethic lives on in France, despite what we may hear otherwise.

 

A walk in Paris

October 4, 2012 1 comment

The American writer Rebecca Solnitt, quoted by the Canadian, Stephen Scobie in The Measure of Paris, observed that “Parisian writers always gave the street address of their characters, as though all readers knew Paris so well that only a real location in the streets would breathe life into a character …”

Working on that principle, let me tell how I found 44 rue du Four, what that address is important for, and how I worked my way back to my hotel before taking a taxi to meet my new French friends, Michael and Violette Lefi.

On May 27, 1942, 44 rue du Four was the scene of a secret meeting called by Jean Moulin. It was to organize a unified resistance movement against the German occupation. Moulin had been the prefect of Chartres and had escaped to England after being arrested by the Nazis. While in Gestapo hands he had tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He would rather have died than given away his comrades while under torture.

Moulin was sent back into France by General de Gaulle with instructions to unify the quarrelsome splinter resistance movements that were springing up. Out of that meeting at 44 rue du Four came the National Council of Resistance. Later, Moulin was betrayed (no one knows by whom). He died in German captivity.

I left the Hotel Voltaire and walked along the Seine in the Sunday morning sun as far as rue Bonaparte. There, I turned south toward Saint Germain-des-Pres. My walk took me to the famous old church and the landmark Café des deux Magots and onto rue des Rennes. In two short blocks I was at rue du Four, even at that hour jammed with parked cars.

Why so many cars? Because, as I discovered when I turned to go along rue de Grenelle, a busy flea market was catering to hundreds of customers. From there, I went back to rue des Rennes and returned to boulevard Saint Germain.  I followed Saint Germain east through the thickening crowd of strollers to rue des Saints Peres. That led back up to the Seine and my hotel. Rue des Saints Peres is a street that Ernest Hemingway wrote of taking in The Sun Also Rises: “We came out of theTuileries in the light and crossed the Seine and then turned up the rue des Saints Peres.”

You could walk the width of Paris in a day without too much trouble, so taxi rides never last very long. A 20-minute drive along the right bank carried me to the 12th arrondisement where at 5 rue du Colonel Oudet I at last found what awaits when you go through those large, dark doors you see on urban French dwellings. In this case a courtyard, and entrances to several buildings. The Lefis have a large and rather grand place that is akin to a Toronto loft. It fills the top two floors of a three story building plus a rooftop, a toit ouvret, which has much greenery, beautiful outdoor furniture, and a glassed in area with a  comfortable sofa and chairs in case of rain. That’s what we’re having today — nous avons une pluie fine.

My weekend in Paris

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

When I visited Paris with Deborah last year we had a very pleasant dinner at La Ferme Saint-Simon, on a little street just off blvd. St-Germain, of course on the Left bank. So naturally, I went back there Saturday night, having first reserved online. La Ferme is one of those stand-by French restaurant, not great, not horribly expensive, but a place that very much gives you the feel of the country. I chose Souris d’agneau brisee. What can one say? braised lamb is braised lamb. The glass of Chablis was a reward for being there. (I happen to think that dish for dish, Lyon and Brussels serve better food than Paris.)

When one dines alone, one must try to compensate by closing observing the neighboring diners. Two men at nearby tables with their ladies intrigued me. One, a balding, bespectacled fellow wearing a jacket, sweater, shirt and tie, stood out from the rest of the men in the room, most of them dressed ultra-casually. This man did something I’ve not seen in years. He drew from his pocket a cloth handkerchief and dabbed at his face. I didn’t know they made those things anymore! I put him down for a retired insurance company adjuster, perhaps a throwback to the ancien bourgeoisie. The other gentlemen looked precisely like a Quebec politician, now dead, who I once knew.  Genes do tell.

Forgive me if I sound touristy, but all travelers have to walk, eat, sleep and see the sights. I did my gawking in the morning when, true to my research needs, I wandered along Quai d’Orsay to a stark five-story sandstone building on rue Saint-Dominique that now houses the Ministry of Defense. It is where Gen. Charles de Gaulle had his office before the German occupation, and to which he returned on Liberation Day to find not a thing out of place.  On the way, I encountered one of those delights for which Paris is so famous – a tiny square called Place Samuel Rousseau (I think this Rousseau was a composer), behind which stands the Basilica of Saint Clotilde. Enjoy the picture!

Two touristy encounters: A new dodge is for street people (Algerians, apparently) to bend over a few feet from you and feign picking up a gold ring. It happened twice to me. The first time, the woman pretended it would not fit her, then offered it to me. Next, she asked for coffee money. I gave her a few coins but declined the ring, which she quickly pocketed. A little later, a young man tried the same thing.

Alliance Francaise handled my registration with dispatch, and I soon possessed a “student” card which will give me entry to a month of French classes starting Monday (Oct. 1). This is the real reason for my trip to Paris – to fulfill a long denied ambition to better speak and read French as an aid to my tesearch for various projects.

Also on Monday, I’ll be buying my month’s pass on the Metro for 62 Euros ($80), compared to the $115 the TTC charges Toronto commuters. Before that, I’ll find my way to the 12th Arrondisement where I’ll be staying with a French couple, the Lefis, for the extent of my visit. More later.

Students on the right side of history

Watching the drama unfold over the protests of Quebec students against higher tuition fees, I’ve come to the conclusion they’re wrong on only one count: they should be demanding not just a freeze on fees. They should be demanding the abolition of university tuition entirely, On top of that, students should get paid to go to university. The benefits to society of an educated populace are so great that the cost of educating our young people is insignificant in comparison.

Before you conclude that I’ve gone over the top, consider these facts:

Excluding the random acts of violence that have occurred (never acceptable in a law-abiding society), Quebec students have been resolute and proper in their resistance to their government’s intention to raise tuition. Their opposition is based, in part, on a historic decision made by the Jean Lesage government during the 1960s Quiet Revolution. Quebec had just come off a repressive, church-ridden regime where barely half the population had achieved even Grade 6. To advance beyond third world status, Quebec realized it had to rear a generation of educated, competent, and productive young people able to compete in every aspect of business, science, and the arts.

While Quebec’s decision to hike tuition fees by $254 a year over seven years seems reasonable — especially when compared to the higher fees of other provinces — such a decision represents a backward step.

The argument against the students is that they must give up their “entitlement” to low-cost post-secondary education. I would argue that rather than young people having an entitlement to an affordable education, they actually bear an obligation to educate themselves for tomorrow’s increasingly technical and complex world. Doesn’t every politician praise the benefits of education, putting an “educated work force” among the top priorities of Canada or any other country? And if that’s so, isn’t it to society’s advantage to see that every individual is educated to the extent of their capabilities?

Quebec has funded its modest — up to now — university tuition fees with a tax structure that is the heaviest in Canada. People have been paying for the benefits they’ve enjoyed. That’s the way it should be.

While doing research for my forthcoming book on Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland and Canada’s last “Father of Confederation,” (Joey Smallwood, Schemer and Dreamer) I found out more about how he had not only abolished tuition in the 1960s, but for a time actually paid students to go to university. Both schemes had to be abandoned in the face of financial pressures Newfoundland faced as a “have-not” province. But ever since, Newfoundland has managed to keep its tuition fees the second-lowest in the country, next to Quebec.

Only North America and Australia force their young people to pay a king’s ransom for an education. It puts them in debt for at least the first ten years of their working life. Today, these debt-burdened students begin their work careers facing uncertain job prospects, sky-high housing costs, and devastating government cutbacks in social benefits. They’ll have to work longer to retire on less. What a horrible legacy we’re handing them, all for the sake of a conservative economic agenda calculated to benefit the rich with tax reductions and reward corporations (owned mostly by higher income Canadians) with larger subsidies and lower taxes.

Most European countries charge only modest enrollment fees for university registration: 165 euros in France ($214); 500 euros ($650) in Belgium, 1,000 euros ($1300) in Germany, about the same in Holland and Italy. Britain maxes out tuition at 3,145 pounds ($5032). EU countries must limit their deficits to 3 per cent of GDP — the failure of Greece to do so is what’s behind the current euro crisis. It will be overcome, but that’s another story.

While Canadians bemoan the advantages Quebec students enjoy, they should look to their own provincial governments and ask why they haven’t done better in facing up to the task of preparing the country for the future. Today, the booming resource revenues of the West primarily involve the transfer of public wealth to private hands as a result of absurdly low exploration fees and royalties. The proceeds of these non-renewable resources should be  directed more to the public good and less to private gain. Why did the last but one Conservative premier of Alberta have to back off from his efforts to charge higher royalties to the oil industry, an attempt that played a big part in Ed Stelmach’s having to resign as Premier?

Equally damning is the counter-productive tactic adopted by the Charest government to try to quiet the student protest. Opening the way to cost-cutting in universities by having students share in budget decisions means only one thing: that money will be pried out of essential budgets like research to fund tuition costs. This approach ducks the really important issue — that of adequate funding for all university operations.

Ontario is equally culpable for having forced universities to raise tuition, followed in turn by reductions in provincial support. In my days as a trustee of a Toronto School Board, I learned that the prospect of being able to go to university is one of the strongest motivations for students to stay in school.

Canada has the capability to maintain one of the world’s best educational systems. It is one that should be open to all who can meet a demanding standard of academic quality. Abolishing tuition and paying students to educate themselves may seem like a utopian fantasy, but the countries that pursue this goal are the ones that will lead the world tomorrow.

Hope amid horror in the Shafia trial

January 29, 2012 1 comment

The verdict, when it came on a quiet Sunday afternoon, was not unexpected; Guilty of first degree murder. Mohammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son, Hamed Shafia, guilty on all four counts in the deaths of the three Shafia girls and Mohammad’s first wife of a polygamous marriage, Rona Amir Mohammad.

I had passed by the Frontenac County Court house in Kingston, Ontario, many times during the trial. Tempted as I was to observe part of the trial, I did not. The thought of seeing the accused in their glass enclosed dock, and hearing the evidence of the horrific killing of the four victims, left me chilled. I had no professional need to observe their demeanor or to hear the evidence first-hand.

The verdict brings to a close a tragic and troubling three-month trial that has no precedent in Canadian judicial history. That a mother, father and a brother, in Canada by virtue of this country’s open acceptance of people from around the world, would act on cultural/religious concepts that are reprehensible to Canadians, is a betrayal of the very principles under which they were allowed to come among us.

The concept of “honour killing” to avenge the immodest or unchaste behavior of female family members — and thereby clear the “honour” of the male heads of the family — is an entrenched fact among certain Muslim societies. That the Shafia family came from Afghanistan (via Australia and Dubai) is especially ironic when set against the sacrifice of Canadian and other Western soldiers in support of equality and human rights in their home country.

Mr. Justice Maranger, in imposing the mandatory sentence of 25 years without eligibility for parole, commented powerfully on their acts:

“It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime…the apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour … that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”

There is every indication that the vast majority of Muslims in Canada would support the verdict. Yet there remains a refusal, among certain Canadian elements as well as some strands of the Muslim community, to accept the unique nature of the acts that led to the deaths of four innocent females.

Their reasoning goes something like this; The crimes, while appalling, are really no different from any other acts of violence against women. “Don’t call them honour killings,” goes this refrain.

The words of Mohammad Shafia put the lie to this specious reasoning.

“They betrayed us immensely,” the police tapes of a conversation between Shafia and his wife show him saying.  “They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this. They betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed everything. They brought about their rightful deaths.”

Shafia must have been thinking of Verse 4-34 of the Koran:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means … As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds (and last) beat them (lightly.)”

Knowing how the Christian Bible can be interpreted in so may different and often conflicting ways, it is not surprising that these words would be taken by some to justify murderous acts against female family members.

Yet there is hope in this horror.

Once again, we see evidence of the powerful effect of freedom on people brought from oppressive societies. Zainab, who was 19, Sahar at 17, and especially the rebellious Geeti, just 13, had all been exposed to Western values, and all had eagerly embraced the universal desire for freedom and self-expression. Even “sad, doomed, betrayed Rona,” at 52, sought the protection of Western values.

The hope is that the yearning for freedom among girls and women all over the world will someday put an end to the evil distortions of culture and tradition that bring about such crimes as honour killings. We hope the deaths of Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona, have not been entirely in vain.