Bill C-10 Eliminates Principle of Canadian Ownership and Control of Broadcasting System

Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts, is currently under review by the Canadian Heritage Committee of the House of Commons. It was unanimously adopted in the House at second reading on February 16.

The entire matter is presented in a very reasonable way, as a matter of making sure Canada keeps abreast with technological advances and that digital media giants such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney and others adhere to Canadian content rules and other cultural support requirements demanded of traditional broadcasters.

"Canadians increasingly access their music, television shows and films through online broadcasting services. However, unlike traditional broadcasters, these online services have not been required to contribute to the creation, production, and distribution of Canadian music and stories. Canada's legislation must keep pace with technological change, to ensure that Canadian content producers and creators are well supported. Online broadcasters must contribute their fair share, [...]," a government backgrounder on the bill reads. The backgrounder continues:

"[Bill C-10] will require online broadcasters to contribute to the Canadian broadcasting system and will provide the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) with the modern tools it needs to keep up with technological changes."

So what is this all about? What is really going on?

The Broadcasting Act was first enacted in 1936 and last amended in 1991. It sets out the country's broadcasting policy, the role and powers of its regulatory agency, the CRTC, and the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada as the public broadcaster. The purpose of the current amendments, according to the government, is to address technological developments in broadcasting.

With Bill C-10, companies such as Amazon, Apple, Disney and Netflix will be subject to regulations. Unlike traditional broadcasters they will not be subject to statutory licensing requirements. Yet to be revealed obligations will be imposed on them through CRTC regulatory power.

According to another government backgrounder on Bill C-10, "If the Bill is adopted, the Minister of Canadian Heritage intends to ask the Governor-in-Council to issue a policy direction to the CRTC on how it should use the new regulatory tools provided by the Bill."

Another backgrounder goes on to say, "In consultation with stakeholders, the CRTC will develop and implement new regulations to ensure that both traditional and online broadcasting services, including internet giants, offer meaningful levels of Canadian content and contribute to the creation of Canadian content in both Official Languages."

An inquiry into the matter gave rise to an awareness that Bill C-10 will change who owns and controls the broadcasting system. This seems to be the most significant change in Bill C-10, one that is not even mentioned in government backgrounders. It eliminates the long-standing, first principle of Canada's broadcasting policy: Canadian ownership and control of the broadcasting system.

This principle was first formulated in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the period when U.S. broadcasting into Canada was viewed as a threat to national culture by the ruling elites of the day. The principle was enshrined in law with the 1932 Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act, which created CBC as a public broadcaster, also empowered at the time to regulate and license broadcasting.

The 1932 Act prohibited foreign ownership and recognized the airwaves as a public asset and the need for the airwaves to be nationally owned and controlled. Speaking in the House of Commons on May 18, 1932, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, leader of the Conservative Party, outlined the Act's underlying principles and rationale. "First of all," he said, "this country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources, free from foreign interference or influence. Without such control radio broadcasting can never become a great agency for the communications 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."

He went on to contrast the public versus private ownership of broadcasting. "Second, no other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of radio broadcasting. Private ownership must necessarily discriminate between densely and sparcely populated areas. This is not a correctable fault in private ownership; it is an inescapable and inherent demerit of that system."

Finally, Bennett outlined the third consideration. "The use of the air, or the air itself, whatever you may please to call it, that lies over the soil or land of Canada is a natural resource over which we have complete jurisdiction. [...] I cannot think that any government would be warranted in leaving the air to private exploitation and not reserving it for development for the use of the people."

Presciently, Bennett added: "It may well be that at some future time, when science has made greater achievements ... it may be desirable to make other or different arrangements in whole or in part, but no one at this moment in the infancy of this great science would, I think, be warranted in suggesting that we should part with the control of this natural resource."

The principle of public ownership and control was reiterated in the 1967 Broadcasting Act adopted by the Pearson Liberals, with much fanfare on the occasion of the centenary of Confederation. The law was amended to suit technological developments and set out the statutory requirement that all Canadian broadcasters -- radio, TV and cable -- be owned and controlled by Canadians. It is this provision that is being eliminated by the Trudeau Liberals today.

Since then, the Broadcasting Act's broadcasting policy has stated as its first principle: "It is hereby declared ... (a) the Canadian broadcasting system shall be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians."

Bill C-10 replaces this clause with a declaration more likely to obfuscate than to enlighten and designed to ensure full discretionary powers are enabled: "(a) each broadcasting undertaking shall contribute to the implementation of the objectives of the broadcasting policy set out in this subsection in a manner that is appropriate in consideration of the nature of the services provided by the undertaking."

There are twenty other such "guiding principles" most of which remain intact from the current Act, such as the "system should serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada."

The elimination of the Canadian ownership clause has been the subject of a lot of questioning and criticism. Responding to questions at second reading, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault used typical Liberal doublespeak to beat about the bush. He told the House of Commons, "We are not changing anything with respect to ownership of Canadian companies." He said the eliminated clause "is not what ensures that Canadian companies have to be owned by Canadians." Really! He said that the CRTC, as the body that licenses broadcasters, controls ownership. He argued that the clause needed to be amended "to ensure that Canadian laws and Canadian regulations apply to web giants."

This of course begs the question: what laws, what regulations, and who will decide how they apply to "web giants" who have operated thus far without any regulation. Moreoever, what happens if it is the "web giants" who are compelling which decisions are taken, in which case the question returns to who owns and controls the "web giants"?

Faced with further questioning in Committee, Guilbeault insisted: "[W]e're not sacrificing the ownership of Canadian broadcasters. We're not. That's simply not the case. What we're doing ... is ensuring that Canadian laws and regulations can apply to online platforms, which they can't right now. If we don't create a space in the bill to do that, how can we apply our laws and regulations to them?"

Experts in the field, as well as MPs, are not accepting Guilbeault's dismissal of the ownership issue as a moot point. Many are pointing out that the Canadian ownership principle could have been left intact and specific clauses to deal with taxation and contributions to Canadian cultural endeavours by foreign-owned digital media could have been added.

In Committee, NDP MP Heather McPherson asked Guilbeault and his staff for further clarification. "I want to understand the motivation for this proposed change," she said, "and whether it could facilitate the acquisition of our broadcasters by American companies, for example." Thomas Owen Ripley, a senior staff member in the Canadian Heritage Ministry said, "The answer is no." He explained, "Right now, there is a directive to the CRTC that provides restrictions on foreign ownership with respect to licensed entities. The reality is that our over-the-air broadcasters and our cable and satellite companies cannot be put under foreign ownership and control as long as that directive remains in place."

For further certainty, McPherson asked: "Just to clarify, Mr. Ripley, that directive is binding? It is not something that can be changed by the CRTC?" Ripley affirmed: "It cannot be changed by the CRTC."

When pressed further on this issue by Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux, Guilbeault stated: "The CRTC has no authority over this issue. It's a government decision. Could another government decide to change things? A government is always sovereign and free to make its own decisions. In any event, the CRTC cannot do that, and [Bill C-10] does not change that. The directive that is in place stays in place."

Besides assuring us that "a government is always sovereign and free to make its own decisions" (i.e. has prerogative powers above the legislative powers of the Legislature to do whatever it pleases and that sovereignty lies in these police powers) it still does not answer the question of why the clause as it stands is being eliminated.

Creating a Less and Less Equitable Broadcasting System
Between Canadian and International Operators

The Independent Broadcasters Group[1] also appeared before the Canadian Heritage Committee. It objected to the removal of the Canadian ownership and control provisions and explained the implications. Joel Fortune, the Group's legal counsel stated: "The way the law works, generally, is that it has two major parts. There are the [broadcasting] policy objectives set out in Section 3, and then there are the powers. You have to have both elements. You have to have policy objectives, and you have to have the power. You can have all the noble policy objectives in the world, but if there's no power to back them up, they don't help. Similarly, you can have all the powers in the world, but if there's no object in the act, it can easily be challenged.

"In the case of ownership, first on the policy level, it would be incredible to me if we didn't have the support of Canadian ownership in our system as an objective. This is not to say that the ownership language shouldn't be amended; perhaps it should be. However, we've proposed an amendment that I think takes into account global platforms while also preserving the space for Canadian broadcasters.

"Why do we want that? We don't want Canadian broadcasters just to be branch plants of foreign platforms. [...] Legally, the direction exists under the existing act, which includes a requirement that the broadcasting system be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians. That policy direction speaks directly to that object. If you have no object about Canadian ownership, what's the authority for making that direction? It's certainly open for the direction to be challenged at law that it's no longer valid, given the change in the policy and the act. That's the concern there. [...] If the government were taken to court on the vires of its ownership direction and it were struck down, then there would be no ownership restrictions within Canadian broadcasting."

As unnecessary as one might think them to be, the challenges to the Liberal claim that removing the Canadian ownership clause is immaterial reveal that it is very material and will impact how decisions are made and what informs them. It is clear that the policies guiding the CRTC's rulings and regulations are 1) controlled by the government of the day; 2) guided by the legislation it enacts; and 3) subject to the prerogative powers of the Cabinet, all of which amount to the same thing and poses the question -- what narrow private interests are pulling its strings?

The eliminated clause on ownership reflects the politicization of private interests in conditions of a highly monopolized broadcasting industry. Richard Stursberg, co-author of The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age and former executive director of Telefilm Canada, appeared before the Committee and addressed the Canadian ownership issue.

"First, under the present act, broadcasting companies operating in Canada must be owned and controlled by Canadians. There has been much talk about whether Bill C-10 eliminates this requirement," he said. "The legal issue is largely academic, since the requirement was ceded a decade ago. Over the last 10 years, foreign broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon have been offering TV programs to Canadians without any need to be Canadian-owned. There is no chance in the future that they will be forced to become Canadian-owned."

Having acknowledged this, Stursberg, as well as several other witnesses who appeared in Committee argued that in the name of equality of opportunity it may be time to eliminate foreign ownership regulations in the industry completely. Stursberg said: "In the interest of equity, you may want to consider putting Canadian and foreign broadcasting on the same footing by amending Bill C-10 to make sure the Canadian ownership requirements are gone. Not to do so would be to disadvantage Canadian broadcasters in their own market."

Indeed! But how about the issue of whose interests broadcasting serves and who speaks in the name of Canadians?

Troy Reeb, Executive Vice-President of Broadcast Networks, Corus Entertainment, echoed Stursberg and said it was important "for Canadian companies not only to be able to make the investments we want, but to be able to attract investments as well."

"One of the things the bill gets right is to treat foreign Internet broadcasters the same as Canadian broadcasters. In doing so, it removes some limits on foreign ownership. We're not necessarily advocating for foreign ownership, but we do need to have the ability to attract foreign investment, if necessary, to compete against these trillion-dollar giants from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. This is where the question of flexibility comes in. We want to create Canadian programming, but if our primary competitors are creating Canadian programming with billions of dollars coming from international markets, we need the capability to be able to do the same."

Canadian Association of Broadcasters[2] President Kevin Desjardins, also called for equalizing the playing field. Referring to the digital giants, he said, "They have the scale and the ability to be able to take advertising and distribute it. They're certainly much larger, and they're able to undercut the prices of, for example, a Canadian company trying to get into this area. They would be able to undercut that company by virtue of the fact they are globally capitalized. This goes to the previous question [of] Canadian ownership. I think that one of the things we keep talking about in this discussion is creating a less and less equitable broadcasting system between Canadian operators and international operators. International operators have vast access to capital markets around the world, and if we want to say that, well, they can do that, and Canadian operators can only bring in -- 

"[...] The Broadcasting Act is fundamentally the law by which broadcasters operate, and there are lots of people who have an interest, but we're committed to this, so the last thing that I would plead, to both this committee and the government, is to keep broadcasters and their future ability to compete at the centre of the considerations going forward."

It is thus clear that far from modernizing the Broadcasting Act, as the Liberals claim, Bill C-10 marks the official death of nation-building in broadcasting which was rooted in opposing the U.S. cultural domination of Canada. In its place, the private interests that own the "digital giants" which operate in Canada will now have uncontested free rein. Is this a matter of making Canada more competitive in the global market in tune with the times, as various people are saying, or less competitive as some are arguing with reason? Are the promised regulations, which will require Facebook, Google, et al to pay taxes and contributions that amount to minuscule figures in relation to their mega profits simply aimed at making them pay a fair share, which many argue will not be fair at all. Or, when taken in combination with the government's plans to further regulate on-line content, is all of this being done to further integrate Canada into U.S. "homeland security" and harmonize the two governing regimes? There is compelling evidence to show that at the end of the day, the narrow private interests taking the decisions and setting regulations in both countries are the forces within the U.S. defence industry which seek to impose U.S. imperialist control over all contending interests. While they intervene as cartels and coalitions which give themselves free rein in Canada, other private interests are blocked in the name of being enemy agents, interfering with Canada's liberal democratic institutions and promoting "un-Canadian" -- read "un-American" -- values.[3]

Officially incorporating the neo-liberal agenda into the Broadcast Act de facto abandons any consideration of the economic, social, political and cultural life needed by Canada and Canadians and what that might be. It totally nullifies every other clause of the Act whose very raison d'être is said to be to make sure the Canadian broadcasting system encourages "the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity, by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view."

Completely off the agenda in this exercise of subordinating the broadcasting policy to the narrow private interests that own and control the "digital giants" under the sway of U.S. imperialism are important matters such as the decades-long destruction of the CBC as a national public broadcaster and, indeed, its conversion into a mouthpiece for policies of subsequent governments over which the people exercise no control. There are not a few instances of the CBC being threatened with cuts and even closure because it was suspected of not toeing the line of the federal policies of the day. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, for instance, called Radio-Canada a boîte à séparatistes (nest of separatists) during the 1995 Quebec Referendum, complaining that it ignored or downplayed his speeches, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau believed the same, threatening to shut the network down during his reign.[4]

Massive cuts from the late eighties on have never been reversed, so that today the CBC stands 17th out of 20 countries monitored by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of per capita funding. The CBC receives $34 per capita compared to an average of $100, with $180 per capita in Norway and $97 in the UK. While funding has been increased, the levels have never been restored to what they were before the launch of the anti-social offensive, let alone increased to an amount that would allow it to fullfil its purported role.

The legislation also leaves the appointment of CBC directors in the hands of the ruling party which, combined with the ever-present threat of funding cuts and the absence of a statutory guaranteed funding provision serves to make it prey to the cartel party system, its values and agenda and the pressures of neo-liberalism. This not only views any form of subsidization for a public purpose anathema to its aim, it pushes anti-nation warmongering values and aims that are anathema to what Canadians stand for.

Furthermore, policy objectives in the Broadcasting Act, which remain unchanged and were not even put on the agenda for consideration, persist as the foundation for the anti-democratic standards upheld by the CRTC. A case in point is its evaluation of election coverage of the country's political parties on the basis of the concept of "equity" rather than "equality." Whenever complaints are filed about biased election reporting, they are more often than not dismissed on this basis. A derisive sentence about the existence of "fringe-parties" fielding candidates in an election is deemed to meet the requirements of "equity."

On a day-to-day basis, the CRTC policies endorse a broadcasting system that prohibits the airing of all political trends, views and persuasions. Most egregious of all is the absence in news coverage of reporting on the struggles, demands and concerns of the working people along with those of Indigenous peoples and all those fighting in defence of rights and for peace, justice and democracy.

Canadians need a national broadcasting system which serves their interests. It must professionally give expression to what the people of this country, from all walks of life and all beliefs and persuasions, have to say, as well as sing about, dance about, write about, make music and films about, as well as argue about and discuss.

Today, regulations are being passed by government prerogative, based on criteria citing national security and interests which permit "intelligence agencies" to censor speech on social media. Why is this not being discussed? Another self-serving claim is that if the "digital giants" censor access to their social networks it is a private matter between private interests -- oneself and the tech giant -- over which governments exercise no control. They claim it is not in the public domain!

All of this shows that the matter of Canada's Broadcasting Act is a matter of serious concern for the polity. The right questions have not even begun to be asked.


1. The Independent Broadcasters Group is comprised of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network Incorporated; BBC Kids; Channel Zero Inc.; Ethnic Channels Group Limited; Hollywood Suite Inc.; OUTtv Network Inc.; Stingray Group Inc.; Super Channel (Allarco Entertainment); TV5 Québec Canada; and Zoomer Media Limited. (as of January 2019)

2. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters describes itself as "the national voice of Canada's private broadcasters, representing the vast majority of Canadian programming services, including private radio and television stations, networks, specialty, pay and pay-per-view services."

3. The various security forces exercise a dictate over what is considered a threat to Canadian values and to the country's security in elections and in the media based on adherence to official state policy. This was illustrated when officials from the Communications Security Establishment of Canada appeared at an Elections Advisory Committee of Political Parties meeting in 2017 to brief the parties on their assessment of "threats to the Canadian democratic process." The "values" which these agencies defend include Canada's membership in NATO and the G7, etc. When asked by Anna Di Carlo if calling for Canada's withdrawal from NATO constitutes a threat to national security, a CSEC officer responded that his job is simply to defend the policies of the government of the day.

4. David Taras and Christopher Waddell, The End of the CBC? (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2020).

This article was published in

Volume 51 Number 4 - April 4, 2021

Article Link:


Website:   Email: