Cuts to Radio Canada International can only hurt Canada’s image and influence abroad

Filed in Opinion by on 2nd Mar 2021

Politicians proclaim the world needs more Canada, then complain when they learn the world does not know enough about us.

Beset by a pandemic and hemmed in by America-first administrations in Washington, the shrinking horizons of Canadian foreign policy have seemingly exhausted the Liberal government’s global ambitions. Politicians proclaim the world needs more Canada, then complain when they learn the world does not know enough about us.

If Canada was rejected by the global community in its bid to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council, perhaps it is because the world does not recognize us and how we have changed over the last 20 years: our diversity, our economic strengths, our liberal democratic values, our respect for the rule of law, and our love of hockey.

Most troubling is the decision by the CBC to force Radio Canada International (RCI) to abandon its mandate of producing programming for international audiences. Imagine the BBC World Service being told to stop being a “world service.” 

Peaceful protest in Beijing before Red Army attack 04 June 1989

The RCI decision is an example of the CBC echoing federal government cutting or curtailing instruments of soft power that could achieve the simultaneous goals of projecting Canadian values and undertaking more effective direct diplomacy.

In 1990, RCI had a staff of 200, trained to offer programming specifically prepared and tailored for international audiences in 14 languages. When the dust settles on CBC’s “major transformation,” Canada’s “Voice to the World” will have nine employees, translating texts from the CBC and Radio-Canada websites nominally for global audiences.

This transformation has a clear, yet worrisome agenda, focused as it is on diaspora communities and media in Canada, which is not part of RCI’s mandate. For the first time in 75 years of RCI’s history, there will be no producer, journalist or production staff working in English or French.

Despite Canada’s international priorities and multilateral relations, CBC cut RCI services to Japan, Germany, Brazil, Russia and the Ukraine, among others. In 2012, in violation of Order in Council 2003-0358, the CBC forced RCI to stop being a radio station broadcasting on shortwave. As a result, Canada lost almost all of its Chinese audience.

In a world beset by geopolitical rivalries, the ability to directly engage local populations abroad, free of interference, is absolutely essential. The RCI has a role to play as a truthful source of information, particularly for areas of the world where that information is both limited and distorted.

Open letter to PM, Ministers call for international service to be strengthened, not cut

RCI Newsroom, Nobody home

The change in RCI’s funding and mandate is reflective of a widespread tendency by governments and organizations such as the CBC to trumpet the advantages of the digital world and its access to the globe, with little thought to what connecting with others is all about.

Here, the role of RCI remains vital as a source of information in troubled times. Its programming, since its inception, has been tailored to help international audiences understand Canada’s reality. Whether this content comes through shortwave radio broadcasts, satellite, the Internet, podcasts or mobile apps, it is the content that matters.

This is not the time for retreat. Consider a situation some 30 years ago that mirrors current events. Following the attack by Chinese authorities on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the federal government decided that RCI would start its Chinese service in earnest, stating at the time: “We will be joining Radio Australia, Voice of America and the BBC in our collective effort to keep the truth alive.” In an era of disinformation when even the major social media players cannot be counted on for messaging the truth, RCI has an important role to play as part of Canada ‘s “alliance of values.”

In an interconnected world in search of truth, facts and honest journalism, countries such as Canada cannot abdicate their role on the world stage. Retrenchment is not an option. RCI, despite being a bare shadow of its former self, must be made whole again.

David Carment is Editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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Editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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