Communications | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Communications influence all societies, but Canada in particular takes its shape and meaning from communications systems.
McLuhan, Marshall
Marshall McLuhan speaks about the communications revolution on the CBC-TV afternoon talk show Take 30, broadcast on 1 April 1965 (courtesy CBC-TV).


 Communications have been the key structural element in Canadian society since the time when canoes slipping down rivers were the connecting links between villages. Communications by water and land made Canadian federation possible; electronic communications today make possible the conduct of business, the political process and the sharing of culture and information.

Communications influence all societies, but Canada in particular takes its shape and meaning from communications systems. Since CONFEDERATION, Canada has been a landmass much larger than most empires in history; governing its distant settlements and bringing them together in some form of political, social and cultural unity has been primarily a problem of communications management. A communications system is an attempt to offset distance between human beings, whether by railway, broadcasting, aircraft, telephone, internet or post.

The common metaphor for the Canadian communications system is that of the modern railroad: a technical and economic infrastructure designed to forge east-west bonds against the seemingly stronger north-south attraction. The Canadian communications system is widely viewed as a unifying bond necessary for the sense of community required for essential democratic activity in such a large and relatively sparsely populated country. For more than a century, there have been connections made between communications and Canadian national sovereignty. Shortly after the passing of the 1932 Radio Broadcasting Act, Prime Minister R.B. BENNETT remarked to passionate public broadcasting advocate Graham SPRY: "It may well be, Graham, that you have saved Canada for the British Commonwealth" (Nash 1994). The early principles of the Canadian broadcasting system were written at a time when Canada was taking initial steps on the road to true independent nationhood and were largely influenced by our traditional ties to the UK. The contemporary communications system has since become increasingly privatized, with stronger connections to the US than UK, and has witnessed repeated efforts to establish Canada's unique place in an increasingly connected world.

Newspapers, having lost much of their advertising revenue first to broadcasters and later to on-line classified advertising, are increasingly subject to merger or elimination. Nevertheless, they remain at the centre of the communications web in most communities and in both national language groups. Newspapers still play an important role as agenda-setters for discussion of public affairs; in particular the GLOBE AND MAIL and NATIONAL POST in English Canada and LE DEVOIR in French Canada play this role. A 2010 survey of Canadians (from the newspaper the Toronto Star) demonstrated even the internet generation placed trust in print newspapers (41%) and television (31 %) as an information source, as opposed to social networks (13%) and blogs (8 %) ("Newspapers Still among the Most Trusted Media." Toronto Star. 15 May 2010). Broadcasting and other new media, have drawn away much of the historic economic power of the newspapers, but newspaper have maintained their role as shapers of opinion, a role they have played since colonial days.

The mass media constitute an elaborate and highly sensitive web, stretched over the country, the strands of which are individual NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES, radio and TV stations, as well as the alternative media of blogs, on-line films and websites which have developed around new digital media. The people and corporations who run many of the major media institutions are closely connected and their roles are often interchangeable. Communications companies maximize exposure for their content by spreading content across their properties. Radio hosts may have their shows televised on a television station owned by the same parent company, and a newspaper website may contain video clips from the owner's television news group. By the the 21st century Canadian communications had become the primary locus of intense technological and corporate convergence (seeMEDIA CONVERGENCE).

The Canadian Communications Market

The economics of Canadian communications is shaped by a mix of public and private sectors as well as private/public partnerships. Private business has played an increasingly large role in broadcasting, particularly since the early 1960s, but many communities, especially in the North, would not be reached by mass communications without the active participation of the government (seeCOMMUNICATIONS IN THE NORTH). For example, in Saskatchewan, telephone services are provided by the Crown Corporation Sasktel. Like many regions in rural Canada, Saskatchewan did not seem an attractive market for early private communications investment. Since the late 1930s, Canada has had its own government-sponsored filmmaking agency, the NATIONAL FILM BOARD, which produces and distributes Canadian films and offers an extensive on-line archive.

The Canadian private film and television production industry also receives public support and input via a mix of tax incentives and content quotas, and through funding bodies such as the Canadian Media Fund, the financing for which is maintained by the Government of Canada and through a levy placed on the highly profitable satellite and cable distribution service providers. Broadcasters and distributors have traditionally benefited from protection from foreign competition and via a complex web of regulations which limit the scope of competition in the sector.

The national rules overseeing the communications sector are legislated in the Broadcasting Act, Telecommunications Act and Radiocommunications Act and the decisions and policies of the federal regulator, the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (CRTC), form the basis for COMMUNICATIONS LAW in Canada.

The development of communications across Canada has been dominated by a few powerful corporations who provide the vast array of infrastructure and services and it is difficult to speak of one overarching system for Canadian Communications. The communications content markets of Canada essentially consists of two systems: a French language model which has a strong and consistent audience for domestic product, and an English market that faces unceasing pressure from the easy availability of popular and inexpensive American content. In fact, the first 2 decades of Canadian TV had tended to strengthen Québec identity by producing a generation of French Canadian TV writers, stars and commentators - the most famous being René LEVESQUE on Radio-Canada in the 1950s who became provincial premier in 1976.

When evaluating the development of satellite-based communications networks in Europe and the loss of public monopolies in most nations in favour of a mixed public/private system in the 1980s, UK scholar Richard Collins wrote that the European experience was becoming "Canadianized." In essence this meant that the Atlantic Ocean no longer sheltered Europe from American radio and television signals, and hitherto public broadcasting monopolies would have to learn to co-exist with the private sector.

Canadian Communications History

The building of the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY in the 1880s, as part of the political arrangement that created confederation, was an attempt to counteract the disintegrative effect of Canada's enormous space and to prevent the absorption of western Canada by the US. A similar impulse was behind the building of radio, television, TELEPHONE and TELECOMMUNICATIONS systems. Since Marconi's first trans-Atlantic radio signal in 1901 from England to St. John's, Canada has become one of the most cable-connected countries in the world. Canada launched the first national communications satellite and has had a prominent international role in media development. These contributions to the evolution of communications infrastructure were matched by leading advances in the governmental regulation accompanying the technology. The main impetus for much of Canada's national communications development has been the omnipresence of the most powerful media centre in the world, the United States, less than two hours drive to the south of most of the main urban centres. It became apparent early in the nation's history that if Canada was indeed to have a unique voice in mass communications, it would require extensive market intervention via public broadcasting and regulation, as opposed to the market-based approach of its southern neighbour.

Early Broadcasting

The movement toward a truly national broadcasting system in Canada can trace its roots to a brief report (13 pages excluding appendices) from 1929, chaired by a banker who admitted he did not own a radio. The Report of the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting became known as the Aird Report after the Commission Chair John AIRD, who at the time of the report was President of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. The report endorsed the idea that broadcasting is a public service and predicted "broadcasting will undoubtedly become a great force in fostering a national spirit and interpreting national citizenship." It concluded that Canada required a publicly-owned system, similar to the British Broadcasting Corporation established in the UK.

The Aird Report initially seemed doomed to collect dust on Ottawa shelves, and likely would have done so but for the efforts of two young Canadians, Graham SPRY and Alan Plaunt, who formed the Canadian Radio League (CRL), an organization whose mission it was to promote the virtues of public broadcasting in Canada. The CRL saw the popularity of American radio programming as a threat to the continued survival of the country. As Spry wrote: "Here is a majestic instrument of national unity and national culture. Its potentials are too great, its influence and significance are too vast, to be left to the petty purpose of selling cakes of soap."

The extensive lobbying efforts by Spry and Plaunt across Canada kept the Aird Report alive in the corridors of power. Testifying before the parliamentary committee hearings on radio broadcasting in early 1932, Graham Spry said succinctly that for Canada "The question is the State or the United States." the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act (1932), which established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) as the national public broadcaster was passed later that year. A later broadcasting act (1936) established the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION as a crown corporation.

In 1932, when Prime Minister R.B Bennett introduced the legislation that created public broadcasting, he declared in Parliament: "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."

Since then, most federal governments and several royal commissions have reaffirmed these views, but with only modest effect. News and public affairs programs on TV, despite shrinking ratings, continue to demonstrate the ability to focus the concern of Canadians on national public issues, but in most other ways media have lived wanly in the American shadow. As a result, mass communications have created the ground on which some of the most important battles of Canadian sovereignty have been fought.

The Broadcasting Act is the central piece of legislation for radio and television communications in Canada, including distribution systems (cable, satellite and IPTV). Since 1932 Canada has seen the Act revised in 1936, 1958, 1968, and 1991. Several key government studies also served to establish the place of mass communications in Canada. They include: the 1957 Royal Commission on Broadcasting. Report, Chaired by Robert FOWLER which called for regulatory power to be removed from the CBC board of governors; the 1965 Committee on Broadcasting. Report, also chaired by Robert Fowler, which recommended the establishment of a powerful new national regulator: the Canadian Broadcasting Authority, what would later become the CRTC; the 1966 White Paper on Broadcasting, prepared by Judy LAMARSH, which placed emphasis upon national unity, a major focus of the Broadcasting Act of 1968; and the 1986 Task Force on Broadcasting Policy Report co-chaired by Gerald CAPLAN and Florian Sauvageau. The Caplan-Sauvageau Report was a reflection of the changes in modern Canada, both demographically and technologically and the effects of the Charter of Rights. A key recommendation of the Caplan-Sauvageau report was a new broadcasting act. The 1986 report clearly demonstrated how, despite decades of technological advances, the overarching struggles for a Canadian voice in communications remain stubbornly consistent. Gerald Caplan and Florian Sauvageau observed, "Sir John Aird would feel very much at home with the issues and dilemmas with which the Task Force has attempted to come to grips" (Canada 1986).

The current Canadian system has adapted to change and officially recognized the place of FIRST NATIONS peoples and the changing ethnicity of Canada's population within the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which outlines that the Canadian broadcasting system will: through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society. Only occasionally have the forces of national culture prevailed, as in the creation of French and English TV and radio networks by the CBC or the legislation that was in place 1975-99 which prevented American magazines from establishing Canadian subsidiary editions. One major reason for this situation is cost. Canada provides a small market split into 2 language groups: in broadcasting, as with paperback books and magazines and many other products of communication, Canadians have found it cheaper and more convenient to import what they view or read.

Another reason is the ongoing struggle between private and public interests. As a general rule, private interests in English Canada have benefited from American cultural products, on the grounds that it is more profitable to resell American films, TV shows and records than to make them in Canada.

The Toronto School

 Canada has played a foundational role in establishing the study of communications as an academic field. What became known as "The Toronto School of Communications Thought" is the product of the work of two academics on faculty at the University of Toronto in the middle part of the 20th century: Harold INNIS and Marshall MCLUHAN. McLuhan was strongly influenced by Innis' writing, in particular Empire and Communications (1950) which explored the role of media in building and maintaining civilizations. Harold Innis began much of the scholarly exploration of mass media but it was McLuhan who became the intellectual superstar. Innis died in 1952, a year after his other seminal work, the Bias of Communications was published, while McLuhan went on to gain international fame in the 1960s and 70s, after applying his insight as a literary critical theorist to the developing world of electronic communications. Innis never saw the widespread development of television and McLuhan never lived to see the public usage of the internet, yet their theories seem to anticipate the development of these powerful new forms of communications.

In 1923 Innis published a revision of his doctoral dissertation entitled A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This study was largely focused upon the financial intricacies of this huge Canadian public project. Later, Innis wrote about the role of staples of commerce in Canadian history: The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) and The Cod Fisheries (1940). In all of these, Innis emphasized the effects of cultures in collision. The staples work also identified a pattern in Canadian economic history of a clear division between the economic centres and the periphery. According to Innis, new forms of communications are often developed in the hinterlands, where organization is flexible.

Innis' writings on communications explored the role of communications technologies in shaping the culture and development of civilization. One of his most enduring theories distinguishes between the separate effects of time-binding and space-binding media. Time-binding media include such durable technologies as clay or stone tablets, hand-copied manuscripts on parchment and oral communications. These technologies are intended to carry information that lasts for many generations, but they tend to reach a limited audience due to problems of transport or their inherent fragility. Development of space-binding media began in earnest with Galileo's printing press and include modern media such as newspapers, radio, television, and mass circulation newspapers. These media convey information to mass audiences over long distances, but have brief exposure times. According to Innis' theory, time-binding media favour stability, community, and tradition; while space-binding media facilitate change, materialism, and empire.

 Marshall McLuhan, who based much of his work on Innis' pioneering media studies, believed that media reshape not only our perceptions but our actions. McLuhan taught us to look at the technological development of the media for an understanding of their influence, which will allow us to see a process repeating itself throughout the communications media, what McLuhan called "pattern recognition." McLuhan's interpretation of media includes technologies as diverse as light bulbs and automobiles.

McLuhan's most widely known work was Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Among the theories of this key text of media studies is what McLuhan saw as divide between the characteristics of communications technologies which he defined as hot and cold media. A hot medium like radio operates in "high definition" in that it conveys a substantial amount of information in a way that requires low participation but has a powerful impact. McLuhan viewed print as a hot medium because of the large amount of information conveyed to the reader.

A Cool medium operates in "low definition" and requires the recipient to participate more actively in determining meaning, such as with a cartoon, television or a seminar (as opposed to a "hot" lecture). It requires the person to fill in or supplement the information.

McLuhan's unorthodox theories gained a wide degree of public recognition in the 1960s and 70s and he became a pop culture figure. Expressions like "global village" (from The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962) and "the medium is the message" (Understanding Media, 1964) achieved widespread currency, if not a clear level of public understanding. The U of T professor became the focus of the same popular culture analyzed in his theories. McLuhan was the subject of an interview on the popular American television news show 60 Minutes, and the question "Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin'?" became a tag line on the popular TV show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Pop culture analysts such as Tom Wolfe wrote essays about his work, and McLuhan had a notable cameo as himself in the 1977 Woody Allen film Annie Hall.

As with many superstars, the public (and scholarly community) eventually lost interest in McLuhan and he spent the final years as, once again, a relatively quiet faculty member at the University of Toronto. Theoretical work like that practised by McLuhan and Innis became viewed as technologically determinist, placing too much emphasis upon the technology itself and not enough on the role of politics in technological development and the impact of individual agency in negotiating media impact.

McLuhan's stature rose posthumously in the late 1990s amid the growth of new digital communications. The popular technology journal Wired Magazine dubbed him "Saint Marshall" and quoted him in its premier issue. It is easy to see the connection. Decades before the rise of the internet, McLuhan foresaw the potential power of early computing technologies. In 1966, he said: The computer is able to take over the whole mechanical age. Everything that was done under mechanical conditions can be computerized with relative ease, and that includes our educational system.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was first established by an Act of Parliament in 1936. The CBC may not enjoy the prominent stature in Canadian broadcasting it held for most of the previous century; however, the national public broadcaster remains a central force in Canadian communications.

The CBC offers a range of Communications in both official languages including television broadcasts, ad-free radio channels both domestically and internationally, and a growing on-line presence including digital archives. The CBC must report annually to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage. The CBC's mandate is set out in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which stated that the programming provided by the Corporation should
(i) be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,
(ii) reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
(iii) actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,
(iv) be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities,
(v) strive to be of equivalent quality in English and in French,
(vi) contribute to shared national consciousness and identity, (vii) be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and
(viii) reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada

The CBC is a hybrid public broadcaster: it receives funding from Canadian parliament as well as advertising revenue (although CBC Radio is ad-free). In 2009 the CBC received $1070, 137 from the Canadian government and generated $356, 248 in advertising revenues. The CBC offers much higher levels of Canadian Content than private sector broadcasters that tend to rely on American programming for ratings.

The Advent of Cable and Satellite

The growth of the cable industry in the late 1960s increased the opportunity for Canadians to receive American programming, and posed a clear challenge to Canadian control of its own communications structure. The challenges were magnified as television distribution systems grew, bringing with them broadcasts originating well beyond Canada's borders. The exponential growth of channels in a digital broadcasting system presents a serious challenge to previously held notions of television's potential to contribute to the cultural cohesion of a nation. Just as trains later faced competition from trucks and airlines not anchored to the soil of any one nation, so the communications network must accept and adapt to the new reality of satellites and internet connections offering global transmission and reception.

Bringing American and international stations to a majority of viewers, cable and satellite have effectively put Canadian broadcasters in a minority position in their own country, making it more difficult for Canadian television drama and entertainment to find a steady national audience (seeTELEVISION DRAMA, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE and TELEVISION DRAMA, FRENCH-LANGUAGE). In a period when mass communications in Canada might have flourished, many Canadian productions found themselves more overshadowed than ever before.

The distribution sector has grown into the most profitable sector of the Canadian communications market. By 2009 over 90% of Canadians accessed television via cable or satellite. Conventional over-the-air television transmission saw a dramatic drop in usage between 1990 and 2010. The resulting television environment placed little emphasis upon the less-profitable local stations and instead focused upon national television networks (CBC, CTV and CanWest Global) in an effort to remain competitive against international broadcasters carried on cable and satellite.

Many former cable and satellite distributors have become broadcasters as well. Shaw (Canwest), Bell (CTV), Rogers (CityTV) and Quebecor/ Vidéotron (TVA) are all cable and satellite owners who purchased major broadcasters and now hold the rights to much of the content they distribute. (seeTELEVISION).

The Digital Age

Communications content is no longer restricted to carriage by one particular technology. The digital format allows for exponential growth in choice, and the "common language" of digital code means content can be accessed across multiple platforms. The major Canadian communications corporations are spearheading a movement to a more converged media landscape in Canada. In 2009, approximately 34% of Canadian residential customers subscribed to service bundles that consisted of local telephone service and one or more of the following services: Internet access, video, and mobile.

The internet is the medium that offers the most user opportunity and regulatory challenges. In 2009, approximately 95% of Canadian households could access broadband services using landline facilities. As with most areas of Canadian communications, internet development in Canada has included a prominent role for the federal government and substantial market opportunities for the private sector.

Canada's progress towards universal digital communications began two decades ago. In March 1993, Canada incorporated the CANARIE (Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education) network. This high speed fibre line was the product of partnerships with governments, industry, research and education communities to enable capacity of the Internet to deliver the benefits of digital technology to Canadians.

Industry Canada established The Information Highway Advisory Council in 1994 to advise the Canadian government on a comprehensive strategy relating to national digital communications infrastructure. The Council's mandate was to offer advice regarding how to use the internet to provide its economic, cultural and social advantage to all Canadians.

The rapid proliferation of internet access in Canada has posed a series of legal challenges for Canada's copyright laws. The ease with which Canadians access music, films, television programs and written material on-line has left content producers and content license holders scrambling to protect their investment. The music industry suffered substantial losses as Canadians stopped shopping at music stores and instead began acquiring music via the internet, either through legitimate sources like iTunes, or via piracy. The effects were felt off-line as iconic Canadian music retailers such as Sam the record Man and A and B Sound permanently closed their doors.

The government tried to stem the tide of digital piracy by introducing Bill C-32 which amended the Copyright Law. The new Law had to be reintroduced twice after substantial citizen opposition.

Canadian internet users also rallied around the issue of "net neutrality." The main concern for net neutrality advocates is that the internet must remain a neutral, common-carriage platform for both users and content producers. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) argued that they had to shape internet traffic on occasion because increased user numbers were causing pressure on the system capacity. There was also concern that ISPs might be acting as on-line censors after a case in 2005 in which the ISP Telus blocked access to the Telecommunication's Workers website during a dispute they were having with the union. The blockage happened at the backbone level so all ISPs that used Telus, including smaller companies who used the Telus backbone infrastructure as their provider were denied access.

The CRTC introduced regulation in 2009 which allowed ISPs a degree of traffic shaping but only when users are told in advance.

Digital Television

Canada's analogue television transmissions are scheduled to cease in most major centres on August 31, 2011. The over-the-air (OTA) sector has been the site of the most contentious debates during the Canadian digital television transition. Prior to the changeover, cable and satellite providers have managed their digital transitions for their customers; however Canadians relying on OTA signals (roughly 10%) had to purchase a television with a digital receiver or a receiving unit that would convert the old signal to analogue for older tv sets. Broadcasters have struggled to meet the 2011 deadline in mandatory markets. From an economic perspective, the issue revolves around the large capital investment required to maintain analogue levels of coverage in an OTA industry that many see as a money-loser. As a matter of public policy the OTA transition involves the key normative debate of OTA television as a service using a public resource (the spectrum) that should be available free to all citizens. The Canadian digital television transition followed the American transition by two years and the change was closely coordinated between the two countries.

Over the course of its relatively brief history, Canadian communications has evolved from canoe routes to fibre cables. In 1969, historian Frank Peers observed, regarding the relationship between communications and the national character: "A unique Canadian system of broadcasting endures. It reflects values different from those prevailing in the British or American systems. It not only mirrors the Canadian experience, but helps define it." Canadian Communications has evolved beyond broadcasting but is in many ways still a mirror of the Canadian experience: it is an increasingly international, though - at its core - bilingual, system that supports a profitable private sector that in many cases would not exist without substantial public support. (See alsoBROADCASTING, RADIO AND TELEVISION.)

Further Reading

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