In 1969, the federal government passed the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act (FFMA). It created a federal Crown corporation that acted as the sole buyer of freshwater fish caught in western Canada, northern Canada and parts of northern Ontario. The FFMC also acted as a single-desk seller of that catch in international markets.
Over time, almost every province or region that was a signatory to the act withdrew from its provisions and the control of the corporation it created, which had become centred in Winnipeg.
First northwestern Ontario withdrew in 2011. That was followed by Saskatchewan’s withdrawal in 2012. Alberta withdrew in 2014. Finally, Manitoba – which was one of the most significant parts of FFMC’s reach – withdrew in 2017.
The Northwest Territories is the only remaining jurisdiction active in the corporation, but there are significant complaints about the monopoly – from Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers, as well as territorial politicians.
You might wonder what a single-desk fish marketing board has to do with a massive broadcasting corporation with reach all over Canada.
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There’s much that’s similar in terms of original policy rationale compared to today’s reality. Both the CBC and FFMC were founded in periods of Canadian history very different than today.
The FFMA came out of the 1966 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Freshwater Marketing (the co-called McIvor Report). Looking at the economic environment at the time, the report concluded fishermen received low prices for their fish largely due to a lack of bargaining power. The report concluded Canadian fishermen were effectively “indentured servants” to large fishing companies, many based outside Canada. Also, fish processing was spread out across several independent plants.
Fast forward to now and fishers are more sophisticated and Internet-savvy. They could find better deals and prices for their fish at the click of a mouse. Fishers are no longer overpowered by foreign fish companies. They were itching to make deals on international markets, especially in a growing Asian market. Fishers had become an independent and entrepreneurial group constrained by an FFMC they deemed too slow.
The CBC was also created out of a government commission of inquiry. In 1929, the Aird Commission recommended the creation of a nationally-owned broadcasting corporation. CBC/Radio-Canada was founded to counter the growing influence of American radio on Canadian airwaves.
There was also a pressing national imperative to ensure all Canadians had access to vital information. The service provided rural and urban audiences with information on an equal basis.
Finally, the government created an international service bringing Canadian programming to domestic and foreign audiences.
But today we have a multitude of Canadian programming options for citizens, including online. The Internet has given rural and urban Canadians similar access to media sources from Canada and elsewhere.
The policy rationale for the existence of the CBC no longer meets the reality of the modern age. As with the FFMC, the market and the demographics have all changed.
With the CBC, there’s a case for ensuring that underserved communities receive vital information. But does the CBC have to be that provider? Why can’t the federal government use the legislative and policy tools at its disposal to meet these national interests?
For example, there are not-for-profit actors that can be provided with incentives to meet these needs. There’s a case for non-profit media content. But there are ways for the government to engage those media entrepreneurs with its other policy levers.
On a cultural level, one could make a legitimate claim that there’s a compelling state interest in ensuring Canadian voices tell our stories on our broadcasting system to counter the massive information juggernaut south of the border.
But why do so many assume only a Crown corporation can deliver that?
It’s time the CBC went the way of the FFMC.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.