TORONTO — There is something sweetly revealing about the fact that the NHL, a primarily American organization, is in large part responsible for bringing an end to the nearly two-month strike of Canada's public broadcaster.
At issue was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) plan to increase its number of contract workers. When the CBC's biggest union, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) objected, they found themselves locked out, and the CBC found itself airing Coronation Street reruns, BBC news, Antiques Roadshow, management-hosted radio shows consisting only of music, and movies. The latter inspired Michael Moore to throw his heft around in the debate. When the CBC aired Mr. Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," mid-lockout, he issued a statement expressing dismay at the treatment of union members, and shock that, "the great and honorable CBC," was, "behaving like an American corporation."
I'm willing to cast doubt on the greatness and honor of the CBC. But they have shown some sense in behaving like a corporation, American or otherwise. And with hockey season upon us, an agreement was reached, just in time for the CBC to carry out its lucrative contract with the NHL.
The CBC, on both television and radio, is taxpayer funded to the tune of just under $1 billion (Canadian) a year. True believers in Canada maintain it keeps Canadians connected to each other, and above all, keeps us from becoming - oh, the humanity - American. The latter is a peculiar concern, since, even operating at full force, CBC's English-language television is ever defeated in the ratings by American networks and cable stations.
It is a tossup as to whether the CBC, or socialized healthcare, represents the third rail of Canadian politics. Cries of panic went out in August when the lockout began. What will Canadians do without our national voice? How will the country hold together ... inasmuch as it ever has? And worse, how will we understand what's going on out there, without access to the rarefied CBC understanding of world events?
I was grateful to have been spared the rarefied CBC understanding of, for example, hurricane Katrina. It is a safe bet that it would have been - but for the accents - similar to the BBC spin on Mother Nature's wrath, a take which reportedly caused British Prime Minister Tony Blair to denounce it as "full of hatred of America," and "gloating," at the country's, and George Bush's, misfortune. The CBC has earned, from conservative bloggers and websites, the nickname, "Caliphate Broadcasting Corporation." But while Canada may have a public broadcaster similar to Britain's, we don't, unfortunately, have any politicians with the courage to echo Mr. Blair. Nor do we have any with the spine to suggest the CBC should be privatized, in spite of the eminent springiness of Canadians in the face of their CBC-free lives these past weeks.
According to a Decima Research poll taken during the lockout, 61 percent of respondents said the labor dispute had no impact at all on their lives. Only 10 percent considered it a "major inconvenience." Most telling was that, in the 10 percent who felt seriously inconvenienced, most were those who voted for Canada's left-of-center Liberal and New Democratic parties. And many were older people, for whom the CBC has no doubt played a larger role, than for someone who grew up with the Internet and hundreds of radio and TV stations.
But even if one were politically in tune with the CBC, there remains the question of personal preference, versus whether that preference should be imposed on others. Should citizens have to pay for something they clearly don't require - and have barely missed?
Fifty-three years ago, when CBC television was born, there were scarce other stations in Canada. But for that connection in our geographically enormous country, which has only a tenth of the population of the United States, many Canadians were isolated. During World War II, when radio coverage of events overseas may have been all that allowed a mother to know what her son was facing, a national broadcaster was desirable.
In 2005, Canadian homes have access to hundreds of TV and radio stations, from all over the world (including private Canadian stations). Does it make sense to require citizens to pay for one they may not want, when they can choose to pay for others they do want? It is hard to see the CBC as a public service, least of all an essential one, in spite of the best efforts of some of Canada's artistic elite to peddle that notion. One wonders whether such people have a clue what things appear on the average Canadian's radar.
Hockey is one of those things. And fittingly, it is a principal reason the dispute is being settled. It would be a crushing blow for the CBC were the NHL to sign a contract with another Canadian network.
I strongly suspect another reason for the settlement is that CBC management and employees have twigged that few have pined for them. Should the unprecedented ever happen, and Canadian politicians develop the backbone required to pull the CBC's plug, the death knell would be most welcome and overdue.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.