At a rate of almost one a week, otherwise law-abiding Canadian communities are turning to piracy in open defiance of the federal government. The object of this growing wave of thievery is something many in Canada's remote northern towns consider more valuable than mere earthly goods -- US television shows.
Families are chipping in up to $100 each and some businesses $1,000 or more to start illegal broadcasting systems making regular and pay-TV signals from the US available in isolated mining, fishing, and logging communities.
All that is needed is a large dish antenna. Commercial installers say some 200 have been put up across Canada in the last 18 months, mostly in northern Ontario and the mountainous, west coast province of British Columbia. Installing an antenna is not illegal, but using it is.
Despite having the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and two other major networks, Canadians in the more populated areas of the country are accustomed to watching a wide variety of programs from the big US networks. But in remote centers, US television is not available, and in some cases, reception of Canadian, programs is poor.
A dish antenna brings the shortage of television to an end. With one, communities can receive and rebroadcast signals from the US Satcom 1 satellite, providing viewers with all the regular American TV shows.
Some towns go a step further and rebroadcast US pay-TV -- for no charge. The most popular pirated fare of this type is Home Box Office (HBO), which offers a dozen or so recent movies each month. British Columbia residents who enjoy these movies at home for free would be billed $8.50 a month across the border in Washington State. Many British Columbians point out that they would be more than happy to pay for HBO were it legally shown. But this is impossible. The Canadian government has so far refused to license pay-TV on the grounds that it fails to contain enough Canadian-produced programs, an important criterion to federal officials charged with fostering Canada's cultural identity.
The wildcat broadcasting systems are illegal on other counts, too. They contravene the Intelsat treaty and a bilateral US-Canada pact, both of which prohibit a country from intercepting another country's satellite signals. But no one in the outlying communities seems very worried about this.
When an antenna arrived recently in Tofino, a fishing village of 600 on Vancouver Island off Canada's west coast, the towns-people turned out to help winch it up a nearby mountaintop.
Next morning, said Mayor Penny Barr, "Every child in town was up at 7 a.m. watching."
"Personally," she adds, "I doubt if anybody really cares about the illegality. A lot of other communities have done it. We're kind of away from the mainstream of civilization. There's a feeling of distrust of major governments."
Bringing the "dish" to remote towns appears to be one of the country's more satisfying occupations.
"We feel like celebrities," says Gerry Edwards, marketing manager of a Vancouver company that has delivered antennae to northwestern towns by highway, by barge, even once tied underneath an old DC-3.
All this is becoming a major worry for the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal agency responsible.
So far the commission has done nothing. "I wouldn't want to be the official that came here and pulled the plug," stated one town spokesman in British Columbia. "You could only do it if you had a jail big enough for the whole town , because everybody contributed."