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Peter Stockland: Beware of Bill C-10 and the bureaucrats

  • May 22, 2021

What Ottawa won’t do for cats it might end up doing to Catholics, warns a former CRTC vice-chair and leading critic of controversial changes to the federal Broadcasting Act.

With so-called Bill C-10 bogged down in committee hearings, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has sworn up and down and everywhere but on a Bible that the proposed legislation will never limit the rights of Canadians to post kitty videos or other user generated content on the Internet.

But Peter Menzies, a former newspaper publisher and 10-year veteran of Canada’s broadcast regulator, says the minister’s purring promises shouldn’t blind Catholics and other traditions from what’s heading toward them.

What’s headed their way, Menzies says, is a federal bureaucracy that has “historically found religion to be an area of concern” taking control of Canadians’ Internet access should the legislation pass through Parliament.

The first sentence of Bill C-10 declares the Internet will become a “special class” of broadcasting subject to regulations the CRTC has increasingly imposed on radio stations and TV networks since its establishment in 1976. Experts in Internet policy have vociferously condemned the very idea, arguing that the Internet and broadcast are entirely different creatures.

Or as Menzies puts it: “They say they believe in a level playing field. Who doesn’t? But this is trying to play cricket on a hockey rink.”

What Catholics and other Canadians of faith will eventually get, he warns, is being watched by a regulatory body that already orders single faith broadcasters to provide 20 hours a week of “balanced programming” to other spiritual traditions.

“Basically, if you want to broadcast ‘Jesus loves you,’ you’ve got to put 20 hours a week on saying ‘no, He doesn’t.’ You give up five hours a week to the local rabbi and five hours a week to the local imam and five hours a week to Sikhs and so on,” Menzies says. 

He  cites a former CRTC colleague’s observation that the broadcast regulator, “shapes the conversation the way a pitcher shapes water.”

One of the shaping effects has been a paucity of Muslim broadcasting in Canada simply because, prior to the relatively recent growth of the Islamic population in the country, the economies of scale weren’t there to support it. The free and open access of the Internet was actually a barrier-breaker in that regard, Menzies points out.

If the “programming practices” currently in place at the CRTC were relayed to the Internet, he warns, faith groups reaching out via social media would be prohibited from targeting other groups for conversion, and from calling “into question … the ‘beliefs, practices, liturgy or behaviour of another religious’ tradition. While it’s permissible to call certain behaviours sinful, ‘(program producers) shall not call into question the human rights or dignity of any individual or group’….”

Menzies stresses he isn’t objecting to the prohibitions themselves. The problem, he says, is a State regulator designed to control the limited sphere of broadcasting applying its limitations on a means of communication as open-ended as the Internet. Just the logistical challenges of monitoring Internet “programming” are mind-boggling — and open the door to vexatious complaints against religious groups by those who simply disagree with what a given faith teaches.

“One of things about having an open Internet is its available for everybody to see, and you just know people who have an agenda against you are going be waiting for you.”

Currently, such complaints must meet the tests of human rights law or criminal hate speech. But under CRTC control … who knows what the test will be, or how a broadcast regulator will apply it in a way that doesn’t violate Charter guarantees of freedom of religion and conscience?

“Nothing’s going to happen overnight, but bureaucrats don’t tend to restrain themselves when it comes to scope. I don’t want to be alarmist because there’s time to debate and get sensible outcomes. But there’s a very good chance you’re going to get a problematic outcome. ... they will come for real.”

(Stockland is publisher of and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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