Dispatch from the Front Lines: Even the government has to cut itself out of the loop
C-11, which may or may not apply to us. The PSAC strike. Sudan, Afghanistan and the CBC, oh my!
Welcome to your weekend, Line readers. For the month of April, we switched things up a bit here: certain columns would go behind the paywall, and the dispatches would not. That worked well for April. We’re going to keep doing that during May and see if the trend continues.
You know what’s always free to watch, though? Our amazing videos. This one actually did turn out well, we think. We didn’t plan on having a deep philosophical conversation about changing social and political mores and ideologies, but that’s exactly what we did. We also talked about an 80’s supergroup that not only had Jen never heard of, she hadn’t heard of the members.
Podcast here, too!
We are now 11 days into the nationwide strike by 150,000 or so federal public servants, and we can’t really say, here at The Line, that it has affected our lives in any significant way so far. That’s not to say that the walkout hasn’t had an impact: Striking workers managed to deny heat and hot water to a major military base; they forced schools near another military base to close because the blocked traffic caused unsafe conditions for kids; and they did their best to disrupt flights at Pearson Airport on Friday. If you’re in line for a passport, for your tax return, or an EI cheque, you might be in for a bit (more) of a wait.
But overall, the PSAC strike has only really underscored what a lot of Canadians already know intuitively: That the federal government doesn’t do all that much that directly affects the daily lives of Canadians; and what it does do on that front, it is already doing so poorly that it will take a lot more than a public service strike of a few weeks to make much of a dent in the daily incompetence coming out of Ottawa.
We hate to be so snarky, and so cynical. Honestly we do. We’re all proud Canadians here, strong believers in federalism, and some of us even think that the country could do with a stronger central government than is currently on offer. But as someone once might have said, the nation’s capital is a few hectares of fantasyland surrounded by a million square kilometres of reality. And the Ottawa theme park is having a heck of a week.
Over the course of the week, Ottawa bylaw officers repeatedly issued tickets to picketers who were running an unauthorized hot dog stand outside the Prime Minister’s Office. Another striking public servant was given a ticket for causing excessive noise by honking at a picket line near the Vanier constituency office of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier. These ticketings led PSAC executive Sharon DeSousa to say that she was “shocked” by the alleged double standards in Ottawa. By this she means the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied the capital for three weeks in the winter of 2022, and which featured activities such as live concerts, outdoor cooking, public hot tubs, bouncy castles, propane stockpiling, gasoline transporting, endless honking, and any number of other violations of city bylaws, public order, and common decency — most of which happened while police just looked the other way.
But is this really the comparison PSAC wants to make? After all, for much of the past week, it is the convoy supporters who have been drawing this precise comparison, wondering when PSAC strikers are going to have their bank accounts frozen, or when the federal government is going to implement the Emergencies Act to get them away from, say, military bases. If you’re PSAC and you are blockading ports and border crossings, maybe ixnay on the onvoycay omparisonscay.
We actually think these comparisons are pretty dumb, no matter which side is making them. But if PSAC execs want to talk about shocking developments, how about this one: thanks to the current work-from-home guidelines, PSAC workers can be both striker and scab, sometimes in the same day! That is, they can hit the picket line in the morning, then head home, check in with their managers, and work from home. Or for those who have to be in the office at least a few days a week, they can picket their workplace on their scheduled in-office days, and then work from home on the other days. (We learned this from The Functionary, Kathryn May’s must-read newsletter about the public service. Seriously, go sign up.)
Why does this matter? Well first, it means that PSAC workers can double-dip —collecting both strike pay and their regular pay. Second, it means that it will be very difficult for the feds to actually stop anyone’s pay, as they have said they will do starting May 10. Because the way it works is that a striker will only have their pay stopped if they picket (and refuse to work) for five consecutive days. If they check in with work even once, the five-day clock resets. What are the odds anyone is going to get their pay stopped, when this sort of gravy train is running?
We suspect that the more this stuff becomes public knowledge, the more angry Canadians are going to become. Not over the absence or slowdown of services — see above. But many Canadians already see the public service as an enormously coddled class, and one increasingly isolated from most of us. With Ottawa already facing a serious crisis of legitimacy, PSAC’s behaviour isn’t going to help.
The Ottawa Citizen reported Friday that the government had tabled another offer to PSAC, and that the two sides were planning to bargain through the weekend hoping to bring an end to the job action. Our advice to the strikers? Take the deal while you still have some support. And before more Canadians realize just how great you already have it.
We almost hesitate to bring it up. We aren’t particularly superstitious at The Line, (except about hockey, obviously) but we don’t like to go out of our way to jinx things or tempt fate. So we say this with caution and caveats a-plenty, but the Canadian military response to the sudden outbreak in violence thus far seems … fine?
Not perfect. As Global News first reported on Friday, one of our air force planes had a mechanical issue while on the ground in Sudan, loading up with evacuees, and couldn’t depart immediately. That’s suboptimal when the airport is the scene of open fighting between government and rebel forces, as has been the case. The breakdown, which was fixed in short order, may tell us something about the state of good repair in the RCAF, or maybe it’s just better filed under “Shit happens.” Because Lord knows it does.
Still, notwithstanding a temporarily jammed boarding ramp, Canada has been able to get flights to the region; we have flown out hundreds of evacuees, including many non-Canadians. Good! Our allies have helped us; our diplomatic staff was evacuated by the American military after U.S. and Canadian officials took shelter in a shared location. It’s nice to be able to help repay the favour. By happy fluke, two Canadian naval ships, a warship and a supply vessel, were in the region already when the fighting began, headed elsewhere, and have been told to stay close in case a sea evacuation is required.
We’ll say no more, lest we put a hex on the whole thing, but this is obviously a better, smoother start to a crisis than we saw in 2021, as the Taliban were closing in on Kabul. We don’t know what explains the difference. Part of it could simply be the lessons learned from 2021, which everyone recognized was a flop. It’s also possible that this is more of a reasonable baseline of our competency for emergencies that don’t erupt just as half the federal government is switching over into caretaker mode so all the political appointees can put their Liberal hats back on for a just-starting election campaign.
Again, we don’t know, but we’re glad to see something closer to a competent response, and to see our faith in the men and women of the Canadian military confirmed once again. They can do remarkable work when we let them. It’s a nice break from adding to the catalogue of failure that so much of our work has required us to write in recent years. Our thoughts are with them, their families and everyone affected by the fighting in Sudan, including the many millions who don’t have a plane or ship coming to their rescue.
Speaking of that not-so-spectacular Afghan evacuation effort, The Line has been watching with interest this week and last as we’ve learned more about the chaos hobbling Canada’s response. Harjit Sajjan, who is currently the federal minister of international development but was the minister of national defence during the fall of Kabul (a doozy of a demotion for Sajjan, that) found himself the subject of scrutiny and even some ridicule this week when he told a House committee looking into the matter that he was too busy at the time to be checking his emails.
A bit of context is important. Sajjan was being asked specifically about emails from Senator Marilou McPhedran, sent to him and his staff. The senator had already disclosed her part in getting some Afghans to safety. At the time of the crisis, the Canadian government was providing documents to some Afghans that showed that they had been approved for travel to Canada. These documents were useful, even vital, for getting through checkpoints and onto the grounds of Kabul’s airport, and once there, onto allied evacuation planes. Canadian journalist Shannon Gormley’s long feature on the chaos of one family’s escape from Afghanistan should be read by all, and specifically discusses how precious these kinds of documents were: without them, you probably didn’t have a chance of hell of getting onto a plane and to safety. Something with a maple leaf and some official looking seal on it could literally mean the difference between life and death.
The problem was that the government of Canada was only getting a few of those documents out, and very slowly. So McPhedran sent a template for them to some trusted people in Afghanistan, she has revealed, allowing them to get some people a shot at a flight to Canada. Hundreds, by her estimate. This has posed problems for Canadian officials since. Are these documents official, or not? Is Canada bound to honour them, or nah?
It is, we’ll grant, a pickle. And this concerns Sajjan and his bursting inbox because McPhedran claims she got the document template from George Young, who was then Sajjan’s chief of staff, and she told them how she was using them.
A lot of the coverage this week focused on Sajjan’s confession that he wasn’t staying on top of his email during the crisis; this includes Line editor Gurney’s own column in the Toronto Star about that slice of this story. But for our beloved Line readers, we want to just draw a triple underline in red ink under what McPhedran has admitted to doing. And more importantly, why she did it.
Let’s say this up front: We praise McPhedran, even though we recognize why her actions are causing problems for Canadian officials. McPhedran answered the higher moral calling of saving lives rather than waiting for paperwork to be filled out correctly. Frankly, we’d like to see an awful lot more of that kind of attitude in our governments. Perhaps, with enough people thinking quickly and seeing clearly, as McPhedran did, we wouldn’t need people like her to go outside of channels to get the right thing done. We’d just use the functioning channels we’d presumably have in this happier, better Canada.
But this isn’t our Canada, and that’s the problem. We know readers are probably tired of reading about whether Canada is broken. We are getting awfully tired of writing about it. But this really is another in a long series of really alarming data points. McPhedran, a Canadian senator with access to the very top of our government, looked around, concluded that it wasn’t capable of getting the job done, and improvised her own solution because that was the only way to save lives. Asking people to wait on the proper forms was asking them to die. And she couldn’t even tell Sajjan and his office that she was doing it, because they were apparently not bothering to check their email.
We are glad we had someone like McPhedran there capable of drawing the necessary conclusion and acting appropriately. We are really, really worried about what this says about the state of things, though. Canadian government competency in times of life-and-death crisis really shouldn’t come down to the willingness of officials to just utterly cut the government itself out of the loop because it is the problem. But who can argue it wasn’t?
We at The Line have spent a lot more time trashing Bill C-18 than its cousin, C-11; the reason for that is fairly simple, if unflattering. Both bills are unwieldy little monsters, rife with competing agendas and we only have so much time and energy to spare. Of the two, though, C-18 affects us and our business more directly as it attempts to force Big Tech companies into secret negotiations to prop up dying legacy media outlets.
C-11, which passed this week, is the Liberals' attempt to overhaul the Broadcasting Act to bring major streaming services like YouTube and Netflix under the heel of the CRTC. This is generally a pretty bad idea — and we'll get into that in a second. But the passing of the first major overhaul of the act since the '90s will, we expect, be heralded by the usual suspects of CanCon leeches who see in the legislation an opportunity to siphon evil Big Tech profit while forcing major platforms to force-feed Canadians into consuming more home-grown shite.
Anyway, part of the bill, it is hoped, will force online streamers to feature more Canadian content for Canadian users, particularly content that highlights the usual progressive checkboxes. And while this does make us roll our eyes a bit — just make good stuff and let people choose what they want for themselves! — we admit that this provision is the less objectionable aspect of C-11.
After this, matters get much more dicey. The attempts to force tech companies to pay for more CanCon will almost certainly backfire in the long run: companies like YouTube have already promised that they will comply with legislation by creating pass-through fees for their creators. In other words, if the government forces YouTube to pay a percentage of its profits into a CanCon fund, YouTube will generate that revenue the only way it can — by skimming more cash from its content creators and re-directing some to the creation of Canadian shows that are then commercialized by major broadcasting networks like Rogers. Seems fair!
Where the bill goes off the rails is over years-long battle over user-generated content protections. Upon hitting the upper chamber, the senate actually advocated for amendments that would ensure that Joe Blow YouTuber wasn't going to fall under the auspices of CRTC regulation — changes that were rejected by the House. How the CRTC defines a content generator worthy of its regulation, or uses any of its new powers, is now up for consideration by the CRTC itself.
Obviously, we at The Line are concerned about how a regulator is going to employ poorly defined and vaguely stipulated legislative powers to control how Canadians are presented which content, and by whom. We are open to the hopeful possibility that the CRTC is so completely in over their heads that all of the concerns about the bill prove fruitless and overblown. But as a rule, we don't like to rely on the incompetence of our betters to assure our protections and freedoms.
And that brings us to the major philosophical problems with C-11; the first is that legislation should generally not generate more confusion and uncertainty. As a rule, we think that our laws should be written in such a way that an ordinarily intelligent person with a standard education should be able to understand the laws that govern them. By this measure, the Broadcasting Act — like many others — fail a very basic test. C-11 is written so poorly that even experts seem to disagree about the scope of the bill and how our media landscape will be affected by it in the years to come.
Case in point: this week, one of your Line editors was interviewing Konrad von Finckenstein, former chair of the CRTC and one of the very few genuine experts in Canadian broadcasting laws and regulations. We described to him our weekly podcasts/videos: two colleagues casually discussing the big stories of the week and hashing out what to write about next, a conversation that is then offered (for free) in a podcast and on YouTube, which can be viewed anywhere in the world. We then asked him if that would be subject to the CRTC’s new powers under C-11.
He didn’t know, because no one knows. It’s not possible to know yet. The law isn’t clear enough. This isn’t good.
Our second, and most pressing, concern, however, is why our government feels compelled to expand the powers of our regulatory body at the very moment when those powers seem less relevant and more futile than ever before. The Broadcasting Act was initially intended to regulate a public good that was also a finite resource — namely, the electromagnetic spectrum that major broadcasting corporations used to project their programming into our homes and cars over the airwaves.
The purpose of such a regulator in an era when digital airspace is theoretically infinite, on the other hand, is totally lost on us. The barriers to entry for writers and artists has never been lower in human history. We have never had easier access to global capital. Nor has it been easier to cultivate a sustainable audience (Hello Line subscribers!) All Canadians have to do to ensure our unique perspective is heard in the world is simply to produce interesting stuff that an audience wants to consume.
There is, arguably, no reason for the CRTC, nor for the Broadcasting Act in its current form, to exist anymore. Digital space isn't finite. Canadians can easily find news and entertainment that is relevant to them. We don't need the government to ensure that Canadian content is produced and funded. Or, if some government intervention is deemed necessary, it need not amount to anything more complicated than a simple tax, with revenues diverted to one of this country's myriad granting agencies to aid production. Instead, we have a government that seems hellbent on extending the power of a regulator at the very moment in history that this regulator is most redundant.
Given that we're being led by an increasingly insular government that equates all criticism to disingenuous misinformation, and seems to want to stamp out the evils of wrong opinions on the Internet in the coming Online Harms bill, well, let's just say we're increasingly concerned and perturbed.
One final, and very quick, media note: Online Ottawa outlet Blacklock’s Reporter obtained an unintentionally hilarious letter from CBC Catherine Tait. Dated last November, Tait requested, and was denied, a meeting with CPC leader Pierre Poilievre in which she stated she wanted to discuss the implications of his promise to “defund the CBC.”
Now we at The Line don’t think it’s a bad thing for the president of the CBC to meet with political leaders. That’s part of her job. But there’s something about the tone of Tait’s letter that’s got us thinking she’s going to wind up getting a lot of our friends laid off.
The world has changed. Tait doesn’t seem to understand that people like Poilievre don’t give any fucks about her opinion about the CBC’s impact. If there’s one emerging defining trait of the new Conservatism, it’s lack of deference to tradition or authority (which is weird, but hey), and Tait’s status and power rests on both.
Now Poilievre may, indeed, blink on his promises to defund the CBC if in power, but if he does so, that won’t be because Catherine Tait schoolmarmed him into submission about how great and important the public broadcaster is.
Tait is only one of many Canadian cultural and political gatekeepers who haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that they’re still playing cricket on a plain that has been re-purposed for field hockey. No one is wearing tea dresses anymore and those clubs will take out a knee when you’re not watching. Frankly, we’re kinda shocked the CPC hasn’t already repurposed that letter into a fundraising campaign with the simple epitaph: “No.”
Alright, friends. A heads up: while things will operate normally here in terms of written content for the next week, we may not have a podcast or video next week. We hope to, but a lot is up in the air. Line editor Gurney is flying to London for the King’s coronation, and he’ll be providing a typically Line style of coverage on it (no commentary on the hats ladies are wearing, we promise). Depending on his travel schedule, a podcast will or won’t be possible. Stay tuned, and enjoy his very British dispatches when they come.
But for now, thanks for reading, subscribe if you can, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com