At about 5 p.m. on January 29, 1970, it occurred to me that I was having a wonderful time, and that I might never again achieve such national prominence.
As a university professor, a critic of the media and an editor of a rowdy new magazine called The Mysterious East, I was testifying before Senator Keith Davey’s Senate Committee On The Mass Media in Ottawa. I made fun of the pomposities the committee had heard from newspaper moguls; I gave chapter and verse on stories that had been misrepresented or ignored by the Maritime papers; I excoriated the death grip of K. C. Irving on the press of New Brunswick.
I announced that our little monthly was establishing “The Rubber Duck Award” — our publishing company was called Rubber Duck Press — for the most outstanding instance each month of foolishness, knavery or incompetence affecting the Maritimes. Then I produced an actual rubber duck and declared that the first such award would go to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had just applied to thrust its snout still deeper into the troughs of Ottawa while reducing its services.
I love to make thundering, funny speeches denouncing the unrighteous. It was splendid to sit that afternoon swapping lines with Senators, watching the reporters take notes, and to make pungent remarks in the Railway Committee Room about the railways. It did my heart good the next day to see my own words quoted back to me in papers from across the country, to discover a Canadian Press story characterizing me as “a cutting east wind” which had blown through the stuffy chambers of the Senate.
For a fleeting moment, you see, I had the impression that I mattered in the public life of Our Democracy. It seemed possible, briefly, that a mere citizen might influence the future shape of Canada, however slightly. A pleasant feeling, no question about it.
Over the years, I’ve put a good deal of time and money into various briefs, for various organizations — the LeDain Commission on drugs, the Senate Poverty Committee, city councils and provincial governments. If you have strong opinions about public matters, you won’t find a better means of voicing them than a brief to government. The press will report your views and even the government may notice them. At the very least you’ll have the feeling that, if being a citizen means more than just an occasional ballot, you’ve done Something Worthy.
It’s a pleasure that damn few of us can afford.
Last winter Gerry Doucet, a bright young Acadian lawyer and a former Nova Scotia cabinet minister, announced that he and some others would apply for a license to put a new radio station into Port Hawkesbury, 30 miles from my home. Our only radio station now is CJFX in Antigonish, a relentlessly local private station whose programming is dominated by country music and talk shows. Late at night, when nobody’s listening, it discharges its obligations as a CBC affiliate by running 30 hours of network programs a week.
Six months before Doucet’s application, the management
and the union at the big Nova Scotia Forest Industries pulp mill had written a joint letter to the CBC calling for full service in what is rapidly developing into a considerable industrial centre. But the CBC is unaccustomed to being wanted and declined to install a station.
The Canadian Radio-Television Commission scheduled a hearing on Doucet’s application for early February in Halifax and I decided to take the opportunity to ask whether we really needed another private station as much as we needed the CBC. I would suggest that Doucet’s application should only be approved after we had a proper public station, and I would pummel the Upper Canadian mandarins of the CBC. In particular, I would denounce the affiliate system as a fraud which permits the CBC to claim that it reaches most Canadians when in fact it merely offers cheap fillers for the less profitable hours of a private broadcaster’s day.
Why me? I work full-time in publishing and broadcasting, and I can whip a brief together more easily than most. I knew I wasn’t alone; after all, there was that letter from the fellows at the pulp mill. If we all badgered the CBC, I thought, maybe we would eventually get a station.
Writing the brief and the speechlet for the actual hearing and amassing the various supporting documents took about four days. Photocopying the whole thing ran nearly $40, since there was little point in doing the brief unless I had copies enough for the press. The nearest copier is in Port Hawkesbury; using it took me an afternoon. Driving the 200 miles to Halifax, delivering the speechlet and driving back would take another couple of days. At 15 cents a mile it would cost $60, plus the cost of accommodation in town.
And I’m a free-lance writer now, not a professor. To make $12,000 a year — about half what I could expect from teaching and rather less than the Newfoundland trawlermen went on strike for — means netting $50 for every working day in the year. I don’t make anywhere near that, but it provides a guideline of sorts.
Are you ready? The time I spent on the brief was worth $325. Travel costs would total about $110 and long-distance calls, photocopying, postage and the like probably added up to another $60. Four hundred and eighty-five dollars!
To cap it all, my car broke down halfway to Halifax. While a mechanic labored, I missed the hearing. After all that time and money, I didn’t even have the pleasure of bandying words with the mighty.
The thing bears thinking about. The CRTC was eager to entertain a citizen’s brief, I must say. I had all the advantages: I write fairly quickly, I’m not tied to regular hours, and though I’m far from rich I can afford to participate in a modest way in the political process. But at those prices, how many Canadians can afford to exercise their citizenship?
In this country, alas, citizenship remains a rich man’s pastime like collecting Old Masters or breeding racehorses. The ability to affect the decisions that shape your life should be more than an expensive pleasure; it should be a right.
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