By Ryan O’Connor
On April 10th CBC/Radio Canada announced an immediate budget cut of $130 million. This move will have dire consequences for the network, with 657 jobs cut over the next two years, numerous service cutbacks, and a reduction in original television programming. Having already lost the Canadian rights to broadcast the National Hockey League to Rogers Communications – the iconic and revenue-rich Hockey Night in Canada will air for two more seasons under the production of Rogers before fading to black – the network has since announced it will no longer compete for professional sports altogether. Needless to say, the future of the CBC is uncertain.
In times like this it is worth remembering the important work carried out by the network. For me, nowhere is this clearer than in the CBC’s work on the environment. Many are familiar with The Nature of Things, which has aired on television since 1960, and with arch-environmentalist David Suzuki as its host since 1979. Suzuki came to The Nature of Things having hosted the radio program Quirks and Quarks since its inception in 1975. Both programs have played an important role in popularizing science and bring environmental issues to the forefront of the public’s mind. Incidentally, they remain among the CBC’s more popular programs.
Lesser known is the CBC’s role in kickstarting environmental activism in Ontario. On October 22, 1967 the network broadcast an original program titled The Air of Death. Produced by Larry Gosnell and hosted by national news anchor Stanley Burke, this program aimed to awaken Canadians to the realities of air pollution. (Many, it seems, naively believed air pollution was a problem in the United States, but one that didn’t seep across the border.) This program drew a sizeable audience and received rave reviews for its informative message, but it also raised the hackles of industry for its depiction of events in Dunnville, Ontario, where effluent from the nearby Electric Reduction Company (ERCO) phosphate plant was damaging farmers’ crops and crippling livestock. While ERCO had previously acknowledged its fault, and had been paying damages to farmers affected by its fluorine pollution, the company took exception to allegations that it was making members of the community sick. A veritable witch hunt ensued, with officials at ERCO endeavouring to discredit Gosnell, Burke, and the rest of the team responsible for The Air of Death. Two high profile investigations ensued: a one-sided Royal Commission in which friends of ERCO served as commissioners and a Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) hearing that exonerated those responsible for the program from the accusations of shoddy workmanship and bias.
The efforts to discredit Gosnell and his colleagues resulted in its own pushback. Citizens who had their environmental consciousness awakened by The Air of Death prepared briefs to present to the Royal Commission and CRTC hearing. Likewise, public concern over pollution and industry’s efforts to suppress the public good led to the founding of Toronto’s first environmental activist groups, the Group Action to Stop Pollution (1967) and Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto (1969). While the former quickly fizzled out after an inspired launch, Pollution Probe would play an instrumental role in developing the environmental community in Ontario and across the country.
Supporters of public broadcasting argue that a vibrant CBC is necessary to examine issues that other news agencies will not handle, free from corporate interests. The Air of Death is just one, albeit a prime, example of courageous programming from the network. It is true that the television landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with a proliferation of channels that only the most forward-thinking individual could have envisioned in 1967. While some might say that this sort of work is now better suited for others to handle, it is clear that if the budget cuts continue, the very sustainability of the CBC will be in question.
Ryan O’Connor is a Research Associate of the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University and author of The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (UBC Press, November 2014). His article “An Ecological Call to Arms: The Air of Death and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario,” can be read online here.