By Olivia Chow
For the past three years I've led training sessions with the Institute for Change Leaders↗︎ on leadership, organizing and action, working hands-on with thousands of students to teach them the skills they need to get involved and make real change in their communities.
The students learn from a detailed curriculum on how to recruit volunteers, how to strategize and choose tactics and how to develop new leaders. But at the heart of our approach, the very first thing we teach our students, is the power and importance of storytelling.
Stories can turn despair into hope, forge links between disparate individuals, and awaken new sources of power. We saw this power in the global youth-led climate strikes that took place last month, sparked by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s clear narrative of a generation betrayed by their elders, and unwilling to wait any longer for action.
The storytelling framework that we teach follows a simple model: “Here’s who I am, this is the challenge we have in common, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.” We teach the importance of face-to-face communication, but sometimes other tools are needed for activists and organizers to share their story with a larger audience, grow their community, and build power. In these circumstances, the existence of a strong public broadcaster in Canada has been essential to winning real change.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a story on the CBC that inspired me to take action, that led me to feel part of a larger community, or that helped me to understand and empathize with someone from a completely different background.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The CBC was built by people who believed deeply that the power of storytelling, harnessed to new broadcast technologies, could strengthen our sense of community and expand the potential of our democracy.
These pioneers believed that if broadcasters operated just to make profits, those with less influence would inevitably be neglected and ignored, undermining the public good for the benefit of private power. Graham Spry, a CCFer sometimes called↗︎ the father of Canadian public broadcasting, made the case for the creation of the CBC in the 1930s on this basis↗︎:
Let the air remain as the prerogative of commercial interests and subject to commercial control, and how free will be the voice, the heart of democracy? The maintenance, the enlargement of freedom, the progress, the purity of education, require the responsibility of broadcasting to the popular will. There can be no liberty complete, no democracy supreme, if the commercial interests dominate the vast, majestic resource of broadcasting.
Broadcasting today looks much different than it did in 1931, of course, but the dominance of commercial interests, and the accompanying damage to Canadian democracy, is still a live issue. We can see this effect in the shuttering of hundreds of local newspapers and broadcasters across Canada over the past decade, victims of corporate consolidation and downsizing.
Putting a number on the demise of regional media is vital, and there are efforts like the Local News Research Project↗︎ to count each of these closures, but ultimately what is being taken is not quantifiable. These communities are deprived of more than key sources of public accountability: they also lose platforms that help communities to understand their common challenges, assist them in locating power, and aid them in making the choice to fight for change.
These reflections point to a clear, ongoing need for the existence of the CBC. In individual communities across Canada it is often an indispensable teller of the stories that help to move people to action. These can be big stories of official corruption, like Enquête’s exposés↗︎ on organized crime in Quebec’s construction industry; a local story about a dangerous road crossing↗︎ that helps to galvanize a movement to improve safety measures; or stories of the climate crisis↗︎ that help communities to understand themselves as part of a larger struggle that no one country can confront alone.
Every genuine advance in this country, from socialized medicine to universal suffrage, marriage equality and beyond, came because ordinary people realized that they faced shared challenges and joined together to win the change they needed. As long as people remain isolated and alienated, unable to see themselves or their own struggle as part of a larger collective story, then real change can never take place. The struggle to build and strengthen Canada’s public broadcaster is motivated by a desire to overcome that isolation and alienation; or, in Spry’s words, to “enable different sections of Canada to speak their hopes and problems unto the others.”
At its best, the CBC can be a voice for these stories that otherwise would never be told, stories rooted in local experiences and shared challenges, and representative of diverse perspectives. And it can offer an honest assessment of who is responsible for the challenges that ordinary Canadians face, so that people fighting for change know where to address their demands.
From Yellowknife to Charlottetown, there has never been a greater need for strong, well-resourced public broadcasting. Our ability to meet our greatest shared challenges relies, in part, on ensuring that the CBC has the support, independence, and public funding it needs to be a voice of, and a platform for, ordinary Canadians fighting for a better country.