By Senator Peter Harder (Ontario)
Ethnic media outlets have traditionally played a crucial role in helping newcomers navigate life in their newly adopted home. Rarely, though, have they been as invaluable as they were during the Covid pandemic.
During its earliest and perhaps most alarming phase, federal officials grappled with how best to convey information to newcomers on protecting themselves from the virus. Many immigrants and refugees speak neither English nor French, while others hold a general distrust of government based on their experiences in their country of origin. Moreover, a large proportion of the individuals whose job it is to help vulnerable Canadians – personal service workers – are newcomers themselves.
The challenge was particularly acute given the financial difficulties facing so many outlets being counted on to disseminate information about hygiene and vaccine hesitancy. Advertising revenue during the pandemic plummeted, printing costs went way up, job losses accelerated, and a number of outlets faced potential closure. At least one publisher took out a personal loan to stay afloat.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of ethnic media kept operating, communicating information that no-doubt saved countless lives. The federal government also played a role in providing financial aid.
The story of ethnic media’s role during the pandemic is instrumental in demonstrating why Canada so badly needs minority language outlets to thrive. If we’re to reach our goals as a welcoming, innovative and productive nation, newcomers need to have access to information about Canadian mores, values and democratic systems.
Unfortunately, the challenges currently facing Canada’s minority language media are the same as those facing other Canadian outlets. Ad revenues are plummeting and eyeballs are being drawn away by big tech platforms who post content produced by those outlets, often without paying for it
This erosion is a big reason why I am sponsoring Bill C-18, the Online News Act, in Canada’s Senate. This legislation would compel big tech companies, like Google and Meta, to start paying their fair share for content produced by outlets like the one you’re reading today.
Without this bill, a number of ethnic media outlets will face potential bankruptcy and newcomers relying on them for information about their new country will have a harder time adjusting. According to a recent U.S. Department of Justice civil antitrust suit, “as a result of its illegal monopoly, and by its own estimates, Google pockets on average more than 30 per cent of the advertising dollars that flow through its digital advertising technology products.”
Opponents of the bill will argue that the big companies are already doing deals with some of the major players in Canadian media, which makes the bill superfluous.
Unfortunately, much of Canada’s ethnic media has been left out of these agreements, according to Maria Saras-Voutsinas, executive director of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council. Big Tech platforms should not be allowed to pick and choose the outlets they want to deal with. If they’re going to pay for content produced by big media companies, they should also do so for others.
Other opponents also argue that the market should decide the fate of these outlets and let the chips fall where they may.
But, as proven during the pandemic, many of these outlets provide a very specific public service along with their private sector role. And, while I do believe that the market must ultimately reflect the desires of consumers, outlets need time to adjust to the new environment.
One of the more overarching reasons for the bill, of course, is that ethnic news outlets are indispensable to educating newcomers about democracy – a system that is being undermined in so many parts of the world, including in many of the nations which were once home to new Canadians.
Ms. Saras-Voutsinas notes that the availability of Canadian news has made a world of difference to her own community. Reading about Canadian current events in their first language has allowed many Greek-Canadians to feel invested in their new country and, because of that, they have taken courses to learn French and/or English, often leading to citizenship.
“This is what the news can do: It can take people out of isolation and better-explain their neighbours, their province and their country, and that is good for democracy,” she told a House of Commons Committee examining the bill.
Over the next several weeks, Canada’s senators will spend a good chunk of time examining C-18. Not all senators approve of the bill in its current form and will offer criticisms. Some may try to make amendments. Comprehensive debates and sober second thought are what the Senate was made for.
That said, this bill must pass before we rise for the summer, allowing for negotiations with Big Tech companies to begin sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it’s possible that financially strapped outlets will fail to survive.
Strong, free and fiercely independent ethnic media outlets are the backbone of Canada’s rich cultural mosaic, and they play a key role in building social cohesion and strengthening our democracy. C-18 will help ensure that they are commercially viable and can continue to give underrepresented communities a strong voice for years to come.Senator Peter Harder is the Senate sponsor of C-18 and the former Government Representative in the Senate.