Knowing how the CRTC shapes and corrects speech, I wondered – and still do – how the regulator could possibly resist that inclination once placed in charge of the entire Internet, writes Peter Menzies in Convivium.
By Peter Menzies, June 15, 2021
Not long after I ended my decade at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) I began writing about communications issues.
Pretty geeky stuff, I guess, but now my views are apparently so in demand that Convivium.ca wants me to write about what it’s like to be one of the popular kids. So, first, let's rewind the tape.
Writing about CRTC and Internet matters is something I started doing because I like writing and it’s obvious we are living in a time of significant technological change. The world, I thought, really didn’t need one more guy penning endless thumb suckers on politics and I have a real 8-5 job. But the winters are long and dark on the Prairies and a guy needs a hobby.
So I have tracked the events that led us to today since Melanie Joly, a sensible and progressive Heritage Minister, discovered in 2017 that the Canadian Content (Cancon) industry she governed believes more firmly in its regulatory entitlements than Franklin Graham believes in Jesus.
Joly’s attempts to take a modern approach to film and television production led to her eventual demotion in cabinet and a series of events followed that created Bill C-10, which defines the online world as broadcasting and puts the CRTC in charge of it. To many of us, it is ridiculous to think Canada’s communications framework and the public’s Internet needs could be met through something as ill-suited to the 21st Century as the 1991 Broadcasting Act. But if you have been swept off your feet by Cancon producers convinced they represent the one and only caring heart of Canadian culture, it apparently makes all the sense in the world.
Which pretty much describes the mentality of our current Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who has been more than happy heeding the collection of guilds and producers fed and watered by a regulatory system that cares more about serving bureaucracy than the public. And more about lining its own pockets than about citizens’ rights to free expression. The Bloc, NDP and Conservatives all bought in, too.
Knowing how the CRTC shapes and corrects speech, I wondered – and still do – how the regulator could possibly resist that inclination once placed in charge of the entire Internet. But there was no political fuss and legacy media seem completely disconnected from freedom of speech issues these days. If it hadn’t been for the relentless work of Dr. Michael Geist and the support of others, I probably would have given up.
All was going swimmingly for Guilbeault and in mid-April, having caught wind of his next act – an online harms bill creating a new Guardians of the Public Good speech regulator – I wrote what I considered to be a last chance warning. Convivium.ca published it.
And then Big Cancon and Guilbeault overreached and amended the Bill to remove a clause excluding regulation of your Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Tik Tok posts.
That was on the afternoon of Friday, April 23. Geist broke the news on Twitter but media except for Blacklock’s Reporter - a small independent, subscription-only, non government-funded online news organization - still didn’t care. Blacklock’s filed a report the following Monday. Anja Karadeglija of National Post then asked me for a comment. A veteran of The Wire Report, she has a better understanding than most reporters of the impact of the CRTC.
Thinking she was still with the trade publication, I gave myself permission to say what I really think. This is what appeared on the front page of the National Post:
“Granting a government agency authority over legal user-generated content — particularly when backed up by the government’s musings about taking down websites — doesn’t just infringe on free expression, it constitutes a full-blown assault upon it and, through it, the foundations of democracy,” said Peter Menzies, a former commissioner of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.
“It’s difficult to contemplate the levels of moral hubris, incompetence or both that would lead people to believe such an infringement of rights is justifiable,” said Menzies.
Karadeglija quoted others such as Geist and Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms programs at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who expressed similar concerns. The NDP and Bloc raised eyebrows, the Conservatives were stirred from their slumber and life got very busy.
I did three radio interviews and wrote a column for the Post almost immediately. The next week I co-authored a commentary with former CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein for the Globe & Mail, did more radio interviews, did podcasts with groups from the left and right of the spectrum, wrote some more and was part of an online panel for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute which in turn generated more publicity. Members of Parliament called and keep calling. So did the Albany Club, Canada Strong and Free Network, Left of the Box, CKNW in Vancouver and CHQR in Calgary.
I turned down Evan Solomon and Charles Adler because the interview times interfered with my day job. Senator Pamela Wallin had me as a guest on her No Nonsense with Pamela Wallin podcast and Tony Clement invited me to record a show along with Lethbridge MP Rachael Harder for Boom & Bust. I wrote another column for the Toronto Star, a couple for Jen Gerson at The Line, still owe one to the Toronto Sun and that “full blown assault” quote has shown up in news and commentary all over the country and beyond, including the Wall Street Journal.
My background in journalism is no longer a source of pride but, like the getaway car driver, it endowed me with a certain set of skills that have combined with another collection of experiences to mix a cocktail well-suited to being a helpful henchman in an intellectual caper masterminded by others.
Sure, after muddling away on this, it’s nice to get some affirmation that “hey, maybe that guy was on to something” but momentary fame and notoriety are indistinguishable and I’ve been there before. Satisfactory as it might be to read things like “Menzies is correct” (Mark Bonokoski. Toronto Sun), it’s just as unsettling to know that others are working to maintain that you’re an overwrought idiot. If life has taught me anything, it’s that these flickers end swiftly. Meanwhile, the ruthless determination of the Big Cancon lobby led by Canada’s certified creative sector lobby hangs over everything.
That means most of me just wants to go back to my quiet little life without many Twitter fights – the one with golf, Pickleball, lawn bowling, patio gardening and soft summer evenings. But so long as there’s a chance that Bill C-10 and its assault on freedom of speech is alive in Parliament, the St. Jude in me is unlikely to grant those pleasant liberties.
Who knows - maybe not all of my causes are lost.
Peter Menzies is a former CRTC vice chair and is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.