Canada Envy

Is it just me or does it seem like Canada is way cooler than the United States?  I’m not talking about the temperature, people; obviously, it’s a colder clime. I’m talking about the culture, the media, the sensibility.

Americans have a superiority complex. Our solipsism and exceptionalism go back to the beginning of our nation, the belief in “manifest destiny,” and subsequent leadership role in the world. While Canadians (and everyone else around the world) grow up learning a lot about these United States, we Americans don’t know our Nunavut from our Saskatchewan. I admit that I was raised to believe that Canadians were basically like Americans, only better at ice hockey, that they didn’t have a distinct culture and (like everyone else in the world) just wanted to be more like “us.” 

But over the years, I’ve been able to shed that propagandistic misconception, thanks largely to the CBC and its extremely hip programs As it Happens and Sunday Morning, which some public radio listeners in the U.S. have had the great fortune to hear. As it Happens has the grooviest theme music and the hostesses with the mostesses; Sunday Morning used to broadcast the most engaging sound-rich documentaries, some of which I still can’t get out of my mind 20 years after hearing them.

My Canada Envy was sealed during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics when I was nearly moved to tears during the opening ceremonies at the inclusion and celebration of the First Nations, the native peoples of Canada. I know this multimedia extravaganza was carefully orchestrated to deliver goosebumps, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how an Olympics in the U.S. would never put such a loving and respectful and lengthy spotlight on Native America.

One of the great benefits of our interconnected media age is that we can now see clearly that there are people and countries and cultures who not only have different, but (perhaps) better ideas than our own.

So what does Canada have that we don’t have (besides nationalized health care, lots of land, kd lang, and a bilingual society)? They have Susan Marjetti. She’s the Managing Director of CBC Toronto whose presentation at a panel at this week’s Public Radio Program Directors conference in Denver blew me away. The panel was called “The Next Step Up: Inclusiveness.” 

Ever year, at every public radio gathering, there’s a mandatory session (or two or three) where a handful of people of color in leadership roles at networks or stations or on air, urge the public radio world to get a grip on the changing demographics of the country and do something proactive to attract and serve the people soon-to-be formerly known as “minorities.” Indeed, the latest RTDNA report shows that broadcast newsrooms around the U.S. have been whitening up, even as the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse.

Reaching a broader audience isn’t just the right and smart thing to do, it’s what we must do to deserve the word “public” in our name.

CBC’s Susan Marjetti gets it. With wit and wisdom and no wagging fingers, she talked about the steps CBC Toronto has taken to change from within and create programming to “reflect and connect the city in all its diversity.

Toronto is one of the most multicultural places on the planet; nearly half of its residents are foreign-born. CBC’s efforts to integrate its staff and diversify its coverage has paid off the ratings, making Metro Morning #1 in the market. That’s an amazing feat for public media!

In her talk, Marjetti shared a comment that has resonated with her and has motivated her own work. During a management meeting on diversity, a colleague said, “If we don’t get this right, we’ll be a precious emblem to a dying elite.”

This powerful warning is echoed and affirmed in NPR’s latest research, which shows that the non-public-radio-listening-public finds public radio too “elitist and stuffy.” Read more in Current. 

And, definitely keep checking back to the PRPD website to listen to audio from that session when it’s posted. 

But, while I speak of our fine neighbors to the north. I must share, too, that Canada is not only leading the way on issues of Diversity. They are also kicking moose-butt on the innovation front. 

Since I pride myself on finding and sharing “groundbreaking, astonishing, inspiring work” in the world of public media, let me entertain you with a couple of Canadian public media projects that reflect that great nation’s commitment to Innoversity.

1.  Label Free Zone.  This National Film Board of Canada (NFB) project is an amazing and accessible platform that shares the voices and dreams of differently-abled Canadians. “Our mission is to share our stories with Canada and the rest of the world. It is also to provide a space where we can challenge and change the attitudes that exclude and isolate people who have been labeled with an intellectual disability.” The site is sensitive, informative and truly well-done. 



2. CBC Aboriginal. This website aggregates and features news and information about Native Canadians. It’s a place where you can hear native legends, explore deep coverage of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission or link to the “Ab-Originals” contemporary native music stream. It’s not a fancy, slick, multimedia site, but it is another example of how Canadian media simultaneously integrates and protects the integrity of native culture.





3. Canada’s Champions of Change. This CBC-sponsored contest to honor Canadian volunteers is a powerful and positive engagement tool celebrating citizens who contribute to the well-being of community and country. It invites individual nominations and stories, but also connects people to opportunities to make a difference. Much more interesting than the reality shows and contest-driven programming in the U.S.



4. Test Tube. Featuring Canadian philosopher, scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki, this experimental interactive site blends film, animation and Twitter feeds to engage us in an honest conversation about the unsustainability of growth as an economic model. It’s fascinating blend of storytelling and data visualization. This is a must-experience media project.

What do you think of these uniquely Canadian public media efforts? Do they make you want to be Canadian, too? I don’t think anyone has built a wall on the Northern border, yet…have they?