The Beginnings of Public Broadcasting in Canada: The CRBC, 1932-1936

Mary Vipond (Concordia University)

Canadian broadcasting developed almost entirely in the private sector in its first decade, from 1922 to 1932. Although there were a few stations owned by public corporations, the vast majority of the broadcasting stations in existence in Canada in 1932 were privately owned for purposes of publicity and /or profit. Unlike other mass media, however, radio broadcasting was quite closely regulated by the state from its earliest days, specifically by the Radio Branch of the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries. This was a consequence of the assumption, dating back to 1905, that wireless communication needed international and national supervision to prevent interference on a limited spectrum and for security reasons. Among other regulations, and unlike the practice in the United States, all Canadian radio owners had to purchase receiving-set licences annually.

Canadian private broadcasters in the 1920s struggled with rising costs, inadequate financing, and regulatory flaws. Awakened to the difficulties of the industry, in 1928 the Mackenzie King government set up a Royal Commission headed by Sir John Aird to investigate broadcasting. The Royal Commission's 1929 Report recommended the end of private broadcasting in Canada in favour of a limited number of high-power stations owned and run by a government company. This was justified as the only way to provide adequate financing for Canadian broadcasting (receiver-licence fees could be utilized to pay for programs, network lines, and transmission) and to prevent the further spread of American radio into Canada (many Canadians could receive American stations directly, and four Canadian stations were affiliates of NBC and CBS by 1930). With the fall of the Liberal government in 1930, however, the decision about what to do with the Aird Report was left to the Conservatives.

In March 1932 the government of R. B. Bennett set up a House of Commons Special Committee on Radio Broadcasting, and two months later, based upon its report, passed the Radio Broadcasting Act. The act created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) as the federal broadcaster and also gave it the major responsibility for regulating all Canadian stations. While the 1932 Act envisaged the eventual government takeover of all stations, in the short and medium term it provided for supervisory regulation of ongoing private stations and for their use as vehicles to carry the programs developed by the CRBC. The CRBC was thus primarily a program-creating, network-organizing, and regulatory body, quite unlike its putative model, the BBC, in that it functioned in a competitive marketplace side by side with both Canadian and American private stations. It was also different in that it was partially financed by advertising revenues; that decision was taken not only because it was believed that licence-fee income alone would not be enough to support the organization but because there was general agreement that one of the roles of Canadian radio was to provide advertising opportunities for Canadian businesses.

In the fall of 1932 three Commissioners were named to run the CRBC: Toronto journalist and Saturday Night editor Hector Charlesworth became Chairman, Thomas Maher, a Quebec Conservative and forestry engineer Vice-Chairman, and Lt.-Col. W. A. Steel, a radio engineer, the third Commissioner and technical expert. It is difficult to determine exactly what the three appointees believed to be their task when they began. There is little evidence that any of them except Steel had thought much about radio before 1933, and Steel's expertise was primarily in the technical realm. The Commissioners were, nevertheless, faced with the task of creating a new institution, a public broadcasting commission, unprecedented in North America. They had to sort out what its relationship would be to the state (the government and other agencies), to the listeners (only about one-third of Canadians had receiving sets in 1932), to the private broadcasting stations and other business interests (with 10 years of investment in private radio behind them), and to the Canadian public as a whole (preoccupied by the Depression and resistant to tax increases).

In many senses, the CRBC experiment was a failure. Within a few months of its creation it was being attacked in Parliament, in newspapers, and by numerous listeners and taxpayers. While the Commission had some defenders, its critics were vociferous and effective. In 1934 and again in 1936 special parliamentary committees were set up to investigate its activities. After the second committee reported, and with the Liberals in office again, the Commission was disbanded and a new broadcasting act created its successor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Despite its apparent failure, however, the CRBC successfully performed certain essential functions for the state which had created it. The interests that united in 1932 to introduce a public element into the Canadian broadcasting system remained committed to the concept in 1936, for the CRBC, whatever its flaws, fulfilled some of their major goals.

Some Marxist analysts of the state have suggested that it performs three main functions: capital accumulation, legitimation, and coercion (Panitch, 1977, pp. 8-9). While very few commentators have looked at Canadian public broadcasting agencies in this light, most of the literature about the founding of the CRBC and the CBC focuses on the legitimation function. Occasionally explicitly (Grigg, 1989, pp. 202-203), usually implicitly, the authorities suggest that public broadcasting is a case where the state's need for legitimation (specifically the justification of the Canadian "national" project) overrode its desire to enhance capital accumulation. While public broadcasting reduced the opportunities for private broadcasters and other businesses in their pursuit of profit, so the argument goes, the state sanctioned this, and forced private interests to accept it, because of the apparently greater need to keep Canadian broadcasting in Canadian hands for nationalistic reasons. A slightly more sophisticated version of this idea is that a part of the Canadian business élite (namely merchant capital) endorsed public broadcasting as a means of preserving the east-west economic, political, and cultural framework, while another élite faction, comprising private broadcasters, manufacturers, and advertisers, opposed the move to public broadcasting but were defeated by the successful lobbying of the Bennett government by the nationalistic Canadian Radio League (CRL) founded by Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt.

My discussion of the CRBC and its relationship to the Canadian state will be structured empirically rather than theoretically around a modified version of these three functions of capital accumulation, coercion, and legitimation. This is by no means a complete study of the role of the CRBC as a state agency. Rather, it presents three snapshots of the CRBC at work. The first picture offers a glimpse of the ways in which the CRBC supported and indeed sponsored the interests of manufacturers, advertisers, and entrepreneurs involved in the private broadcasting business. The second is a portrait of the CRBC as program censor, specifically of its handling of broadcasts by the Communist Party of Canada. Finally, the CRBC's role as a moulder of national sentiment will be addressed by focusing the lens on one program, Canadian Cavalcade, produced by the CRBC for the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935.


In its report tabled in the House of Commons on May 9, 1932, the Special Committee on Radio Broadcasting recommended the creation of a Radio Commission with the power to regulate Canadian broadcasting; to own and operate stations; to originate and purchase programs; to prohibit, if it so chose, privately owned networks; and, "subject to the approval of the Parliament of Canada, to take over all broadcasting in Canada" (Special Committee, 1932, pp. 729-731). The committee recommended the construction, as revenues allowed, of a chain of high- and medium-power stations to be owned by the Commission; low-power stations were to remain in private hands but be regulated by the Commission. The Commission was to establish a national network programming service as soon as possible. The CRBC's revenues were to come from the annual receiver-licence fees and from advertising.

This was, then, the essence of the Radio Broadcasting Act passed May 26, 1932 which created the CRBC (Bird, 1988, pp. 115-122). What changes were made from the committee's plan were mainly in the direction of weakening the power of the Commission. Thus, for example, the Act did not specify the construction of a chain of high-power stations nor did it specify that those remaining in private hands must be of low power. It also severely restricted the ability of the Commission to borrow money and specified that any acquisition or construction of stations by the CRBC must be approved by Parliament. While the CRBC was to be funded mainly by the $2 per year licence fee paid by radio owners, the money was to go into the Consolidated Revenue Fund and then it would be annually allocated by Parliament--which allowed, if nothing else, frequent political scrutiny of the Commission's activities. Moreover, the Act laid out in considerable detail the regulatory functions of the Commission--a clear sign that the government assumed that for some time to come private stations would continue to operate.

In other words, the legislation set up a tentative, experimental, public broadcasting system, one that might in future become strong and important, but also might not. The Radio Broadcasting Act was worded in such a way that not only did it not clearly endorse public ownership of broadcasting facilities, but it in fact served the purpose--in perpetuity if Parliament so wished--of subsidizing private stations and advertisers by using government-administered listener fees to pay for program-creation and networking costs, thereby enabling private broadcasters and advertisers to cover a larger audience of consumers than they could afford to reach out of their own resources (Vipond, 1992, chap. 11).

In practice, the CRBC worked in exactly this way. In its four years of existence, seven Commission stations were set up, none with more than 5,000 watts of power, three fully owned and four leased from private firms. During the same period, there was a net increase of six private stations. Several private stations were already broadcasting at 10,000 watts before the CRBC was created; one station (CKY Winnipeg, owned by the Manitoba Telephone System) was allowed to increase to a power of 15,000 watts between 1932 and 1936 (Peers, 1969, pp. 161-162). In sum, while there was a new Commission presence in the broadcasting market, the position of the private stations was not reduced but in fact slightly enhanced. Moreover, the five private stations previously affiliated with American networks were allowed to retain these links, and a new regulation restricting foreign programming to 40% of the day so generously defined a Canadian program (as one sponsored by a firm that had a manufacturing or distribution base in Canada) that it probably had little impact.

A combination of meagre financing and government reluctance prevented the CRBC from setting up its own chain of stations, so the Commission had to arrange time on private stations in order to fulfil its mandate to provide national programming as promptly as possible. One of the first tasks the Commissioners undertook, therefore, was to begin negotiations for program time in the prime evening hours on key stations in major centres across the country. While technically the Commission could have forced the release of these hours, this was deemed politically unwise, so rental fees for the time needed were offered instead. But the Commission could not possibly pay the amount large stations such as CFRB Toronto or CKAC Montreal could make from commercial rentals. It was therefore forced to the alternative of leasing and operating its own stations in the two largest cities; these stations were partially financed by local advertising. In other centres, however, private stations were more than willing to be part of the "basic" network, for fees ranging from $250 to $1,500 per month. This money was enough to keep some marginal stations afloat, and was much sought after by the stations not so privileged. (The Commission normally used the largest station in each centre as its basic outlet; this preferential treatment of some private stations caused much political difficulty for the CRBC.) The Commission also supplied free programs to any other private station that wished to take them, and paid most of the wireline costs of bringing the programs from production centres (mainly Toronto). By 1936 there were 21 stations on the basic network (affiliates) and another 30 that took some programs. In that fiscal year about 40% of the CRBC's total budget went for payments to private stations and renting wirelines from CN, CP, and various telephone companies, and another 29% went to providing programs for these stations as well as its own (CRBC, 1935-36, p. 22). Almost 70% of the Commission's expenditures, then, served either directly or indirectly to subsidize private broadcasters and advertisers.

Although the profitability of private stations is not a matter of public record, generally the situation for private broadcasters in 1936 was probably no worse than it had been before 1932, and in some respects it was better. The stations least happy with the CRBC arrangement were the most marginal and the most profitable--the marginal operations because the Commission began to enforce increasingly expensive technical standards, the profitable operations because they resented competition for commercial dollars from stations owned by a publicly subsidized body. Private stations that benefited from the system, especially those that became members of the basic network (about one-quarter of all private stations), complained little. For those with grievances, however, the new status of the regulatory body was crucial. Instead of being controlled in a rather ad hoc fashion by a few Radio Branch bureaucrats who had grown up with the broadcasting industry, the private broadcasters now were regulated by a highly visible and much discussed publicly appointed Commission, which could be accused of being simultaneously regulator and competitor. Moreover, they were denied the privilege of forming their own national network, although private regional networking continued. As is the case with most regulatory agencies, the CRBC provided certain benefits for the private broadcasters, and none of them advocated the abandonment of regulation. What was different after 1932 was that when the Commission made a decision that was believed to be contrary to the short-term profit of a particular station or group of stations, the protest became political and public.

With the exception of part of the private broadcasting industry, however, far from threatening private interests in the broadcasting market, the so-called public broadcasting system set up by the Act of 1932 seems to have been their benefactor. Most particularly the CRBC arrangement served the interests of Canadian advertisers and manufacturers (many of the them branch plants of American firms) by expanding audience size and subsidizing advertising. The Canadian Manufacturers' Association (CMA) and the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) by 1934 were both committed defenders of the 1932 Act and the CRBC (Vipond, 1992, pp. 276-277). There was a simple reason for this support. No longer was the full cost of broadcasting carried by the advertisers; now network lines and some programs were paid for by the Canadian listening public. More Canadians were now able to hear Canadian programs, an outcome much desired by the Canadian Radio League, and more Canadians were also now able to hear advertisements for the products of Canadian manufacturers, which pleased the CMA and ACA. Despite the disbanding of the Commission in 1936, there remained in place long into the CBC era the fundamental structure of the system whereby audience-acquisition for advertisers on both the private and public stations was subsidized by the fees paid by radio owners.


One of the first tasks of the CRBC was to draw up a list of 108 rules and regulations for all Canadian broadcasting stations; these were adopted by Order-in-Council on April 15, 1933 (Bird, 1988, pp. 124-132). While there had been various formal and informal regulations imposed by the Radio Branch before 1932, that body had always maintained that it exerted no control over program content. Although there were in fact exceptions to that claim, those exceptions--especially the refusal to renew the licences of the stations owned by the International Bible Students' Association in 1928 because of offensive remarks about political and religious authorities--had been very controversial (Vipond, 1992, chaps. 6, 9). Now authorized by the government to take over some supervision of program content, the Commissioners drafted two regulations to deal with this issue. Regulation 90 read:

No broadcasting station may broadcast any speech, printed matter, program or advertising matter containing abusive or defamatory statements with regard to individuals or institutions, or statements or suggestions contrary to the express purpose of any existing legislation; as for example, the Patent Medicine Act or any regulations promulgated thereunder.

Regulation 91 read:

The Commission reserves the right to prohibit the broadcasting of any matter until the continuity or record or transcription or both have been submitted to the Commission for examination and have been approved by them. (Cited in Bird, 1988, pp. 130-131)2

As far as the regulation about patent medicines was concerned, the CRBC reached an arrangement with the Department of National Health whereby all continuities for patent medicines were censored by that department. The Commission thus avoided being the focus of criticism in that field. Similarly other restrictions on advertising material, such as rules instituted against mining stock promotions, met with the general approval of all the mainstream interests involved. The major use of Regulations 90 and 91 concerned two other potential problem areas: religious and political broadcasts. Before proceeding further to examine the regulation of Communist Party broadcasts specifically, I should mention that the very expansive definition in Regulation 90 prohibiting "statements or suggestions contrary to the express purpose of any existing legislation," which clearly could have precluded normal political debate, was not used in this controversial fashion and the regulation was revised in August 1935 to the somewhat more satisfactory:

No broadcasting station may broadcast any speech, printed matter or program containing defamatory, libellous or obscene statements with regard to persons or institutions, or statements of a treasonable character or intended to promote change by unlawful means and which might lead to a breach of the peace, or any advertising matter containing false or deceptive statements. (Cited in Weir, 1965, p. 189)

It may be noted that Regulations 90 and 91 suggested a dual level of responsibility. In the first instance it was the task of each station (whether owned privately or by the Commission) to ensure that no prohibited speech was aired; the Commission also, however, reserved the right to examine and possibly ban written texts in advance. The Commission soon learned that the former course was strongly preferable. Edicts from the CRBC's Ottawa headquarters caused trouble which could redound on both the Commission and the Conservative government. But if local stations were left to decide what was acceptable programming, then the Commission could always claim it was not to blame for any perceived interference with free speech. To put it another way, one great (political) advantage of the bipartite nature of Regulations 90 and 91 was that it gave both the Commission and the private station managers the opportunity to duck responsibility by pointing the finger at the other when accused of censorship.

While the general publication and distribution of rules as to what kinds of speech could not be broadcast was an improvement on the old Radio Branch days, much discretionary decision-making continued to occur. The original version of Regulation 90 did not define the terms "abusive" or "defamatory"; the revised version, which was in effect for the last year of the Commission's existence, dropped the word "abusive" and added "libellous," "obscene," and "treasonous." But these terms were used by the Commissioners and private station managers only as general guidelines. Indeed, material was frequently rejected on the grounds that it was "slanderous" or "scurrilous"--terms not even mentioned in the Regulation. Moreover, discretion was used--indeed encouraged--at the local station level with respect to which speakers would be asked to submit continuities in advance. Liberals, Conservatives, and other "recognized leaders" were never asked to submit speeches for checking; Communists always were (Charlesworth to Maxted, 1935, July 24). Perhaps most reprehensibly, the Commissioners, apparently in order to avoid public criticism, used deceptive measures to avoid being seen to censor.

Communist Party broadcasts were probably the trickiest matter with which the Commission had to deal, especially in the context of the political unrest of the early 1930s. (The Party was legal at the time, but harrassed under Section 98 of the Criminal Code.) The CRBC's file on the subject begins with an attempt by the Toronto and District Labor Open Forum to purchase a spot announcement on the Commission's station to advertise a speech by Party General Secretary Tim Buck, "just out of prison" and ready to tell "the story of his attempted assassination in Kingston Penitentiary." The ad was refused outright, on the grounds that it was "slanderous." According to Hector Charlesworth, "as there never was any attempt at assassination of Tim Buck and the charge has been amply refuted both in the Courts and in the House of Commons, such a statement could not be allowed to go on the air" (Charlesworth to Maxted, 1934, December 1).

During the 1935 federal election campaign, the Communist Party sought time for Buck's presentation of its election platform on CRCT, the Commission's Toronto station, and on the national network. The Commission considered the question, and then ruled that it would not object to such a broadcast as long as the script was submitted in advance and the rules regarding "abuse and scurrility" were complied with. Significantly, Charlesworth specifically requested of his Toronto manager that a copy of the script not be sent to Ottawa, "because the Commission wishes to avoid any claim by the Communists that this broadcast has been okayed by us" (Charlesworth to Lucas, 1935, June 6). The script was forwarded after the fact, however, and it provides a rare opportunity to check what deletions were required (Secretary to Mr. Maxted, 1935, June 14). The following statements, for example, were found objectionable:

Our standpoint is that the Bennett Cabinet and Government has been and is the Executive and Legislator and Guardian for the privileges and rights of the financial monarchs who rule Canada.... The Conservative Party has ruled, and intends to rule in the interests of big Capital!...
If you carefully look over the legislation passed by the Bennett Government you can quite easily discern the earmarks and cloven hoofprints of fascism. More power to the dictatorship of the financial monarchs, more profits to them, new chains and cords to bind labour, the poor farmers and the middle-class people, relentless trampling down of the democratic rights that we still possess....
Peace-order-good-government policies have meant ruthless violence against the masses of Canadians so that the profits of the rich would be guarded and augmented. Truly it can be said that fascism is being hatched and nourished out of the parliamentary democratic regime in Canada. (Secretary to Mr. Maxted, 1935, June 14)

Many statements were altered, especially by the elimination of vivid adjectives. So, for example, reference to Bennett's "vicious anti-Soviet speeches" lost the v-word, and "[Mackenzie King's] Beauharnois grafting" became "the Beauharnois deal." On the other hand, statements such as the following were allowed to stand:

90% of [Canada's wealth is] owned and controlled by a small group of rich capitalists and bankers. About 10% of the national wealth ... is owned by the great masses of Canadians.... The real control of the economic life of Canada is in the hands of 14 multi-millionaires! It is said, and it has never been denied that Messers Holt Black and Gordon control between them about one-fifth of the wealth of Canada....
So is it any wonder that some [altered from "the"] people recall Mr. Bennett's 1930 promises with scorn and bitter laughter?...
The foreign policy of the Bennett government ... is an imperialist war policy that threatens to plunge the Canadian people into war. (Secretary to Mr. Maxted, 1935, June 14)

Generally, of the seven pages of the script in the file, about one-third was excised. Nevertheless, the broadcast did go ahead, although apparently only on the Toronto station.

Around the same time the Communist Party in Montreal submitted a script of a speech by Fred Rose, a candidate in the Quebec provincial election, for approval for broadcast on CRCM, the Commission's Montreal station. This was checked by Charlesworth and other headquarters' staff members, and Charlesworth subsequently wrote to the station's manager, J. A. Dupont (1936, July 28), outlining several sections which he found to be defamatory of individuals (for example, the Mayor of Quebec City), groups (Jews), and businesses (Montreal Light Heat and Power). He then went on:

The latter part of the broadcast in which the aims of the Communist party are stated ... seems more or less unobjectionable. It has always been the policy of the Commission to avoid the charge that it was opposed to free speech upon the air provided the general canons of public order were not violated.

So far so good. He then added, however:

Personally I am doubtful as to the policy of using a Communist broadcast on a Commission station at the present time, and as you have so many applications for use of our periods, it might be well to refuse this broadcast on business grounds. (Charlesworth, 1936, July 28)

The Communist Party was not to be put off by such duplicity. Buck almost immediately fired off a telegram to Charlesworth protesting these "gag tactics against right of free speech for citizens lawfully nominated," and threatening a "nation wide campaign" against such policies. Stanley Ryerson, Secretary of the Quebec election committee of the Communist Party, added a personal letter of protest to Charlesworth (1936, July 31). Ryerson argued that his committee had already declared its willingness to abide by censorship of scripts; what he was protesting was what he called the "carte blanche refusal" to let the Communist Party use any Commission stations. The Commission responded to Buck's telegram with a much more forthright explanation for the refusal of the program, now claiming that the script "was for most part defamatory in tone and in references to specific individuals," and adding that the "attempted appeal to antiJewish prejudice [was] particularly offensive." A similar response was sent to Ryerson.

Ryerson did not give up, but almost immediately forwarded another script for consideration. This one, according to Charlesworth, was "less objectionable than the previous one." Charlesworth nevertheless advised Dupont once again (1936, August 5) that he did not think CRCM should take the program, and instructed him to suggest to Ryerson that "in its present form the broadcast may be used on any privately-owned station which desires to take it, but we simply have not the facilities available on our own stations." He then added a telling comment: "If this broadcast were offered in Toronto, Winnipeg, or Vancouver, I would raise no objection, but in view of the organized public opinion against Communism in the Province of Quebec the hazards are considerable if a government-owned station recognizes the Communist Party."

It seems quite clear, then, that the consideration in the Quebec case was deeply political; because "organized public opinion" in Quebec--presumably the Church and the political leadership--was particularly sensitive to Communism, free speech was defined differently there than it was in major cities in English-speaking Canada. To put it another way, the Commissioners seemed to be following some sort of "community standards" definition of what was offensive, which allowed for different rules in different parts of the country depending on the political climate.

The Commission walked the fine line between freedom of speech and censorship with considerable cleverness. While it obviously used its discretionary powers freely, its willingness on at least some occasions to broadcast Communist speeches made it look generous in comparison with many private stations. In fact, a double bind existed for the Commission. Owners of private stations did not want, for sound commercial reasons, to alienate their listeners or advertisers, so they tended to be very reluctant to accept left-wing political speakers particularly, and they certainly could not be forced by the Commission to do so. Frequently, then, such speakers turned to Commission stations (where they existed) for air time. The Commission, fearing accusations of censorship, thus sometimes found itself carrying programs that private stations would not touch. Additionally, because the Commission ran the only national network, on the rare occasions when small parties like the Communists could afford to put on a national broadcast, they had no choice but to approach the Commission. Many private stations were probably secretly relieved that they could slough off requests of this type onto the Commission, so they could concentrate on more lucrative and less controversial programming. As we have seen, however, the Commission likewise tried to steer those who wished to broadcast controversial programs toward the private stations.

The Commission's careful avoidance of being seen to be responsible was clever as well. Placing most of the decisions in the hands of private station managers absolved the Commission (and the government that had appointed it) of a good deal of criticism that would have come its way if it had instituted an outright censorship régime. On the other hand, the Commissioners were not loath to hint rather strongly to private stations what actions they would approve (Steel to Stanton, 1934, June 16).

By and large the Commission probably did adhere more or less to the standards of free speech accepted in the Canadian community at the time. The Communist Party, for example, co-operated with the requirement to submit scripts in advance, and negotiated massive deletions. The party undoubtedly felt that radio offered it the opportunity to be heard by so many citizens normally out of its reach that even a censored message was better than none.

This example suggests, then, that as a program-censoring body the Commission carried out its mandate with considerable success in a political sense. While it can certainly not be celebrated as a champion of free speech, it avoided overtly repressive actions. Indeed, its willingness to accept some Communist programs in all likelihood increased its credibility as a non- partisan agency, and thereby enhanced its own legitimacy. The CRBC's occasional duplicity in pretending to have no time available for potentially controversial programs was reprehensible, but no different from the avoidance tactics used by private stations for many years. Judged by today's standards of fairness and free speech, the Commission receives a failing grade. Judged simply by the standard of successful resolution of a particularly tricky problem in the context of the 1930s, censorship was one of the areas in which the Commission did what the government wanted it to do without inflaming the passions of too many critics. It was certainly far more successful in that respect than its predecessor, the Radio Branch, had been.

Moulder of Public Opinion

To many of those who backed its creation, especially Spry and Plaunt's Canadian Radio League, the first and most important task of the CRBC was to provide national programs on a national network. Although national networking had existed in the late 1920s on an ad hoc basis, and also in a more organized fashion through the agency of the CNR Radio Department and Ralph Ashcroft's Trans-Canada Broadcasting Company, the practice was seriously affected by the onset of the Depression. The CNR, beset by debt and political problems, folded its radio department in 1931. The private networks ran up against the cost /profit problem of long and expensive wirelines and a relatively small population. As a consequence, national networking had almost ceased by 1932. Although this was understood to be a temporary difficulty related to Depression circumstances, many feared that in the hiatus American networks would establish themselves permanently in Canada. Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the creation of the CRBC was to establish a mechanism to channel listeners' licence fees into funding wireline charges and thereby to restore nation-wide coverage.

In this task, the CRBC was more or less successful. It negotiated with telegraph and telephone companies for wirelines in early 1933, eventually signing a contract with CN-CP Telegraphs enabling four hours of national hookups a day at an annual cost of $275,000.3 While the CRBC's program offerings began spottily and somewhat controversially (especially the bilingual announcements on some programs), by 1936 it was running six hours of national programming each day and many more hours of regional programming on various regional circuits.

While it is not possible here to go into an extended analysis of the programs offered by the CRBC, it should be noted that many were quite ordinary musical and variety programs of the type broadcast on local private stations. Indeed, many of them had begun on private stations and then moved to the CRBC. Nevertheless, the very fact that these programs were available to Canadians simultaneously from coast to coast gave them a prestige and impact--if not a quality--greater than that of local programs.

The CRBC also made a particular effort to offer certain types of educational, informational, and special events programs for a national audience. While all of these kinds of programs had been available from time to time prior to the creation of the CRBC on private stations, they had only infrequently been broadcast nationally. Perhaps most notable was the commencement of daily national news broadcasts prepared by Canadian Press. The Commission was also very proud that by exchange agreements with the American networks it was able to present such outstanding sustaining (non-commercial) programs as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera on a coast-to-coast basis in Canada for the first time. Thus the formation of the Commission, as the Canadian Radio League had hoped, significantly enhanced the availability of programs designed to inform and educate Canadian public opinion and to convey the "ceremonies and symbols" of national life (Scannell & Cardiff, 1991, p. 13).

While few doubted that the CRBC had a mandate to offer programs of national significance, its definition of precisely what this meant reveals much about the underlying assumptions of the men who ran the Commission. One way of examining these assumptions is by looking at the special events programming of the CRBC, as listed in its yearly Annual Report. Seventy-two "special" programs were mentioned for the period from April 1933 to March 1936. Of these, the largest number (31) may be classified as imperial in their orientation (such as the wedding of the Duke of Kent, the broadcast for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Saint John by the United Empire Loyalists, or a Royal Empire Society speech by the British High Commissioner to Canada). Nineteen were purely Canadian in their emphasis (such as the first birthday party of the Dionne quintuplets, the opening of Parliament in 1935, or the third centenary of Trois Rivières). The rest (22) were international or American events, such as a memorial to King Alexander of Yugoslavia, Will Rogers's funeral, or an address by Haile Selassie. While the Annual Reports described these events as "special features ... of unusual interest to people in Canada," the most interesting thing about them is the fact that so many of them were external to Canada. Indeed, the Commission seemed to define "outstanding events" largely by whether or not they "were relayed either to or from foreign countries" (CRBC, 1933-34, pp. 8, 15). As such, the Commission was fulfilling one part of its "national" role, by serving as the liaison between Canada and the world in the broadcasting sphere.

Of particular note is the imperial bias in the programs selected as "special." The very first program the Commission co-ordinated, in December 1932 (before it was formally sworn in but after E. A. Weir had been hired from the CNR Radio Department), was the first Empire-wide broadcast of the King's Christmas message. Three years later, the Christmas message was described in the Annual Report (1935-36, p. 13) as "the chief event broadcast in Canada" that year.4 The King's death and funeral were also treated with great reverence and care. Indeed, the Commission went off the air on both days as a mark of respect. The Imperial tie remained an important element in the national consciousness of some English-speaking Canadians in the 1930s, and the CRBC's broadcasts of Imperial events constituted a significant addition to the Canadian radio schedule in that decade.

In order to begin to develop a sense of the CRBC's view of Canada, and of its own role within Canada, a more extensive analysis of one program is appropriate. In May 1935 the whole Empire celebrated the 25th anniversary of the accession of King George V. A full day of special ceremonies was held in Ottawa, and the CRBC altogether broadcast seven hours of Jubilee programs, including addresses by Canadian political leaders, interviews with distinguished Canadians, chats with citizens on the street, and a pick-up of part of the ceremony in London (Weir, 1965, p. 197; CRBC, 1935-36, pp. 15-16). The CRBC's programming department contributed a central 55-minute segment to the celebrations. This program, called Canadian Cavalcade (1935, May 6) and produced in the CRBC's Montreal studios (probably by Rupert Caplan), provides a most intriguing version of Canadian history during the years of George V's reign.

Canadian Cavalcade begins with trumpets and the thunder of horses' hooves in a "mad gallop." What follows consists of a narrative radio review mentioning certain major incidents in Canadian history from 1910 to 1935, interspersed with 16 brief dramatized segments of what were apparently deemed to be the most interesting, most entertaining, or most significant moments of the 25 years. While the mini-dramas vary considerably in length, they cover the following events: the arrival of Halley's Comet, British immigration to Canada, the sinking of the Titanic, the War, the burning of the Parliament Buildings, votes for women, the Armistice, Laurier's death, the Winnipeg General Strike, the visit of the Prince of Wales, a marathon swim of Lake Ontario, the 1928 Olympics, the trans-Atlantic flight of the R-100, the signing of the Statute of Westminster, the birth of the Dionne quintuplets, and the fourth centenary of Cartier's arrival on the Gaspé coast.

Generally, the presentation is choppy and episodic; the "cavalcade" title is apt, for the events pass before the listener like floats in a parade, pieced together with music and sound effects, without any narrative unity beyond simple chronology. The pacing is varied; quiet and noise alternate, as do happy and sad moods, gaiety and solemnity.

A number of the dramatized episodes are designed to give a glimpse of "ordinary Canadians" as they participated in history. They are emotional, intense, or humorous as the case may be. The sinking of the Titanic, for example, is presented by means of a tense discussion between a man, his wife, and a steward on board the ship. Neither the steward nor the husband, despite desperate pleas, is able to persuade the woman to get into the last lifeboat. Over the strains of "Nearer My God to Thee," man and wife begin what she terms "the new and greater journey ... together."

While the Titanic tragedy is treated with great sentimentality, World War I is touched on only lightly. The section on the war begins with "The Maple Leaf Forever" and the announcement that 1914 was "the darkest year in world history," but then the narrator simply calls out the names of a number of key battles, while fighting noises rage in the background. The war is quickly dropped in favour of a brief dramatic segment about the burning of the Parliament Buildings, characterized mainly by an emphasis on the confusion of the politicians and staff, and then the episode concludes with a very short portrayal of telegraph operators spreading the word across the country that the Armistice has been signed while celebratory noises are heard in the background.

In the meantime, according to the script, on September 17, 1917, the franchise had been extended to Canadian women. This "moment" is played for humour. Over the strains of "Home Sweet Home" it features a wife gently revealing to her husband that he will have to stay home to take care of the children while she goes out to vote.

Two of the lengthiest dramatic segments highlight sporting events. The first, a competitive swim of Lake Ontario for a $50,000 prize, features the victory of Ernest Vierkotter of Germany. Perhaps this incident was chosen for special attention because once again it was one which brought Canada to international attention. Indeed, of all the events selected for emphasis, only a tiny handful had no direct international link, and even those (such as women's suffrage or the Winnipeg Strike) had international parallels. It is interesting, nevertheless, that a race won by a German was so privileged.

The coverage of Canadian participation in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam is the most extensive, stretching over six pages of the 30-page script. It features tributes to the "Olympic spirit," pays special attention to the fact that this was the first Olympics at which women competed, and focuses especially on the success of the Canadian "boy" Percy Williams and the Canadian "girl runners" in the 400-metre relay. The presentation of the women athletes is filled with the stereotypes of the day. Only the women racers make a false start, only they have to be told "Hurry, ladies, please! Keep your teams together." Only the female coach of the Canadian "girls"' team is described as "rushing about as though the end of the world has come" because the "beautiful" Ethel Catherwood ("the Saskatoon Lily") has broken the record for the high jump. Like the segment on women's suffrage, these comments were obviously inserted for humorous effect. At the CRBC women worked primarily as office clerks.

The most obviously biased part of Canadian Cavalcade is the section on the Winnipeg General Strike. It begins with two "good" citizens of Winnipeg exchanging their worries--35,000 "men" have been on strike for six weeks, firefighters and police have walked out, "the whole town's paralyzed," they have scarcely any food left. One remarks: "It isn't so much my wife and I I'm worried about ... it's our children! I won't stand idle and watch them suffer ... I won't ... I can't!" He then wonders how the strike will end, and his friend replies, "I'll tell you where it will end ... in bloodshed ... and the reading of the Riot Act!" Indeed, the sound man immediately brings up "the sullen roar of the mob" and the sound of "breaking glass and other riot noises." Then the commotion fades to the voice of Mayor Charles Gray reading the Riot Act:

All lawlessness and intimidation must cease. Those of you who want to return to work can do so, protected by the Royal North-West Mounted Police, who will track down molesters [sic], if it takes years to do so.... All law-abiding citizens can go about their business in the full realization that British law will protect them to the limit. God Save the King!

And so, continues the narrator, the strike was called off "unconditionally and without stipulations." He then adds, "we note that these eventful days in Canada were but a reflection of world-wide agitation.... Canada soon recovered her spirit of co-operation and unity...." The fact that the Winnipeg Strike was selected for presentation, and that the excerpt offered such a middle-class and authoritarian view of the event, suggests not only that the CRBC's view of Canada conformed with that norm, but perhaps as well that those who produced the program thought it useful to reinforce the message in the midst of the Depression, and implicitly to blame outside forces for this aberrant incident in Canadian history.

Several aspects of Canadian Cavalcade are worthy of particular note. The authors seem to have deliberately avoided any overtly political themes, but there is nevertheless considerable political bias in the presentation. Mackenzie King, who had been Prime Minister for almost nine of the 25 years covered, gets a bare passing mention; R. B. Bennett, Prime Minister at the time, is given the final word. With "O Canada" playing in the background, an effusive message from King George V which Bennett had read at the Jacques Cartier fourth centenary was rebroadcast to end the program. The program also included many fawning references to the royal family and British nobility. The script, for example, described King Edward VII as a monarch "loved and revered by his peoples as a just and wise ruler," and every Governor-General of the period (all from the British nobility) was mentioned at least once.

It is also notable that only four of the events selected for dramatized presentation concern Quebec or French Canada in any way, and none actually has ordinary French Canadians in speaking parts. The Halley's Comet episode is placed in a rural Quebec village, but apparently an English-speaking one, as the main character is named John Ryan. The excerpt about Sir Wilfrid Laurier has him speaking to students at the University of Toronto and fails to mention that he was from Quebec. The Cartier fourth centenary is recognized, as already mentioned, by a speech by the King read by R. B. Bennett. Similarly, the birth of the Dionne quintuplets is dramatized by a phone call between Dr. A. R. Dafoe and an English-Canadian newspaper reporter. One of the CRBC's most challenging tasks was to provide a truly national radio service in a country with two official languages; the lack of French content in this program illustrates the CRBC's failure in this respect. Despite internal pressure from francophone staff, by the end of its existence the CRBC was de facto broadcasting bilingually in Quebec and in English elsewhere, having abandoned in the face of strong protests from "English rights" groups the attempt to provide occasional bilingual service coast to coast.

The CRBC not only presented Canada to the rest of the world, it also believed that its programs were a "major unifying influence" within the country (CRBC, 1934-35, p. 13). The national /regional tensions within English Canadian broadcasting are a complex subject which cannot be fully covered here. It may be pointed out briefly, however, that the Canadian Radio League, in arguing for the formation of a public broadcasting body before 1932, stressed the potential for the creation of "national unity" as an antidote to excessive regionalism (Vipond, 1992, pp. 233-234). The three Commissioners of the CRBC all came from the central two provinces, and its main headquarters were at Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. The Assistant Commissioners and regional Advisory Committees who according to the 1932 Act were supposed to provide the Commission with advice regarding regional programming were never appointed, and in practice all decisions about programs on the national network were made by two officials based in Toronto and Montreal. The failure to appoint the Assistant Commissioners may be laid at the feet of the Bennett government, but the other centralizing tendencies within the CRBC seem to have been motivated mainly by a bureaucratic desire for control over programs for which the Commissioners were bound to be held responsible. Canadian Cavalcade is typical of the centralized and centralizing view of Canadian history and life implied by the structures of the Commission. Of the dramatic segments that can be situated as occurring at specific locations in Canada, all but one occur in Ontario or Quebec. The one exception is the most dubious of all--the item on the Winnipeg Strike.

Despite its lack of narrative or dramatic form or shape, Canadian Cavalcade nevertheless had an underlying thematic unity. The frequent use of words such as "honour," "honesty," "duty," "service," "good faith," "courage," "gallant," "equal," "free," "co-operation," and "unity" suggest exactly what values the CRBC's writers were privileging. The dramatized excerpts featured both (imaginary) ordinary Canadians and (real) prominent figures. Those about the unknowns tended to be sentimental, romantic, occasionally even pathetic; those about the famous were mainly solemn and reverent, emphasizing their positions rather than their personalities. By highlighting the lives of ordinary Canadians, the program's writers and producer played upon the personal, intimate nature of radio, and its unique capacity to enter private homes as a friend and companion. Simultaneously, however, the script reinforced messages of docility, passivity, and co-operation with legitimate authority. The co-equal presentation of the ordinary with the powerful simultaneously blurred and reinforced the gap between them (Johnson, 1989).

The 25 years were not presented as uniformly happy or successful for Canada, but the gloss was always optimistic. As the brief excerpt from Sir Wilfrid Laurier put it: "Progress is often punctuated by reverses. You may meet reverse ... but the following day stand up again and renew the conflict for truth, ... and justice shall triumph in the end." The positive aspect of the message was reinforced by the final words of the narrator, with "O Canada" playing in the background: "Today we are in 1935. The cavalcade of Canadian events and personalities is always with us, moving on into a glorious future of new achievements, and new heights of history for the Dominion."

Scholars have noted that often broadcasters reach "new heights" of technical achievement in the presentation of programs deemed to be of special importance (Bruck, 1986, pp. 9-10). So, for example, the first coast-to-coast broadcast in Canada was put together by the complex co-ordination of many line companies and private stations in order to air the Ottawa ceremonies celebrating the 1927 Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. Similarly, during the CRBC era much time, effort, and money was expended experimenting with a primitive recording machine called the Blattnerphone, which the Commission purchased in order to record short-wave BBC programs for re-broadcast in Canada during prime time. Although the Blattnerphone experiment was a failure--not only technically but because it ran afoul of British copyright laws--the fact that the Commission channelled scarce resources into the project indicates the importance it assigned to bringing British programs to Canadians. The celebrations for the King's Jubilee provide another example. As a climax to that special day of broadcasts, for the first time ever in Canada seven studio orchestras played "The Maple Leaf Forever," phrase by phrase, in a chain from Vancouver to Halifax. Technicians and officials at the CRBC preened themselves on their feat, and Ernest Bushnell, English-language program director, later described the moment as "the thrill of my life" (Stursberg, 1971, p. 49). The accomplishment signalled to Canadians and to the world that Canadian broadcasting had reached a new level of perfection and national co-ordination.


When the Radio Broadcasting Act was passed in 1932 the Canadian Radio League celebrated the victory for public broadcasting but deplored the organizational structure imposed on the CRBC. The League's leaders believed that it would have been much preferable to appoint a general manager to run the day-to-day operations of the public broadcasting body, along with an unpaid, non-partisan board of governors to make general policy decisions and to act as a buffer between management and Parliament. Many of the difficulties the CRBC experienced in its four years of existence probably did result from its unwieldy structure, from the political interference that resulted, and from the understandable reluctance of the government to commit itself to large capital expenditures for broadcasting in the worst years of the Depression.

The CRBC's organizational, financial, and political problems killed it. Rather than using the failure of the CRBC as an excuse to abandon public broadcasting, however, the post-1935 Liberal government (intensively lobbied by Alan Plaunt and the revived Radio League) instead created the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with the kind of structure the CRL had proposed from the first. Like the CRBC, the CBC was both broadcaster and regulator, it continued to accept advertising and to use an affiliate system, it continued (especially during World War II) to enforce censorship, and it continued to offer national programming both routine and special. Whatever the CRBC's structural flaws, it was successful in establishing itself as a vital arm of the state. Its presence did not jeopardize private interests in the broadcasting business, its program censorship was enforced with almost no controversy, and it began to provide the kind of national programming that many of its early supporters hoped it would, defining Canada both to Canadians and to the rest of the world. The creation of the CBC gave the public broadcaster the structures necessary to continue to carry out those tasks.


An earlier version of this article was presented to the History Seminar Series at Queen's University in March 1993.
Charlesworth claimed later that Regulation 91 had been inserted at the express request of private Toronto stations which had had some unfortunate experiences with municipal politicians and wanted a rule that would enable them to "control the situation" (Special Committee, 1934, p. 324).
It may be noted that this arrangement undoubtedly profited both CN and CP (as the similar arrangement in the United States profited AT&T). Rather than taking the responsibility for running broadcasting networks themselves (as had been proposed before 1932), the two national railways benefited from renting their telegraph lines in hours when commercial business lessened while leaving the expensive tasks of arranging programs and administering the system to the government's Commission.
The King's Christmas message was also a highlight of the BBC's broadcast year. It served to make the monarch more personally connected to his subjects by emphasizing home, family, and hearthside on Christmas Day (Scannell & Cardiff, 1991, pp. 280-283).


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