Why is the CBC Doing Such a Terrible Job of Covering the Quebec Student Strike?

By Fred Burrill May 12, 2012

strike

The massive student demonstration on March 22 in Montreal. Photo by Yanick Crépeau.

A week ago, my brother emailed me from his home in Prince George, BC, to ask what English-language media he should be reading about the ongoing student strike here in Quebec. "I've only been seeing what they have on cbc.ca," he wrote. Clearly, it wasn't sufficient.

As a community organizer, I've long been aware that corporate and state media have no qualms about bias or inaccuracy when it comes to covering popular movements. Still, over the course of the student strike I've been consistently surprised at the terrible quality of news reporting from our public radio broadcaster. My poor brother! Any semi-conscientious observer from English Canada (or English Quebec, for that matter) would be bewildered by the mix of shoddy journalism and anti-strike analysis put forth by the CBC over the last eighty-odd days of student actions.

Back in February, in the initial days of the strike, media activist Stefan Christoff wrote that the CBC "consistently failed to scrutinize violent police actions against striking students, and [that] the station's coverage bent towards the austerity-driven logic of the Quebec government's policy to hike tuition fees." This is, again, not a huge surprise, although notable for its consistency: most CBC news stories that I've read about the strike are accompanied by smugly-repeated factoids about Quebec having the lowest tuition in Canada.

Even more annoyingly, CBC's coverage of the current movement has long seemed to take its cues from the political realities of the last student strike, in 2005, when the coalition around the militant Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Étudiante was marginalized by the more reformist student federations, FEUQ and FECQ. As recently as March, it was as if CLASSE (the 2012 version of ASSÉ, plus its allies) didn't exist to mainstream reporters, despite the fact that it represents over one hundred thousand students. Only with CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois' heightened profile and the undeniable reality of CLASSE's power in the streets has the CBC finally begun to give a more accurate accounting of all the major players in the current movement. (After the historic demonstration of March 22, for example, the CBC described CLASSE only as a "major protest group.")

Christoff also pointed out that the CBC was failing to provide any historical or political context for the current uprising. This is, I think, where our national broadcaster fails most deeply in its responsibility to keep Canadians accurately informed. One cannot understand the roots of this conflict, and the impressive strength of the student movement in Quebec, without an understanding of the importance of the tradition of "fighting unionism" or student syndicalism.

Born in the 1960s out of a confluence of local militancy and international influence—particularly from French student resistance to Nazi occupation—student syndicalism in Quebec draws from the best of the radical labour tradition. It holds that student unions, like their worker counterparts, are most powerful when they are united and militant, organized through direct democracy and negotiating from a position of strength. Most importantly, student syndicalism conceives of the student as a "young intellectual worker" with a vital role in the national economy; as such, the strength of the movement comes from the power to withhold this intellectual labour—in effect, to go on strike. United around these principles, general student strikes in Quebec have occurred in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996, 2005 and now 2012, and are directly responsible for the unprecedented accessibility of postsecondary education in this province today.

In its few feeble efforts to provide background to the conflict, the CBC has effectively erased this tradition of resistance, instead making weak noises about Quebec's "collective psyche" and the "unrealized promise" of the Quiet Revolution era. More insidiously, the CBC has apparently adopted an editorial policy eschewing the word "strike," instead referring to student actions as a "boycott" or  "dispute." This language robs the movement of any sense of collective intentionality or process. Observers in the rest of the country could well be excused for understanding the ongoing student strike instead as a spastic moment of juvenile spontaneity—especially when they're helpfully reminded by CBC reporters that Quebec's tuition rates are much lower than the ones that have saddled English Canada with heavy debts.

I don't usually spend much time thinking about the problems related to Canada's "two solitudes," or waste very much brainpower worrying about the quality of mainstream media. But in this instance, for millions of Canadians, the CBC is obscuring the fact that there is an uprising of hundreds of thousands of people in their very own country—by my most recent count, 185 demonstrations, ninety consecutive days of striking, hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries at the hands of unaccountable provincial and municipal police forces. The CBC is a state broadcaster, a tool of those in power. In this moment of political crisis and possibility, let's hold it to account.

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Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Margaret Wente Hates Herself
—On Quebec's Student Strike
—Occupy Montreal and the Lies Quebecers Tell Ourselves

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