Preserving language, producing journalists: Radio-Canada in the West

Wrote this for a journalism class this year. Quite happy with it and would like it to get seen.

Radio-Canada’s mandate requires that it provide French content to every corner of the country, but francophone populations in the western provinces are small.

For journalists, this has meant Radio-Canada stations in western cities have become training grounds, where mistakes are forgiven and journalistic teeth are cut.

For audiences in these places, it means a rotating door of new faces, Quebec reporters who come to gain experience, then leave to apply it back home.

Radio-Canada promotes working “en région” as a good career move in a promotional online video called “Become a reporter at Radio-Canada?”

“I spent the best two years of my life there,” an earnest-looking RDI commentator says, overtop of fast-paced, newsy theme music. Philippe Marcoux is one of several Radio-Canada journalists who recount their foundational experiences outside Quebec in the video, mixed with footage of their much younger selves reporting. Many of them are now some of the corporation’s most well-known on-air personalities.

“If it scares you, going into another society like that – there might be a problem – because that’s what being a journalist is,” Marcoux goes on to say.

Another journalist who appears in the video is Guy Gendron, a silver-haired reporter with Enquête, Radio-Canada’s version of the Fifth Estate. “We were a team of young people like me, who wanted to prove themselves – young wolves,” he says, just after a clip from one of his reports from Saskatoon in the 80s, wearing a light tan suit, with a thick brown mustache and longer hair.

Reached in Montreal, Gendron remembers his time in Saskatchewan fondly. “There were a lot of parties. It was very dynamic. It was great fun to work. It was not like school because we had real deadlines and real editors and a real work environment, but there was the same kind of dynamism that you find in a school.”

And for Gendron, the job in the West was also a ticket to promotion. He went from Saskatchewan to a national reporting job in Toronto.

Gabrielle Sabourin is a 24-year-old from Montreal gaining her first journalistic experiences with Radio-Canada in the West, today. She moved to Winnipeg last March to work as a reporter.

“It’s a great place to learn, if you’re able to cope in a place where you have few points of reference,” she says.

Sabourin graduated from the Université du Québec à Montréal’s journalism program and worked for a short period in communications, but the Winnipeg job is her first reporting gig.

For young journalists like Sabourin, the western postings are plum jobs: full-time, permanent positions with starting salaries around $50,000 a year – rare in journalism, where many newspapers haven’t hired new staff in years – and rarer still at the CBC, where many journalists work for years on casual contracts before getting hired full time.

Still, Winnipeg is a stepping stone for Sabourin, career-wise. “Two years will be enough,” she says. Then she hopes to move back to Quebec.

But the days of mobility between the West and Quebec could be over, according to some recent graduates of the Radio-Canada training grounds.

“I don’t think the West is as big of a springboard [for employment] as it used to be – maybe – and definitely not for returning to Quebec,” says Katherine Brulotte, who recently spent three years as a reporter in Saskatoon. “It’s clearly not a fait-accompli that after a few years of experience in the West, you’ll come back and have a job in Quebec. You’ll come back and you’ll be casual again.”

The experience in Saskatoon helped Brulotte find casual work with Radio-Canada in Toronto (a relatively desirable city, outside Quebec) after she left Saskatoon in early 2011. She just recently secured a permanent job, in Toronto.

Other reporters have had similar experiences. Pascale Robidas turned down an offer of casual work in Montreal to go to Winnipeg for a permanent reporting job. A year and a half later, homesick, he came back to Montreal — for casual work.

“Radio-Canada, it’s strange, but they have no vision for renewal. Me, I could have stayed in Winnipeg for the rest of my life. If you don’t make your own move, you end up being forgotten by the bosses in Montreal,” Robidas says.

One 22-year-old reporter, who did not want to be identified because she still works for Radio-Canada, left her producer job with the corporation in Ottawa to work in Edmonton.

After a year, she was ready to come back. On her return, she took two temporary jobs in Ottawa, jobs she says she was lucky to get.

“Even if you spend five, six years in the West and you interviewed the premier, you covered every single budget – you come back here and… you can just be a researcher or work one day a week,” she says.

Just as Radio-Canada has a harder time luring talent to the West, it also struggles to keep it there, despite the better job security.

Some reporters, like the one in Edmonton, struggle with the small audience. Alberta counted 64,750 native French speakers during the 2006 census – and most of them are bilingual and could in theory just as easily get their news in English. “They say it’s too small to do ratings, so we had no idea who was watching us, and there were no polls in the community. So sometimes you just feel like you’re working for nothing,” she says.

She got a taste of what it was like to have a larger audience when she filled in for English-language CBC for a few months, while in Edmonton.  “When you’re in Alberta, and you say ‘Hey! I’m from CBC French, people are not really interested, so it’s harder to get interviews.  When I was working on the English side I was spoiled… People wanted to talk to me. I was on TV. People were watching.”

On the other hand, the other reporters, Sabourin, Robidas and Brulotte, all say they felt connected to a small but devoted viewership.

“It’s true that sometimes between us we say “’It’s okay, nobody’s watching us anyway!’ — but it’s not true. People recognize me, people watch me,” says Sabourin, the 24-year-old in Winnipeg.

“There’s a feeling of proximity [in Saskatchewan]. The francophone community is much closer to Radio-Canada than in, for example, Toronto. People will send emails, answer them, recognize you on the street, speak with you,” says Brulotte, the reporter who spent three years in Saskatoon.

With small audiences, the stories can be smaller in scope. Some of the news the Winnipeg station covers is very local. “Sometimes we’ll be covering something and we’ll say, ‘It’s not really a big story – it doesn’t deserve a report on the news.’ But at the same time it’s important to the people watching us and it’s what they want to know,” Sabourin says.

On the other hand, in complete contrast, the reporter in Edmonton says her station wasn’t covering enough community events: “We were disconnected. Basically what we were doing was doing what CBC, the English side was doing, what Global was doing. We were covering the news just like them…. We were basically doing in French what others were doing in English and unfortunately the others were doing it better than us because we were young and we had less resources. So even as a francophone in Edmonton, I was watching the English news.”

The social experience can be isolating. The newsroom is a little Quebec enclave in a foreign city. “My friends are my colleagues,” Sabourin says.

But Sabourin likes the emphasis on arts and culture coverage at Radio-Canada Winnipeg – especially compared to its English-language counterpart. Sabourin is the station’s arts reporter, while CBC Winnipeg doesn’t even have one, she says. “It’s really a different journalistic vision here. Francophones in Winnipeg are less subject to ratings. We do less stabbing stories and car accident stories.”

In small francophone communities, journalists’ objectivity can be at stake.

There are the usual issues around proximity to sources that all journalists in small towns face. “The director of this francophone organization is also the president of the school council, and also the father of the little girl dancing at a francophone culture show,” Sabourin says.

And research from University of Ottawa professor Marc-François Bernier shows that small francophone communities sometimes also pressure reporters to act as promoters of language and culture, as opposed to journalists.

Bernier surveyed 153 francophone journalists outside Quebec working for Radio-Canada or community publications. 47 per cent of journalists surveyed agreed, to varying extent, with the statement, “I have to adapt my journalistic work to the expectations of my community.” 50 per cent of respondents agreed, to varying extent, with the statement, “In a minority French-speaking community, the community’s expectations are at odds with my conception of the journalistic mission.”

That said, most journalists still agreed that objectivity was an essential value in their work, and said they would not censor themselves to avoid harming the community.

“Even though I knew the pressure [was there], I never bent to that pressure,” says Gendron, the Enquête reporter in Saskatoon in the 80’s.

“There are always pressures – [people] always try to pass their message on to you – but no more than any minister in a government or a mayor in a city,” says Brulotte, the journalist who spent three years in Saskatoon more recently.

From the other side of the TV screen, the leader of Alberta’s francophone association says Radio-Canada journalists indeed tend to soften their stories about the francophone community. “I still think coverage could be a little sharper. There’s a sweet spot where you’re covering community events but you’re also pulling out the morsel of meat in the middle of it, you know? You can talk about what the actual issues are without just doing pure icing. You can do the cake a little bit too,” says Denis Perreaux, the director general of the Franco-Canadian Association of Alberta.

Perreaux also says Franco-Albertans are painfully aware of the high turnover rate at their local Radio-Canada station. Many reporters “come in pretty green,” he says.

“It happens to us quite often even that we have to brief journalists before they start their interviews. Because quite often they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Perreaux says.

“Even sometimes the camera guys kind of roll their eyes, it’s kind of funny,” he says.

On the other hand, Perreaux says producers, anchors and hosts often stay many years in one place, and are much more attuned to local events.

Another issue for the francophone community is how Quebec-centric Radio-Canada national news is.  “It’s actually a major irritant for me as a listener and for the community. The big joke always is that we know a lot about the traffic on Pont Champlain in Montreal,” Perreaux says.

A quick look at the recent topics of a popular national call-in radio show “Maisonneuve en direct” is a good illustration: rising tuition fees in Quebec, a new law preventing Quebec drivers under 21 from consuming any alcohol, and a special on the 400th anniversary of the founder of Montreal.

In terms of the amount of content they produce, Radio-Canada stations outside Quebec are similar to their CBC counterparts – a supper-hour TV newscast, and radio shows during the hours when listenership is highest – morning, noon, and drive-home. The rest of the time, most content is national.

To create more local content, Florian Sauvageau, a professor at the Université de Laval, argues for a re-creation of community radio stations in minority francophone communities. Radio-Canada purchased community radio stations in the big western centres in the early seventies, in order to set up its own stations. The broadcaster was moving west to comply with the Broadcasting Act, passed in 1968, which said all Canadians have the right to a broadcast service in English and French, as public funds become available.

Sauvageau says that in an ideal world, francophones in the West would have access to two stations – Radio-Canada, for professional journalism, and a community station, which, even if not of professional quality, would fill the holes in local content.

Perreaux is all for the re-creation of community radio stations. He says they would connect better with Franco-Albertans who feel intimidated by the level of language on Radio-Canada’s airwaves. The public broadcaster uses mainly international French, a standardized form of the language.

At the end of the day, Radio-Canada is the only broadcaster available to many minority francophone communities, some of which are struggling against assimilation. According to Statistics Canada, the overall number of people who speak French most often at home outside Quebec decreased by 2.2 per cent between 1996 and 2006, to 604,975. In Saskatchewan, the number of people who speak French most often at home decreased by 25.9 per cent, to 4,320. On the other hand, in Alberta and British Columbia, the number is actually rising.

Despite Radio-Canada’s limitations, Denis Perreaux is unequivocal about its overall importance to his community.

“It’s the only shop in town,” he says. “It’s perceived as sort of our life line.“

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5 thoughts on “Preserving language, producing journalists: Radio-Canada in the West

  1. Next time, before quoting somebody who was in Alberta for less than a year and who was not there as a reporter per say, but as a script-editor, make sure to verify what that person says. Just by quoting someone who you have decided to trust without confirming her background, you turned your otherwise relevant post into somewhat of a joke. I sincerly hope that, if ever you decide to become a journalist, you will learn to verify your information before you publish it.

    • Hello Jonathan – I assume that’s you. You should sign your name after your post!

      I do trust the reporter but I agree with you that I should have looked into the matter further. And that if I were publishing this article, which I wrote for a university class, on a larger platform (my blog averages eight hits per day — and this article has seen far, far fewer) I would definitely have contacted the boss at Radio-Canada Edmonton.

      But you’re right – publishing something on a blog is still publishing and therefore I should not have included comments that I haven’t fact checked enough.

      To other readers: I have removed from the article certain statements that I did not make an attempt to verify – nor did I give the target of these comments a chance to defend itself.

      • Also! I will soon have first hand experience to add to my chronicle because I’m on my way out to Regina to work as a reporter for Radio-Canada Saskatchewan! (Don’t despair too much, Jonathan.)

  2. 1. I am not Jonathan.
    2. [That journalist] has never filled in for the CBC in Edmonton. A simple google search would have been enough for you to get that straight.
    3. By publishing this, you could get people like Robidas and Brulotte fired. As reporters for SRC, they’re not allowed to have their opinions about the Corp made public. Therefore, I don’t intend to sign because I like my job and I agree that as an editorial member of a newsroom, I should keep my opinion to myself or be fired.
    4. I’ll make sure François, your soon-to-be boss, get a copy of that post so he understands how much schooling you still need before your can be called a Radio-Canada reporter.

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