Immigrant and refugee issues

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Balance in treatment of immigrant and refugee issues on The Current, October 2009

You wrote initially to complain of two items aired on CBC Radio's The Current. The items were broadcast on October 2 and October 20, 2009. The first was a segment hosted by Jan Wong, ostensibly discussing what questions were pertinent to ask of “new” Canadians. This as a result of controversy surrounding the decision of Canadian officials to prevent Suaad Hagi Mohamud from returning to the country.

The second item was sparked by the interception off the coast of British Columbia three days earlier by the Canadian Navy of a ship carrying 76 men, believed to be Tamils from Sri Lanka. The segment in question was not about that ship, but about other prominent cases of ostensible refugees arriving by boat.

You complained that the segments lacked “balance,” that The Current failed “to afford equal treatment to the issues in matters of public debate.”

You referred to Ms. Wong's moderating “a discussion of the case of Ms Mohamud” and that Ms. Wong “made no attempt to present any balance nor was any offered by your selection of a panel. You suggested other possible panelists and pointed to your own book, “The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada.”

The Acting Executive Producer of The Current, Aaron Brindle, responded. He said that the segment was not actually about the Mohamud case, but about the questions raised subsequently. He quoted the segment's introduction: “Now, the questions she could not answer have raised another more fundamental one: What exactly are you supposed to know if you are Canadian.” He said that “while the panelists agreed there were many such (cultural) differences that might confound new immigrants to Canada, their views about what to do about it were far from unanimous.” He cited one of the panelists, Nick Noorani, publisher of Canadian Immigrant Magazine. Mr Brindle said that Mr. Noorani, “consistently argued that although new arrivals might have good reason not to be able to answer a range of simple questions, they also had a clear obligation to learn about their new country and its culture.”

The other segment was presented by regular host Anna Maria Tremonti. You complained that the “perspective was almost exclusively from the viewpoint of those who favoured a generous reception. You argued that “the issue is more complex, not least in the potential encouragement of criminal people smugglers.” You noted the brief appearance of Martin Collacott, a former Canadian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, who held a dissenting opinion from the panelists. You pointed out that his opinion was immediately challenged, with no further debate. Again, you suggested other viewpoints.

Concerning this item, Mr. Brindle said, in effect, that it did not deal with the immediate issue directly, but offered historical perspective and context. While there were five different people interviewed in the segment, Mr. Brindle acknowledged that “there are many other points of view…and I fully expect we will hear more of them over the coming weeks and months. He also pointed out that the concept of “balance” does not mean strict equivalency.

You were unsatisfied with his response and asked me to conduct a review. I am sorry for the delay.

It is probably useful to review the basic principles I use as guidance in doing reviews. From the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices:

The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

To these basic principles we should add what the policies have to say about balance:

CBC/Radio-Canada programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.

In reviewing the first segment, the task is made somewhat easier by the program's statement of what the segment was supposed to achieve. In the script's words: “What exactly are you supposed to know if you are Canadian.”

All three guests brought substantial background to the discussion, a University professor, the head of an agency dealing with issues relating to immigrants, and the publisher of a magazine aimed at the immigrant community. As Mr. Brindle acknowledges, two of the guests, Prof. Sakamoto and Ms. Douglas, did not really differ in their views. It would appear that Mr. Noorani was there to further the discussion by talking about the obligation of immigrants to know things about their adopted country and its culture. While he did make that point at several junctures, he also appeared to agree with the other two panelists when questions arose about individual items.

In such a discussion, the role of the host is important. It is often useful if the host brings some knowledge of the issue to bear, as Ms. Wong could, but what is even more important for the listener is that the host brings fairness and balance to the discussion. On this score, Ms. Wong's performance was less certain. While she did introduce some challenges to the collective assumptions of two of the guests, in the middle of the item she appeared to abandon that role and become one of the panelists.

In the end, a listener would have had little idea of the answer to the question posed, unless the answer was that there is not any common body of knowledge on which prospective citizens can be questioned. It would have been useful for this immigrant to Canada to have heard from a panelist better grounded in the issue than Mr. Noorani appeared to be. The result was a quite unbalanced presentation of an important issue.

The second segment at issue is quite different, actually composed of multiple segments, reflecting in various ways the historical experience of arriving in Canada by ship and seeking refuge. In fact, the segment did not really deal with the instant issue of the Tamils off the coast of British Columbia.

The first segment was a narrative from a man named Michael Lin who spoke about dealing with “snakeheads” and arriving in Canada as a potential refugee. Since it was a personal story, there was no need for challenge or opposing views.

The next segment was an interview with two men who have dealt with rather famous incidents of people arriving by boat: Irving Abella, a professor of history at York University, who wrote about the 900 Jews who arrived from Germany on the eve of World War II on the MS St. Louis and were turned away; and Ali Kazimi, who made a documentary film about the Sikhs who attempted to seek refuge in Canada in 1914 after arriving on the Komagatu Maru.

Mr. Brindle cites the views of Martin Collacott as a separate item, but, in fact, his pre-recorded statements were included within a segment featuring Sharry Aiken, a professor of law at Queen's University and past president of the Canadian Council of Refugees. After an opening question and response from Ms. Aiken, the tape of Mr. Collacott's views was played. In it he argues that in recent years “thousands” of Tamil “terrorist sympathizers” have been allowed to enter Canada and that the system needed to be overhauled in order to screen out potential terrorists.

Mr. Collacott was not questioned. The segment returned to Ms. Aiken who was, I think it fair to say, dismissive of Mr. Collacott's views. I should also note that her view that terrorists would not arrive by boat but would travel “first class” was not questioned or challenged either.

As a listener, it would have been useful to hear someone with Professor Aiken's credentials discuss the issue with Mr. Collacott, or someone else of similar viewpoint. As it stood, a contrary opinion was, in effect, dropped in and then dismissed.

Ms. Tremonti, throughout, performed to her usual high standard, questioning and probing where appropriate and possible. However, the structure of the last segment did not really allow her to bring as much context to bear as would have been helpful to a listener. The preceding segments of personal narration and reliable history provided the perfect background for a solid and challenging discussion of the framework of refugee vetting. The way the segment was constructed prevented that from happening.


As regards the first program, I should note the good intention of the producers in attempting to build a panel of divergent views. However, the presence of two guests of essentially identical views and a third who joined the other two at various points undermined the appropriate balance that policy would require. The fact that the guest host essentially joined the discussion on one side underlined the imbalance.

In the second program, an intelligent and well presented menu of items about the experience of potential refugees by ship was undermined by the absence of genuine debate over future policy that seemed to be called for after the effective presentation of background material. The presence of some countervailing views saves the item from being in violation of policy, particularly in light of the producer's statement that they would be returning to the subject.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman