Public forum on Canada and Aboriginal People

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The Sunday Edition's public forum, “Canada and the Aboriginal People: Can We Finally Get It Right?”

I am writing with regard to your complaint June 25, 2010, and request December 10, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a CBC Radio broadcast June 20, 2010, on Canada and aboriginal people. Your complaint focuses on the town hall-style discussion and question-and-answer segment that took place in the second hour of the broadcast.

Your complaint was filed before recent changes in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, so I will apply the previous policies to your case. I should add, though, that the revisions would not change the findings.

Similarly, your identity will remain unrevealed on my website because your review was launched before a new policy was introduced to identify complainants.

CBC Radio's Sunday Edition last June 20 staged a two-hour program from Winnipeg that examined the wide-ranging challenges of the aboriginal condition in Canada. The title reflected the challenges: “Canada and the Aboriginal People: Can We Finally Get It Right?”

To explore the issues, the program invited six panelists: Lorena Fontaine from the University of Manitoba's Aboriginal Governance Program; Wanda Wutunee, Professor and Department Chair of the University of Winnipeg's Native Studies Department; Wayne Helgason, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg; Jennifer Brown, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Histories at the University of Winnipeg; Colin Craig, Prairie Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; and Thomas Flanagan, Historian at the University of Calgary and Senior Scholar at the Fraser Institute. The first hour involved a panel discussion and the second hour opened the discussion to the public for questions and comments.

The complainant asserted that the discussions were imbalanced. In broad outline, he said that host Michael Enright gave advantages in his handling of the discussion “to the ongoing ‘white man' attitudes” over those “who have fought so long and hard to have redress from Canada's residential school system.”

The complainant felt that Fontaine “was repeatedly given the short end of the stick” because Enright didn't turn to her for the last words on any element of the discussion.

The complainant also felt the presence of Flanagan was a “political consideration,” given his former role as an advisor when Stephen Harper was Leader of the Opposition. “Hardly a more partisan spokesman for the present conservative party could have been found,” he said.

The executive producer of The Sunday Edition, Marjorie Nichol, wrote the complainant to assert that Fontaine had been a thorough debater who held her own in the discussion. She said the complainant's concerns about the “white in-group” didn't identify examples where it would be possible to assess performance against policies.

The complainant subsequently wrote the Ombudsman's Office to seek a review and to add that his concerns had not been addressed in detail.

The CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy in place at the time of the broadcast (since updated) intersect in several ways with the complaint.

In its preamble, the policy notes how CBC “enjoys administrative and programming independence from political and governmental direction.” It states further that the airwaves “must not fall under the control of any individuals or groups influential because of their special position.”

The policy called for a range of opinions. “A journalistic organization, to achieve balance and fairness, should ensure that the widest possible range of views is expressed. Almost any opinion may contain a grain of truth that helps to illuminate the whole truth. But proper account must also be taken of the weight and opinion which holds these views and its significance or potential significance. The challenging of accepted orthodoxies should be reported but so should the established views be clearly put. Moreover, the range of views and the weight of opinion are changing and these dynamics of change must be reflected. Nor are range and breadth of presentation sufficient in journalistic programming: there must also be depth, the capturing of dimensions and nuances. Without these elements, the programming becomes too simplistic to permit adequate comprehension of issues put before the public.”

On the matter of balance: “CBC 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 and opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.”

It said program balance should be achieved “where appropriate, within a single program or otherwise within an identifiable series of programs.” When single programs deal with a major controversial issue, there should be given “adequate recognition to the range of opinion on the subject.”

There were no relevant passages about how to structure group discussions to ensure each panelist was treated equitably.


Several reviews of the two-hour special, and particular attention to the one-hour portion of the special featuring questions and comments from the audience, revealed the practical and political struggles in contending with such wide-ranging social issues as native justice.

The panel of six was diverse in background and viewpoint. They each weighed in freely and expansively on their perspectives. They were accorded respect and equitable treatment. Indeed, they respectfully withstood some criticism from the audience, which itself was clearly frustrated with the pace of progress on issues relevant in their lives.

It is true that a considerable portion of the broadcast focused on Flanagan's recently published book on addressing native property rights, an issue identified as only one element of a far-reaching problem. But it was not an undue focus and host Michael Enright upheld best practices repeatedly to keep everyone involved in the conversation.

One of the recurring themes, largely articulated by Fontaine, was how necessary it was to understand our history in order to create change, find a place, and reduce the possibility of making similar errors.

I do not agree with the complainant that Fontaine was short-changed in the interview. She was called upon regularly and given space to comment in both the first and second hours of the two-hour broadcast. Her views were not challenged by the host, other panelists or the audience.

As for the notion of a racist or privileged framework, I could find no evidence of anything other than sympathy, frustration and a desire to do the right thing inside any of the statements by the panelists. I felt the broadcast did well in exploring the array of issues involving native social justice.

I do not agree with the complainant that Flanagan was an inappropriate choice for the discussion. He brought a point of view that helped ensure diversity in the evidence-based arguments put forward by the panel. Among other things, he asserted that colonialization had abrogated native property rights. CBC policy permits expression of views when they come from those with credentials. Flanagan is a political scientist with a history of involvement in aboriginal affairs, particularly aboriginal enterprise. Nothing he said as a guest, and thus nothing Enright did as a CBC journalist, violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman

Link to the two-hour broadcast: