TORONTO, DEC. 5 -- The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which is widely regarded by Canadians as one of the few unifying forces left in an increasingly fractious society, today announced the most severe budget cuts in its history, closing or reducing to token operations 11 local television stations across the country and firing 1,100 employees.
CBC President Gerard Veilleux said, "This is not a mere accounting exercise. ... The CBC of the future will be smaller than the CBC of the past." He said the "fundamental restructuring" of the government-owned broadcasting giant will all but eliminate local television programming by April, resulting in a $108 million cut from the network's $1 billion budget.
Opposition members of Parliament called the announcement a "dismembering" of the CBC, and said that some affected cities, such as Windsor, Ontario, would become increasingly dependent on American networks for their television viewing. Windsor is within Detroit's broadcast range.
Herbert Gray, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Liberal Party, accused Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of retaliating against the CBC for perceived bias in its news coverage of the governing Conservative Party and said, "It is another breaking down of a national institution. It is a tearing apart of the fabric of Canada."
Canadians long have seen the CBC, along with the national passenger rail network and the postal system, as a symbol of unity in a geographically vast country that traditionally has been beset by the centrifugal forces of regionalism. In recent years, the cross-country rail system has been severely reduced and the Canada Post system was sold to a private corporation.
Faced with pressures arising from a $30 billion federal budget deficit and declining advertising revenues in the midst of a nationwide recession, the government broadcasting network said it was closing three television stations outright and reducing eight others to small news bureaus that will feed information to regional stations -- one for each of the 10 provinces.
The perennial issue of "cultural pollution" by American television beamed to Canadian border cities was revived after today's announcement in Ottawa.
Veilleux, at a news conference, insisted that "the Canadazation of the airwaves is still very much a commitment of the CBC" and stressed that CBC stations would continue to hold to the current average of about 4 1/2 hours of U.S. programs during prime viewing time weekly, or even reduce that ratio.
However, Paul Rutherford, a media analyst at the University of Toronto, said on a CBC interview show that the cutbacks may reflect the Mulroney government's goal of scaling back many public corporations, and that the national network could be broken up sometime in the future and sold to private interests.
"We are reaching a time when the CBC is imperiled," Rutherford said, adding that over time the CBC could withdraw from all local coverage and leave such programming to existing or new private stations.