Canada’s (m)other tongues
The state of Canada’s ethnic media
May 18, 2017, 2:00 pm ADT
If you’ve ever travelled or worked abroad, speaking and listening in a language that isn’t your own, you know the feeling of lying down at night exhausted. Your brain worked all day fumbling from one language to another. Every ounce of energy is drained. When your brain is that exhausted, you call home. You listen to your mother tongue. You listen without thinking – it’s a relief.
For Canada’s consistent stream of immigrants and their children, third language or “ethnic” media can be a refuge. It is news and stories in their language of comfort. Ethnic media -the official CRTC term – is defined as media that is not English, French or Indigenous. It is a collective of “others.”
The number of foreign-born Canadians has been increasing steadily since 1951. Today, metro Vancouver has almost as many foreign-born residents as the entire population of Nova Scotia. According to Statistics Canada, nearly half of the country’s population will be immigrants or children of immigrants by 3036. Of the 270,847 immigrants Canada received in 2015, 23 per cent had no working knowledge of English or French. For them, ethnic media is more than a haven, it’s a lifeline. The weight of this responsibility bears down on the journalists who work in ethnic media.
“It has always been the underdog industry,” says Madeline Ziniak, chair of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association and former national vice-president of Omni TV, Canada’s leader in multicultural programming. “Fraught with casualties, it’s never been easy.”
The state of ethnic media in Canada is as varied as its parts. Print is struggling to survive, radio is successful, online is innovating and TV has long been a quiet powerhouse.
Who is listening?
Across the country “good morning” is said in more than 200 languages every day. Buenos días is heard in Toronto, ਸ਼ੁਭ ਸਵੇਰ in Halifax and 좋은 아침 in Vancouver. Omni TV in Ontario offers programming in 49 of those languages. The Canadian Ethnic Media Association’s directory of ethnic media outlets has 1,200 entries from B.C., Alberta and Ontario alone. Of the 1,609 Radio and TV Broadcast licences defined by content language, 275 are not English or French. There is similar momentum south of the border. In the United States there are over 3,000 ethnic media outlets, and since 2006 ethnic media is the only sector of print media that is growing.
Canada’s history of immigration is a history of storytellers. In 1835, Upper Canada’s first German weekly newspaper was printed in what is now Kitchener, Ontario. The Canada Museum und Allgemeine Zeitung’s subscribers were hungry for news from Europe – in a familiar voice. “It’s a bridge to Canadian citizenry,” says Ziniak.
Ethnic media is a vital tool to connect citizens not only to their past, but to Canada’s present, and to one another. Most of the time, that bridge is built with content by minorities, for minorities and about minorities. This has helped and hindered ethnic media by giving it legs to stand on, but few places to go. But this is changing. Today, car radios play international news and music, weekly newspapers cover local politics and run helpful how-to stories. You can watch Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi from your living room on Saturday night. Ethnic media’s voices are here, they are speaking, and they are many.
The bridge that bends
George Abraham is a Canadian journalist who built a new platform. He started his career at the Times of India in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Twenty-six years later, from his office in Ottawa, Abraham runs newcanadianmedia.ca. Canadian media, he says, “is not inclusive enough.” The problem: “The mainstream speaks to the mainstream, and the ethnic speaks to the ethnic.”
Dr. Catherine Murray, associate dean of Undergraduate Academic Programs and Enrolment Management and professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University was the principal investigator in SFU’s 2007 Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Media in B.C study. She says the way different cultures are communicating within Canada is something all journalists – both mainstream and ethnic – will have to “struggle with” in their content.
Mainstream media is taking up the challenge. CBC launched a five-year strategy, A space for us all, in 2014. Its inclusion and diversity plan commits the CBC to “be relevant and representative of the population it serves.” It is starting with the people making the content. Canadaland found that, in 2015, 90 per cent of CBC’s staff was white.
Dr. Sherry Yu, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia,worked alongside Murray on SFU’s 2007 study. Yu says a “new stream” of ethnic media is emerging to cover issues that are misrepresented or not represented at all in mainstream media. It is driven by a younger generation of journalists whose content is online and in English. It is pushing the limits of ethnic media’s traditional audience.
Rooting for the underdog
As waves of immigration shift Canada’s idea of identity, daily and weekly newspapers pop up and go under in steady rhythm. In 1840, Canada Museum und Allgemeine Zeitung was sold to Heinrich Eby. It changed hands three more times before 1865 when a competing German newspaper, the Berliner Journal, forced it to stop printing. Today, the steady stream of immigrants is causing saturation in already niche markets. The 2007 study Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Media in B.C. found that 28 ethnic media outlets were serving Vancouver’s 50,000 Korean residents. (North Bay, Ontario also has 50,000 residents, but only three mainstream outlets.) There are only so many Korean restaurants, travel agencies and businesses in Vancouver. Yu says this makes competition for advertising revenue “huge.”
For Halifax’s first and only Arabic radio station, 99.1 Radio Middle East, saturation isn’t the problem. Arabic is the second most-spoken language in the city, but Oudai Altabbaa, the station’s accounts manager, says it’s “extremely hard” to introduce ethnic media into Halifax’s traditional economy. Still, he sees ethnic media as a way to “refresh” the economy, bringing in new ideas and new money. “A new way to communicate things to get people a little bit closer to each other.”
Altabbaa is optimistic. Working in radio, he has good reason to be. From 2011-15, third-language radio stations across Canada actually made money. Their English and French counterparts did not.
Other Canadian media outlets turn to funding from organizations like the Canadian Media Fund in order to innovate and stay open. The Canadian Media Fund is mandated by Canadian Heritage and funded by Canada’s TV companies and the federal government. It contributed $371.7 million in funding to Canadian television and digital media projects in 2015-16. Only $2.5 million went to “diverse languages.”
Money is a chief concern across all media, and ethnic media is well rehearsed in the pocket pinch. Many organizations “operate on a shoestring” says April Lindgren, associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. Having time and resources to do good quality, timely and verified news “can be a challenge if you are the editor, the publisher, the reporter and the ad salesman,” says Lindgren. If the money runs out, so does the ink.
The National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada represents more than 500 members of the ethnic press and media. In 2012 it asked its members about business challenges. Forty-three per cent said they weren’t earning money for their work.
Waves of immigration sway ethnic media’s successes and failures. In 1958 Canada had more new Italian immigrants than British ones. At that time Canada’s third language press was building a national presence: there were 250 newspapers, representing more than 50 cultures. The “fiercely Canadian, proudly Italian” daily newspaper Corriere Canadese was started in 1954 by Dan Iannuzzi. In 1995 it revamped, adding Tandem, an English-language weekend edition –aimed at their readers’ kids and grandkids. In 2013, after funding cuts, Corriere Canadese joined the ranks of retired Canadian ethnic newspapers. It looked like the end of an era. Except, six months later, it was revived – and is in print today.
Sitting in corner stores and restaurants, it reaches 30,000 Canadians daily. As Sherry Yu says, ethnic media is “volatile.” It is also unpredictable, persistent, and necessary.
At once, a commodity and a social movement, increasingly important ethnic media in Canada is more important than ever. Ethnic media outlets, like immigrant communities, know that to survive is to adapt. They have learned this the hard way. If they don’t survive, says Yu, “nothing comes after.”