It was a tough sell, but after making a strong case for the necessity of studying the digital revolution taking place in our society, Senators Lise Bacon, Mira Spivak and myself convinced the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications establish the Subcommittee on Communications. Our mandate was to undertake a study into “Canada’s international competitive position in communications generally, including a review of the economic, social and cultural importance of communications in Canada.” Like much of the world, our society had been in the middle of a vast transformation of its telecommunications technology that could indeed be summed up as “revolutionary.” The advent of the Internet and its mainstream usage beginning in the mid-1990s, took Canada by storm. As households and businesses were at the early stages of establishing an online presence, be it by getting an e-mail address or building a website, the implications for our society and culture were difficult to foresee or determine.
As French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote in his seminal work first published in 1964, The Technological Society, “The individual who is the servant of technique must be completely unconscious of himself.” Technological advances always come with social and cultural implications for individuals and for society as a whole. It became obvious to us that this necessitated the creation of a special committee to delve deeper into the new world of digital communications and report back to Parliament, and ultimately Canadians, on the impact that this technological shift would have on our society and culture into the future. Between October 1996 and February 1999, the subcommittee heard from over 150 individuals with specialized knowledge of the digital world. The longer timespan of this study was due to the fact that it carried over between the 35th and 36th Parliaments.
After issuing its interim report in April 1997, two years later the subcommittee issued its comprehensive final report, entitled “Wired to Win!” in May of 1999. The report issued 21 recommendations for policy makers on how to position Canada and its cultural and communications institutions, such as the CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as our private sector players, for success in the 21st century. As stated within the report, “The point is that information technology knows no borders. Having that technology opens the floodgates to outside forces whose cultures could come to drown our own. That is why it is essential for us to re-think how we present ourselves to the world.”
Many of the report’s recommendations continue to resonate today as policy makers look to reposition national institutions such as the CBC in the face of rapid change. For example, the report’s final recommendation was that Canada do more to promote its own domestic culture globally. Following our success within the French-language television consortium TV-5, Canada’s English-language public television broadcasters, such as the CBC and TVOntario, should be encouraged to form strategic alliances with their international counterparts to provide a new global network offering top quality programming. Today, the idea of an exclusively Canadian global broadcaster has also been floated. Back in the late 1990s, Canada was just beginning to move out of decades of using “snail mail” and fax-machines. We had little idea of the vast advances in information technology that awaited us. Senate reports such as this have brought much value to the conversation of promoting and projecting Canadian culture at home and abroad. By 2006, I was proud to take part in another study by this committee on the state of the Canadian News Media. The two-volume report further examined the implications upon our news outlets of the rapidly-changing information technology landscape.