Front Page News: March 16, 2015

Good morning Pine Tree Republic citizens! In our Front Page News features, I share 3-5 of the top news stories from the past week and discuss the broader global context in which they occurred. Each post concludes with questions to help spark further dialogue in the comments section on how these stories contribute to our understanding of broader global and societal forces.

This week’s stories include a water crisis in Sao Paulo, new Canadian content rules, the American oil industry’s response to low prices, and a looming showdown between Canada’s Supreme Court and Parliament.


1.”South America’s Largest City Is Almost Out of Water” and “Sao Paulo Residents Demand Their City Take a New Attitude about Water“, by Catherine Osborn (The World)

Sao Paulo

The Story: In this two-part series, The World’s Catherine Osborn reports on the growing water crisis in Sao Paulo, Brazil, South America’s largest city. Part I of the series details how the forces leading to the current water crisis, such as deforestation of the watershed, virtually uncontrolled construction in the city (requiring large amounts of water), and distracted public attention were predictable, as the state government itself had warned of precisely this situation years ago. Part II details how Sao Paulo residents are responding to the crisis through grassroots action to demand a more sustainable solution to the city’s water problems than what politicians are currently offering.

Key Quote: “Perhaps worst of all, Sao Paulo’s state government saw it all coming. Six years ago, they warned of a water crisis by this year, 2015, if Sao Paulo didn’t restore deforested parts of its watershed. Yet little was done. Even as the reservoir that supplies half the city hit its lowest point in history last year, politicians and the media focused on the World Cup and elections.”

Context: What happens when citizens are directly affected by a complex system crisis that those in power failed to address? History has shown us some answers (think about the crisis that led to spiralling food prices and the Arab Spring a few years ago), and we might get another answer soon. The forces leading to Sao Paulo’s water crisis involve the overlap of several systems, including physical and environmental systems (a changing climate, deforestation of the Amazon), economic systems (the building boom in the city that is draining much of its water resources), and political systems (international investors and the Olympic Committee that fuelled the boom, a corrupt political system favouring the wealthy that is growing ever-deeper). Now that citizens and businesses face water rations, a grassroots political movement seems to be taking shape to demand greater participation in finding a solution. Except that this burgeoning movement may not stop at just a solution to the immediate water crisis – as history demonstrates, once momentum builds to address one symptom of a systemic crisis, it rarely ends without also reshaping other parts of the system.


2. “CRTC Rewrites Canadian Content Quotas on Television” by James Bradshaw (Globe and Mail) Television

The Story: On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) made a landmark change to the long-standing mandate on Canadian content for channels broadcasting in the country (commonly known as “Cancon”). With the intention of supporting locally made programming, Cancon regulation required that channels broadcast Canadian-made shows for at least 55 percent of their daytime programming, and at least half of their primetime programming.  As consumers increasingly shift to global on-demand services, e.g. Netflix, that are not subject to these rules, The CRTC is now lifting the Cancon mandate for cable daytime programming – though Cancon restrictions on primetime programming remain in place. It hopes that these changes will lead channels to focus on producing a few high-quality Canadian shows that can compete in the burgeoning international online market for digital entertainment.

Key  Quote: “The changes are an attempt to respond to a fast-changing technological environment that has upended TV’s business model. The industry is in an ‘age of abundance’, as [CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre] Blais calls it, where video content comes from a vast array of sources, often online, on demand, and sometimes for free.”

Context: This story provides an illustrative case study of how globalization continues to reshape our economy, media, and identity. The advent of online digital entertainment, and in particular the rapid rise of on-demand providers e.g. Netflix, threatens to disrupt the current cable subscription model, in which a few powerful channels such as the CBC, CTV, and Global controlled the programs that Canadians viewed. In this new “on-demand” system, international content providers and viewers are now in control of what content is consumed, effectively bypassing national regulations intended to promote a distinct Canadian identity through television media.

With the new regulations, the CRTC seems to be shifting its goals from creating a set of shared Canadian experiences for viewers across the country, to encouraging the development of cutting-edge content that can promote Canada to viewers around the world in the new online medium. This represents a subtle but important shift from using media as a way to solidify a common national identity, to using media as a vehicle to brand a nation and attract the attention of a global audience. In a world in which so many aspects of our societies – including our economy, means of communication, education, and culture – now operate in a global context, the shift from a shared communal identity to a brand represents a powerful force with far-reaching consequences.


3.”Deep in the Heart of the Texas Oil Boom“, by Shawn McCarthy (Globe and Mail)

Shale Oil

The Story: In this feature, Shawn McCarthy surveys the initial fallout in the United States of the recent swoon in oil prices. While American shale oil fields experienced a boom in production over the last four years thanks to the profitable use of technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, they are among the first regions in the world to suffer a steep drop in activity as prices plummet. In many cases, companies are sharply cutting the number of new wells they drill this year, in some cases by almost 50 percent, leading to cascading downsizing effects for the broader service economy that depends on continuous drilling activity in these regions. At the same time, companies are engaging in a race to cut costs and find ways to produce oil more efficiently, which is already starting to reshape the environment for service provider and supplier companies that played a crucial role in catalyzing the recent American energy boom.

Key Quote: “But there is a longer-term danger as the producers download their troubles onto the service sector in a bid to cut costs… As capacity is lost among the steel suppliers and chemical companies whose products are essential to modern production techniques, the rebound will be handicapped by their loss.”

Context: McCarthy’s appraisal of the current economic situation for shale oil producers notes several examples of system buffers that quietly threaten to reshape the existing American oil industry. While changes in the rate of oil drilling and production graph the headlines, the system buffers often serve as “hidden forces” that can cause seemingly sudden changes in the market. McCarthy touches on a few of these stocks and how they may change in the coming month, including:

  • Many producers are drilling wells but waiting to start production in the hopes that prices will rise; however, they have a limited amount of time to wait until they must start production.
  • Refineries have tanks that store crude oil until they’re ready to process it; however, those tanks are coming close to being full.
  • Companies providing services to large oil producers typically are the source of innovation that leads to more efficient production; however, many are now closing down or being absorbed by larger companies as producers face pressure to cut costs.

Trends in these buffers indicate that the price of oil may plummet even further in the next few months as the oil oversupply continues to increase. In the long-term, the consolidation of service companies reduces a critical buffer for the industry to respond and rebound from the current downturn.


4.”Imperious Conservatives and Runaway Supreme Court Set to Collide“, by Andrew Coyne (National Post) supreme_court_ofcanada

The Story: In this op-ed, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne predicts a looming clash between Canada’s Conservative government and the Canadian Supreme Court. In Canada’s parliamentary system, governments are normally expected to clear proposed legislation with the Ministry of Justice prior to introducing it in Parliament. However, Coyne notes that this government has not only not engaged constitutional lawyers on key pieces of recent legislation, it seems to be actively challenging Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The two pieces of legislation in question are Bill C-51 – commonly known as the anti-terrorism law, which would expand the surveillance and operational powers of Canada’s spy agencies – and a yet-to-be-introduced bill mandating judges to sentence criminals convicted of certain felonies to stiff prison terms, without the possibility of parole. At the same time, Coyne argues, the Supreme Court seems to be taking an expansive view of the Charter in justifying its recent landmark decisions, most notably on a patient’s “right to die”. Coyne believes this divergence may lead to a showdown in which the Conservative government invokes the “notwithstanding clause” on some of its key legislation, a seldom-used section of the Constitution that essentially allows governments to bypass concerns brought by the Court’s interpretation of the Charter on its bills.

Key Quote: “It is no secret that many Conservatives have long chafed at the notion that Acts of Parliament should be subject to Constitutional override. It wasn’t the Court’s judgment they questioned – it was the whole concept of judicial review.”

Context: Coyne’s prediction of a showdown between the Court and the Conservative government, to the point that the government would invoke the notwithstanding clause, seems to be speculation at this point. However, his analysis of a growing chasm between the government and the Court is fully justified – not just by the examples he cites in this piece, but also by last year’s bizarre case of the government unsuccessfully nominating a justice to the Supreme Court, while fully knowing that he didn’t meet legal requirements to sit on the Court. This trend, should it be exacerbated this Spring with the passage of the two bills in question, has the potential for several worrisome consequences. At the federal level, it indicates that important questions of civil rights, national security, and societal issues will increasingly be determined by politicians, rather than legal experts. The politicization of this process in turn opens up these important issues to influence by special interest groups – imagine if the recent “right-to-die” debate was settled through an American-style campaign of political commercials, rather than through the courts. From a federal-provincial relations angle, any use of the notwithstanding clause could re-trigger the use of this tactic by provinces seeking to opt out of federal legislation, weakening Canada’s ability to respond to the global challenges of our day – imagine if Alberta were to opt out of a federal climate change policy from a future government. Finally, the Conservatives are engaging in a dangerous political game of their own with this potential showdown. On the one hand, anti-terrorism and tough-on-crime legislation is likely to play well in the short term with first- and second-generation immigrants, who have provided a key “swing vote” constituency for the party, and who often have more direct experiences with crime and terrorism than other Canadians. But in the long run, it is these very constituencies who are often underrepresented by powerful political groups, and who therefore benefit the most from a strong, independent interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Suggested Discussion Questions:

  • How does Sao Paulo’s water crisis compare/contrast with other societal problems that are driven by overlapping complex systems?
  • What institutions play a role in shaping our national identities? How have these been affected by online media?
  • How is a brand different/similar to an identity? What are the implications of using Canadian media for “branding” purposes?
  • What important buffers help make our political, economic, and societal systems resilient? Are these buffers generally increasing or decreasing in their ability to absorb system shocks?

I look forward to reading your comments and perspectives on this week’s news.



4 thoughts on “Front Page News: March 16, 2015

  1. How is a brand different/similar to an identity? What are the implications of using Canadian media for “branding” purposes?

    From a marketing perspective, an identity means your core values/beliefs while your brand is what you are – how you relate your core values to the audience and tell your story. Canadian media, including the CBCs beloved programs including Q, Radio-Canada’s sunday night tout le monde en parle, and the national with Peters Mandbridge, for example, has been an identity marker for Canadian culture for years, as the content in these programs represent core values Canadians identify with. Alternatively, CBC is a way to brand, package these values up and tell the Canadian story – regionally, nationally and internationally. Truth be told, I dont think the brand of the sweeping Canadian identity resonate with regional areas any more – I think, with globalization we recognize the difference between us, and want to see that represented more in Canadian content – which may in part play into why Canadian content ratings are generally so low – because the sweeping identity, makes it hard for Canadians to connect.

    I think its been clear for several years that while Canada seems to have a few core values that most can agree on; regionally, there are so many differences between each area that, assuming the pieces fall into place like CRTC hopes, the rise of promoting regional cutting-edge canadian content, rather than demanding X amount of hours to fill/day, focusing on the quality rather than quantity, may actually help to connect Canadians to understand each others’ subtle brand differences, identity and ultimately their regions core values.

    This may not all make sense..its very late and Im very sleepy. But basically, I think the CRTCs decision is a gamble and it will be interesting to see how Canadian made content adapts. Food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To follow up on that same topic, there is an interesting parallel with the French policy of “l’exception culturelle française” that basically aims at “promoting” French culture and artistic creation in TV and cinema. So there is quota on TV but also on movie theater and even on Netflix… but if you have VPN 🙂 Pretty close to the spirit of Canada’s CRTC regulation. But in both policies, I wondering what is the aim? Is to brand an identity or to protect an identity? The nuance is subtle but it is here. I think is more about the latter.

    Imagine that without the regulation, Canadian and French audience can watch TV and movie creations from different countries with no obvious dominant country or region, imagine you can watch movies from India, China, Tunisia, Lituania or Tuvalu, would the debate of “protecting” identity and national creation exist?

    By comparing both policies I wonder if this is not more a kind of “resistance” against hegemony from the US? Globalisation is not even – there is always a nation or a way of looking at things that want to dominate, and this can be at different scales (international or regional).

    However, I agree with you both Nic and Michelle: in a world of internet or restructuring of media services and accesses those policies make less sense. Let’s hope higher quality content will make a difference. And it could be interesting to see if other forms of “resistance” will emerge.


  3. Michelle and Aida, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Michelle, you bring up interesting examples with the Peter Mansbridge-led news programs and the French-language “Tout le mode en parle” show. In both cases, I would say that these are more reflective of the “traditional” identity-making function of public telecommunications, in the sense that they are unself-conscious (i.e. they don’t often make overt references like “this represents Canadian culture or Quebecois culture”, they just cover topics of interest to their communities). Contrast that with the CBC radio show Q, which I would argue is much more explicit about its Canadian content and actively seeks to promote Canadian artists and political thought in the U.S. through its licensing with Public Radio International. I think the shift to online media favours this latter model more, as to be successful shows must now compete in an international audience. However, I hope there’s still a happy medium between promoting a national culture abroad (or perhaps a regional variant on a national culture), while still engaging a nation-wide audience in a meaningful collective experience. I think something like CBC’s Canada Reads program comes close to that – it’s broadcast online and features Canadian authors to the world, but also hopefully sparks a meaningful debate among Canadians about important issues facing our country, e.g. how we deal with immigration, gay and lesbian rights, etc., that are applicable across regions.

    Aida, I think you bring up a good point regrading the unevenness of globalization – I agree that generally it tends to favour countries/companies/actors that are already in a powerful position and have the resources to further their influence through other means. I think the idea of “resistance” is an interesting frame to understand regulations such as Cancon, and likely the French equivalent, and there is a lot of accuracy to that. I would add that in addition to resisting U.S. cultural hegemony, a key challenge for Canadian media is to solidify a national identity, which has always been in the process of formation due to high regional variability, multilingualism, etc. It would be interesting to compare/contrast this with the French situation – is there the same sense of an “unfinished” national identity that must be built through the media?


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