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CRTC tells Radio-Canada to apologize for offensive language on air

The CBC-Radio-Canada building is seen Thursday, January 28, 2021 in Montreal. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ordered Radio Canada to apologize after a host and commentator made repeated use of the N-word on air.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — The CRTC has ruled that Radio-Canada must apologize and review its practices after a host and commentator made repeated use of the N-word on air in 2020.

In a decision dated Wednesday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said the public broadcaster violated Canadian broadcasting policy objectives and values.

It also did not do enough to mitigate the effect the word could have on its audience, "particularly in the current social context and given its national public broadcaster status," the decision read.

The decision stems from a 2020 episode of a radio show in which commentator Simon Jodoin and host Annie Desrochers discussed a petition to demand the dismissal of a Concordia University professor who had quoted a famous book with the N-word in the title.

During the discussion, Jodoin and Desrochers repeated the full title of Pierre Vallières' controversial 1968 take on Quebec history several times.

A listener filed a complaint with the CRTC after first being told by Radio-Canada's ombudsman that the use of the word in that specific context did not contravene its journalistic standards and practices.

"In his complaint, the complainant condemned, among other things, the fact that the program’s commentator had mentioned the full title of the book and, consequently, the 'N-word,' on a number of occasions on air, without providing any warning or explanation of the baggage associated with that word," the decision read. 

"He added that a person historically affected by the term should have been invited to the discussion to talk about the impact of the use of the word."

Radio-Canada's ombudsman had agreed that the N-word is "an inaccurate and dehumanizing slur" but did not feel it should be banned in all contexts, such as in cases where the requirement for clarity justifies its use.

The CRTC recognized that the word was not used in a discriminatory manner in the context of the segment, but rather to quote the title of a book. 

However, it found that Radio-Canada failed to show "sufficient respect and sensitivity" to communities impacted by the slur, which could have been achieved by using other words or presenting an advisory warning listeners of potential offensive content.

Two commissioners dissented from the majority opinion, including Caroline Simard, vice-chair for broadcasting. Simard said her colleagues failed to consider protections under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"In the absence of discriminatory comments by the host and commentator, the majority decision failed, in my view, to apply the existing law developed by the Supreme Court of Canada to the effect that there is no right to not be offended under the right to freedom of expression protected by the Canadian Charter and the (Broadcasting) Act," she wrote.

Radio-Canada has been told to apologize to the complainant in writing and submit a plan to ensure that it better addresses similar issues in the future.

The CRTC also gave the broadcaster until July 29 to say how it intends to mitigate the impact of the word in the segment at issue, which is still available online.

In its report on the decision, Radio-Canada quoted Marc Pichette, the broadcaster's director of public relations, saying the issue is complex and it will study the CRTC decision and the dissenting opinions.

"Radio-Canada recognizes that use of 'the N-word' is offensive. That is why we have set guidelines and limited its use on our airwaves," Pichette said. The broadcaster will take the time required "to study in depth the CRTC decision" and decide on a response, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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