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None of Our Business

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Issue: 37 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Canada Topics: Globe and Mail, media

June 6, 2006

None of Our Business

Canada's role in the world and the business press

by Dru Oja Jay

Hugo Chavez: makes the news when he affects the bottom line. photo: Agência Brasil
Did you know that Royal Bank (RBC), Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), Alcan and SNC-Lavalin all share board members? Or that Yves Fortier, Canada's former ambassador to the UN, sits on the boards of RBC and Alcan? Where does one go for the plain facts about Canada's tiny, interconnected corporate and political elite?

The Globe and Mail business pages, of course. A long story in October of 2002 reported that "directors travel in small world". "The power circles are very small," a professor at a business school was quoted as saying. "I think within a small community, there's a lot of peer pressure," another business professor told the paper.

What was the focus of the article? Was Globe reporter Janet McFarland concerned about the rapid consolidation of corporate power and its effect on policy? Was the editor who assigned the story wondering whether the pressure to announce record profits would lead corporations to act against the public good?

The report was, in fact, concerned with the possibility that too much overlap in boards could have a negative effect on corporations' accountability to their shareholders. Which is to say, ultimately, a negative impact on the corporations' obligation to maximize profits.

Outside the business pages, we quickly learn that Canadian business is not news. Take the CBC's understanding of "Canada's role in the world," for example.

In February of 2004, the CBC's flagship program The National ran "A World of Difference," a series dedicated to coverage of Canadians volunteering abroad to "make a difference". Installments carried titles like "Hope in Bolivia" and "a school of joy and hope" in Afghanistan.

Two years later, CBC debuted "Our World," a new series with a similar focus. The National's anchor Peter Mansbridge introduced Our World, saying that viewers had asked for more coverage of what Canadians were doing abroad. Since receiving this feedback, the CBC has run reports on a Canadian-funded clinic for disabled children in Haiti, efforts of Canadian soldiers to help Afghan children "regain their sense of stability," and a Quebec-sponsored program to "bringing new skills and hope to troubled youth." A cynic could be forgiven for sensing an emerging theme. (The CBC is hardly alone in this, however, and other networks often feature similar programming.)

What does business coverage have to do with the CBC's--let's be honest--nationalist propaganda?

If one is actually interested in understanding literally perennial topics like "Canadians making a difference," or "Canada's role in the world," a first step would be to take note of the largest Canadian corporations operating abroad. These include SNC Lavalin, Alcan, and banks like RBC. Canadian mining operations span the globe, extracting billions of dollars worth of resources from countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Oil companies are similarly globally implicated, and engineering firms--led by SNC Lavalin--do hundreds of millions of dollars in business on third-world megaprojects and arms manufacturing alike.

By any objective measure, these corporation are significant--if not defining--components of "Canada's role" globally.

Instead, the CBC's correspondent in Haiti speaks of a Canadian-sponsored effort to "ease pain in a country that offers its weakest citizens nothing," but we hear nothing of engineering firms and defense contractor SNC Lavalin's "role" in getting a $20 million contract for the new embassy in Haiti. Nor do we hear about the Canadian-backed, non-elected "interim" government's dealings with Montreal-based mining company St. Geneviève Resources.

Last December, the Globe and Mail's business section reported that "dozens of Ecuadoreans opposed to a Canadian mining firm's copper venture burned down a building at the company's South American project site." The article was not concerned with finding out why the protesters were so opposed to the mining project; what made the story "news" was that it affects Canadian investors' interests. For the same reason coverage of the story did not appear outside the business section: the Globe's editors determined that it is not news for the non-investor Canadians.

Perhaps the most salient discrepancy shows itself in coverage of the governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. While the business press regularly features in-depth coverage of the effects of diverting oil revenues into health and education programs, "international coverage" usually makes do with a well-edited news brief.

When coverage is more prominent, the exception tends to prove the rule.
Last October, the Globe and Mail featured a front-page article about how Venezuela's subsidized fuel prices "worsens air pollution," "[costs] the government billions of dollars," and "helps finance Colombia's outlawed right-wing paramilitary forces."

Thousands of environmentally-minded readers of the "national newspaper" of the world's fourth-highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases were undoubtedly disappointed to discover that the article did not signal a shift in its de facto policy of not covering Canada's billions of dollars in subsidies to oil companies.

Except in the business section, where environmental impact is relevant when it affects profits.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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