Canada: Your Country, Your Media

by Claudio Munoz

One of the walls in Thomas Saras’ office is filled with nametags and lanyards (name tags with cords attached, so you can wear them around your neck). Many of them are yellow, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press conferences and ceremonies, which Saras has attended. His press passes are hanging there in perfect disorder.

Traditionally, press passes, like newspapers, are completely useless the next day. But somehow the same doesn’t apply to ethnic media. The stories in ethnic publications seem to remain relevant for a little bit longer.

Saras, who is the president and CEO of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council, explains, “On my front page you will find information about the federal government – who devote 105 million dollars for summer jobs for students [for example]. This is something my readership wants to know, the students from the Greek community want to know. And because the Globe & Mail or The Star would put it somewhere in one of the “B”, “C”, or “omega” sections, nobody would notice. I put it on the front page so people will immediately know, and I include a date when the government will start receiving applications so they can apply,”

That is ethnic media in a nutshell – all the other news – the news of special interest to your community that somehow doesn’t make it to the mainstream media. Ethnic media reporters collect a different set of press credentials, from community services, non-governmental organizations, charities, cultural festivals, amateur soccer tournaments, schools, activists, community health centres, gays groups, vegetarian groups and friends of friends.

Us and them

Ethnic media works by providing information of special interest to the communities they serve: interesting facts about your new country, tips to settle in, articles about keeping alive your traditions at the same time as you are adopting new ones and stories about governmental or private initiatives designed especially for you.

In the book Media-Migration-Integration: European and North American Perspectives, Rainer Geissler and Horst Pöttker explain that ethnic media in Canada, “Consist of mostly small broadcasters, cable channels, newspapers, and magazines that target racial and ethnic minority audiences [...] Many are ‘mom and pop’ start-ups, published on a weekly or intermittent basis in languages other than English or French and distributed free of charge.”

They go on to say that there is also ethnic media that resembles mainstream media, including complex content, with bigger budgets, more personnel, and widespread distribution. Ethnic media could be created here or “imported” from overseas, and even though some of them try to create a conversation with other communities, most of them cater to a single target.

Even though mainstream media and ethnic media, are closer than they think they are – and they would like to be – there is major a difference between them. Saras hares his opinion. “I realized that mainstream media, either Anglophone or Francophone, sees the ethnic publications as competitors, they are taking away advertisement dollars. So they have every reason to keep out the competition. When getting your news from ethnic publications, you don’t receive any news controlled by anyone, political parties, corporations or any other. You receive straight news as it arrives to the publisher.”

Live from Saskatchewan

In Canada, a country full of immigrant stories, the ethnic press is part of the decoration. “Ethnic media is a century old,” Saras explains. “It started at the end of the 19 century in the areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta, with the Ukrainian communities who arrived in Canada at the end of the century, due to a famine they faced in their own country. Later on, in the middle of the century, between 1950’s and 60’s the first [immigrant] publications from the so call “western countries” started appearing in Canada.”

The same way we are going through a second wave of immigrants, we are going through a second wave of ethnic media.

Immigrants arrived at the end of the Second World War and started publishing in Canada, most of them in Ontario and Quebec. “During that period of time – Europe was destroyed – many people arrived and established their own communities; mostly Italians, Greeks, Germans and Portuguese. In the late 40s the first Greek publication appeared in Canada, a reflection of how strong the community was; and then came the Italian. In that period of time there were about 25 Italian and 11 Greek publications in Ontario.”

The ethnic media of the post war era was strong until the 90s. An economic crisis – the government decision to cut spending – that came after, affected the publications financially. A number of them ceased production immediately and another group only lingered around for a little while. Also, by the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, immigration from Western Europe started falling as people got settled. The mainstream media became their media too.

A new beginning

A second wave of immigrants started then. People from eastern Europe started arriving in bigger numbers, mostly from the countries that constituted the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Slovenia, and so on. And of course, people from Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Korea.

“The new communities established, following the same trend” Saras goes on. “The old immigrants – Greek, Italians, German, and Portuguese – moved outside the metropolitan areas, very few stayed in the city. The new immigrants came in, they bought their own houses... and then they tried to enter into the communication business – either by buying publications or creating new publications.” Today, in Mississauga there are about 37 publications serving the south Asian communities, and they are the strongest publications.

Some things did change, though. Digital technology provided each community with the ability to create their own programs in their own language and transmit them without breaking the bank. And Canadian media holdings – like Rogers – long ago acknowledged the importance of different communities, and since then have developed particular segments for each community.
An iconic example is Omni TV; programming in Mandarin, Cantonese, Chinese, Indian, Hindi, Farsi, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese.... you name it.

According to Saras, today there are fewer than 270 ethnic publications, including radio and TV, in Ontario – from 500 in the 80s’. Nonetheless, he thinks ethnic media is stronger, more organized and effective today.

Because the kind of information they provide, they don’t struggle to catch up with everything. Their articles don’t die the next day. They are, more than anything else, very useful.

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