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The fight is on for Canadian communications and culture

The fight is on for Canadian identity in communications and culture, even if it does seem that only one side has shown up.

The Conservative government's calculated, but decisive, plan to remove foreign ownership rules from Canada's telecom and broadcast sectors will begin with satellite telecommunications -- in short, Telesat Canada.

When Harper overturned the CRTC to allow the Egyptian owned Globalive into the mobile phone market, he did it by changing the definition of being foreign owned, without changing the law as such. The sleight of hand in the Globalive decision may be tested in the courts -- but now the government is proposing to go further and address ownership outright.

By singling out satellite communications in the budget, the Conservatives gave the appearance of moving slowly. This is anything but a small step, given the importance of satellite communications to the system overall, and the fact that one company,Telesat Canada, is our satellite telecommunications industry.

Part of the calculation by the Conservatives is that, like other issues, no one cares who owns and operates the satellites that provide 100% of telecommunications to some remote communities, or take your visa payment from the restaurant table.

Created entirely in the public sector by our federal government in the 1970s, Telesat was the single greatest Canadian telecom accomplishment since Alexander Graham Bell. When Anik I went up in 1972 we were the first country in the world to use satellites for domestic communications. Its first customer was the CBC, which used the satellite to broadcast to Canada's north.

Telesat was eventually privatized by Mulroney and then spun off by Bell as a stand-alone company. Today, Telesat's 12 satellites handle almost every kind of telecom service from wireless data to on-line banking and airline reservations. It also is the provider for Bell and Shaw satellite television and 200 television stations broadcast in Canada.

Telesat's CEO, Dan Goldberg, was all over the media this week welcoming the lifting of foreign ownership rules which put Telesat "at a substantial disadvantage" to other global satellite operators.

Apparently none of the media that ran Telesat's media release verbatim looked at the other media release from the "substantially disadvantaged" company in the same week. It stated that "2009 was a record year... we achieved the highest levels of revenue and EBITDA in our history, launched and brought into service two new satellites and meaningfully increased our operating efficiencies."

The disadvantaged Telesat is the fourth largest satellite company in the world, but it would prefer that you not know how it became so successful. It has now expunged its public sector roots entirely from its history on the company's web site, claiming instead that it owes its origins to "ATT and Bell."

In spite of its embarrassment over the family tree, Telesat hasn't really strayed all that far from home. The majority of its shares are still owned by the Canadian Public Pension Investment Board, which runs the federal public service, military and RCMP pension plans. This is something that Telesat executives hope to change real soon.

I admit to becoming somewhat cynical about the ability of this minority Conservative government to have its way on these issues. It is no coincidence that Harper's announcement on satellites was contained in the budget speech, and will likely be enacted with the budget implementation legislation. He expects none of the opposition parties are ready to rise to the challenge of a confidence vote on foreign ownership.

Parliament's Industry Committee last week went in-camera to set up yet another review of foreign ownership in telecom and broadcasting, this time headed by Conservative MP Michael Chong. The mandate will be to look at all legislation that could be affected by the government's assault on Canadian ownership -- the Telecom Act, the Broadcasting Act and beyond.

If Harper can pull this off, we should expect much more. The fate of telecom and broadcasting are certainly linked to the proposals last week that Amazon be allowed to set up book distribution in Canada, and that Canada Post be privatized.

While the Conservatives move in for the kill on Canadian culture and identity, Canadian telecom and cultural unions, and NGOs like the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and the Council of Canadians, are also organizing. They will find it very difficult to break through the white noise of media and elite consensus, but will try in spite of it to rally a defense.

If Canadian content is really down to the personalization of our cell phones, maybe we can use the damn things to call a few people, and at least give them a fight.

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