Once upon a time, the Tom Greens of the world could walk into their local cable company office, go down the hall to the studio and make a program. As long as they kept it legal, they could say what they wanted.

Canadians like Guy Maddin, Dan Aykroyd and Mike Meyers and Tom may have given the sector the cultist alternative edge it’s famous for. All got their starts on these channels, along with thousands of others currently working in Canada’s broadcasting and film industries. The medium was used in its hey-day by thousands of community organizations, ethnic, political and linguistic minorities, city councils, MPs, lawyers, doctors, filmmakers, stockbrokers, bicycle clubs, schools, theatres and sports teams of every description.

These channels wove a colourful ribbon of culture, free speech and public discourse from coast to coast.  You name it, it was once on Canada’s community channels… a vibrant cross-section of Canadian society where volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder learned to navigate their often divergent points of view in service of the larger and still crucial idea that “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — that’s right, democracy.

Canada was the first. We were the first to say, “TV should be open to everyone. It should be about dialogue.” Over 30 countries have followed our lead, from Sweden to Fiji, but with one crucial difference. Everywhere else in the world where governments have recognized a “community sector” that is separate and distinct from the “public” and “private” sectors, the sector is defined first and foremost by community control. They are owned and operated by communities themselves and anyone who wants to can make a program.

So what happened in Canada? In the view of this writer, cable companies, when still small and headquartered in the communities they served, and operating as closely monitored monopolies by the CRTC, executed their obligations fairly honourably. The CRTC wrote the policy, and studio doors opened to the public across the country. If they can be faulted for anything, it might be that cable company leadership, although not overtly censorious, nonetheless preferred friendly “community programming” that didn’t raise too many hackles.

That all changed in 1997, however. With pressure from satellite competition, cable operators began to consolidate. The CRTC made the channels optional, and cable companies that elected to continue to have them started to consider how they could be turned to competitive advantage. Professionalization soon resulted. Gone were amateurs and novel ideas. To get a show on cable, suddenly you needed experience, sponsorship backing or political clout. As cable operators consolidated their regional networks, they also consolidated studios, concentrating professional paid staff in larger centres, recycling programming from one region to another.

This change in the function of former “community channels” is now tacitly understood within the industry. On the CRTC’s website, the report on The Business of Canadian OTA Television refers to the local channels run by cable companies as “former community channels.” In the much publicized Local TV Matters/Stop the TV Tax campaign that launched in the fall, the country’s big cable companies positioned their branded community channels (“Shaw TV” and “Rogers TV”) as direct competitors for local CBC and private channels.

At the CRTC community TV policy hearing this April, CACTUS (the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations) and OpenMedia.ca will urge the CRTC to free the community broadcasting sector from the financial leash now held by cable companies. The hundreds of millions of dollars that cable companies now claim to spend on “their” community TV stations, should be transferred to communities themselves, to use for community-run multimedia access production centres and community-originated content that would be available over the air, on cable, on satellite and the Internet. The CACTUS vision: one-stop shopping in every community where Canadians can learn about new tools and professions, share stories and get their messages out.

But if Canadians ignore this issue, so will the CRTC.

Feb. 1 is the deadline for the public to comment on how cable companies have been spending in excess of $100 million for “community channels” annually (paid for by cable subscribers).

Please make your voice count, at Open Media.

Cathy Edwards is the spokesperson for CACTUS. She was the Volunteer Co-ordinator for Shaw Cable 10 in Calgary during the 1990s and has toured the world researching viable models of community television and media for a documentary series entitled My TV, Your TV, Our TV.