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Tories, NDP call out CBC president for not ruling out bonuses, despite layoffs

OTTAWA — Canada's public broadcaster is feeling the heat after its president declined to rule out the possibility of holiday bonuses this year, hours after announcing massive layoffs. 

Catherine Tait appeared Monday on the CBC News flagship show, "The National," and was asked whether executives would be getting rewarded this year despite the cuts. 

"I'm going to presume no bonuses this year," said host Adrienne Arsenault. "Can we establish that's not happening this year?"

Tait responded: "It's too early to say where we are for this year. We'll be looking at that, like we do all our line items in the coming months."

Her comments came after CBC and Radio-Canada said Monday that 600 jobs will be cut, and 200 vacancies won't be replaced over the next year. 

The broadcaster said the move to reduce English and French programming budgets would result in fewer renewals and acquisitions, new television series, episodes of existing shows and digital original series.

CBC spokesperson Leon Mar confirmed Tuesday the public broadcaster won't be reconsidering the bonuses it would have paid under existing contracts.

"Changes to our existing compensation agreements with employees, whether union or non-union, are not under review at this time," Mar said in an email.

Agreements include potential bonuses for some on-air hosts, while those for some non-unionized employees include a short-term incentive plan, he added.

"Like most companies in our sector, its purpose is to encourage employee retention and to achieve or exceed business targets aligned with our strategic plan. Individual compensation is dependent on meeting those objectives."

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has vowed to strip CBC of public funding while maintaining Radio-Canada's French-language services, called out Tait's comments on Tuesday. 

"Justin Trudeau's hand-picked CBC boss is asked if she’ll keep paying bonuses while laying off rank-and-file workers … just listen to her!" Poilievre posted on social media, along with a clip of the interview. 

Documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation earlier this year show the public broadcaster has awarded $99 million in bonuses between 2015 and 2022. That included $16 million last year.

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill on Tuesday afternoon, NDP MP Peter Julian said the public broadcaster should not be giving out bonuses to its executives at this time. 

"We also are quite surprised and shocked by the bonuses going to the executive at CBC at the same time as they're cutting local positions," Julian said. 

"Our message very clearly to CBC is, they shouldn't be putting executive bonuses above local journalism and above those local positions that have such an impact in communities right across the country."

The federal Liberals have not weighed in on the issue of bonuses and have instead said it is something the public broadcaster should answer to. 

While the planned cuts were announced on Monday, the public broadcaster has not yet moved forward with laying off employees. 

Instead, it said the cuts would happen over the next year as the Crown corporation faces a budget shortfall of $125 million for the 2024-2025 fiscal year. 

The federal government had announced in its spring budget this year that it would cut spending across departments and agencies by three per cent by the 2026-2027 fiscal year.

But some jobs and programming could be saved from the chopping block,Tait told The Canadian Press on Monday, should the broadcaster's revenues or funding improve.

"We play an outsized role as a vehicle of cultural production and creative production in the country, and so if we are going to play that outsized role, we're going to need an adjustment in our funding," Tait said.

"Whether that comes from advertising or government investment, we will take it where we get it."

But as the public broadcaster vies for more funding,Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland didn't weigh in on whether Ottawa will exempt it from across-the-board budget cuts.

Freeland told reporters on Tuesday morning that the CBC and Radio-Canada cuts were "very sad news." 

But when asked whether it was an option to exempt the public broadcaster from overall spending cuts, Freeland skirted the question. 

"Our government strongly supports Radio-Canada and CBC," she said in French. "We will continue to be there."

On Tuesday, CBC and Radio-Canada made a presentation at the CRTC’s ongoing hearing on modernizing the regulatory framework for broadcasters. 

The federal regulator's consultation is being held in response to the Online Streaming Act, formerly known as Bill C-11, which requires digital platforms to contribute to and promote Canadian content.

Representatives from the public broadcaster told commission panellists that CBC spent more than $900 million on Canadian content last year, but that without financial support, "domestic production of virtually all genres of Canadian programming is not sustainable, given the size of our market."

Asked what the company is doing to protect journalism as it moves ahead with its announced cuts, CBC executive vice-president Barbara Williams said the broadcaster is crafting a plan to "work differently" and more efficiently, but that the specifics are not yet clear.

"We have not figured out all the details of this," she said.

"But we are looking to protect local, we are looking to protect news, we have a key investment in the kinds of shows that we have in our prime time. We have a strong and loyal audience to radio, we have a young, diverse audience that's looking for us on digital."

Williams added CBC is committed to preserving content serving Indigenous communities, especially in the North, amid the cuts.

Representatives urged the CRTC to mandate an initial contribution from online streamers to support the Canadian content system — a proposal the regulator is considering to help level the playing field with local companies that are already required to support Canadian content.

Williams said if some of that money is set aside to subsidize local news programming for struggling media outlets, the fund should also be accessible to CBC and Radio-Canada.

Under separate legislation governing tech giants' use of Canadian media content, the federal government recently struck a deal with Google to provide up to $100 million a year to news organizations whose content is featured on their sites. 

Draft regulations laid out in the Online News Act, which will regulate the deal, show that CBC/Radio-Canada currently stands to collect the largest share because it employs one-third of the journalistic workforce in Canada. 

However, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge hinted last week that the federal government is open to limiting how much money the public broadcaster gets. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.

— With files from Sammy Hudes in Toronto.

Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press

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