CBC/Radio-Canada apologizes for using N-word, but says CRTC 'overstepped' authority

CBC/Radio-Canada has apologized for the repeated use of the N-word on a Radio-Canada program in 2020 but will appeal the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, saying the regulator has overstepped its authority.

Public broadcaster apologizes but says it doesn't accept interference in its journalism

CBC/Radio-Canada has apologized for the use of the N-word on a 2020 program but says it will appeal the regulator's decision about the incident, saying the CRTC overstepped. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

CBC/Radio-Canada has apologized for the repeated use of the N-word on a Radio-Canada program in 2020, but will appeal a CRTC decision linked to the segment, saying the regulator has overstepped its authority.

"We consider that the CRTC has overstepped its authority with respect to the independence of the public broadcaster," it said in a statement.

"Its decision of June 29 poses a threat, because the Commission has attempted to give itself the power to interfere with journalistic independence.

"That was a serious error. We simply do not accept the CRTC's interference in journalism in Canada."

Ordered to apologize

The statement comes after the CRTC ordered the public broadcaster last month to apologize in writing for the use of the N-word on its airwaves.

Annie Desrochers and columnist Simon Jodoin uttered the N-word several times during a segment on the 15-18 afternoon program on Aug. 17, 2020. It was part of an on-air discussion about a petition that demanded the firing of a Concordia University professor who had quoted the title of a famous book from Pierre Vallières that features the N-word. 

That sparked a complaint to the CRTC from Ricardo Lamour, a Black Montreal resident.

The CRTC then ruled that Radio-Canada did not implement all the necessary measures to mitigate the impact of the N-word on its audience. It further said the broadcast of the program segment "did not provide high-standard programming and did not contribute to the strengthening of the cultural and social fabric and the reflection of the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada."

That ruling prompted a backlash from journalists. Some 50 Radio-Canada personalities said in an open letter in La Presse that the decision threatens journalistic freedom and independence and "opens the door to the dangers of censorship and self-censorship."

In its statement Wednesday, CBC/Radio-Canada said the regulator's own dissenting opinions noted that it does not have the authority or jurisdiction to make such a decision.

"We must appeal the CRTC's jurisdiction on matters that should rest with our news leaders. Journalistic independence is vital to all of us," the statement said.

Acknowledged hurt

CBC/Radio-Canada acknowledged that while the N-word was used in a journalistic context, it was hurtful to some audience members and employees.

"Some of our journalists have expressed the view that this is solely an issue of free speech, but we all know that words can wound and need to be used with care. That is why we will apologize to the listener who filed a complaint," the statement said.

"The use of this word is hurtful to many in our audience and to our own employees and for that, we are deeply sorry."

It said it was also adding a warning to the program where it appears online to prepare listeners. As well, Radio-Canada will be launching an internal review to examine its policies and standards regarding language that can be hurtful.

The CRTC had ruled that Radio-Canada must report, by no later than Sept. 27, "on internal measures and programming best practices that it will put in place to ensure that it better addresses similar issues in the future." The report and the written apology both had to have been made public.

The CRTC has also told Radio-Canada it had until July 29 to come up with ways to mitigate the effects of the use of the N-word in that segment, given that it's still available online. 

"We do these things because we believe it is the right thing to do, not because the CRTC tells us to," the CBC/Radio-Canada statement said.

Lamour, the Montreal resident who filed the complaint, told CBC News in June that he had been in the CBC/Radio-Canada building in Montreal, listening to the 15-18 show with headphones when the word was used. Lamour, a local artist and social worker, had been invited be a guest on the show to discuss a different topic. 

Within two weeks of the show airing, Lamour filed a complaint with the CRTC and Radio-Canada's ombudsman.

Error in message

Myrna Lashley, an assistant professor in McGill University's psychiatry department, who also does consulting work on issues of equity and inclusivity for all levels of government, said CBC/Radio-Canada made an error in the message it's sending.

"It sounds like 'Sorry, not sorry.' I think those are two different stories that they've combined, and I think that that is unfortunate," she said.

"They should've stuck with giving the apology and leaving that there. But now it comes across as a qualified apology." 

She said the statement is written in a style that's saying sorry to those who were offended rather than apologizing for the offence itself.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Antoni Nerestant, Lauren McCallum and The Canadian Press