Privatization threatens TVO.
SIOUX LOOKOUT, Ont.
The Ontario government's drive to cut expenses through the sell-off of government assets threatens to leave remote, northern, mostly Aboriginal communities at the mercy of private business owners when it comes to television and radio service.
In remote communities in northern Ontario, TVOntario, the government-owned educational broadcaster, carries distance education programming that allows more than 20 people to get their high school diplomas each year. Without this service, those people would be forced to leave their home communities at great expense to attend a secondary school.
Privatization and re-organization have been a major part of the Ontario government's pro-business approach. Several hospitals throughout the province have been targeted for closure since Premier Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives were elected on June 8, 1995. There has been talk of privatizing the provincially-owned Ontario Hydro along with assets acquired with billions of dollars of public money. The government has also talked of selling off its public controlled Liquor Control Board despite sizable profits, prompting critics to suggest that government is going too far in its efforts to reach out to the business community.
That's what more than 60 people were saying on Nov. 26 when they gathered in Sioux Lookout, Ont. to protest a hearing conducted by the Privatization Secretariat. The committee had scheduled the meeting in the northern town to hear from a dozen local groups. The hearings are part of the public consultation process that is scheduled to end in January.
The Wawatay Native Communications Society and Wahsa Distance Education, operated by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, both rely on spare audio channels on TVO's network to reach remote communities. Wawatay Radio has counted on TVO as an economical way to broadcast Native-language programming programming since 1984. Fifty-two hours of regional news and cultural programming is aired each week. Wahsa has relied exclusively on TVO to send its distance education programming to 23 First Nation communities since 1991.
Officials with both organizations believe private business will not operate the services at a loss which will probably mean the end of the services if privatization occurs.
The 60 people met for a rally outside the hotel where the consultation sessions were to be held to protest what appeared to be restrictions placed on public participation in the process. Sioux Lookout is not regarded as an Aboriginal community, despite the fact that it has a sizable Aboriginal population. But it is considered a `jumping off point' for the many remote Aboriginal communities in the far northern portion of the province. The demonstrators believed that public input was limited in Sioux Lookout when it was not limited in Thunder Bay, a community just 200 km to the south-east, and felt the limits may have been aimed at excluding Aboriginal interests.
"The panel is holding a series of public forums across the province, but for some reason that has never been explained to Wawatay or NNEC, they have decided to limit the input from the public during their time here in Sioux Lookout," said Kenina Kakekayash, executive director of Wawatay.
Deborah Reid, an aide to Rob Sampson, minister without portfolio with responsibility for privatization, said the limits were placed on participation because the Sioux Lookout meeting was different from the Thunder Bay meeting.
"Thunder Bay was a public meeting while the meeting in Sioux Lookout was a special Aboriginal meeting," she said.
Norma Kejick, the principal of Wahsa Distance Education, attended the meeting and was allowed to make her point. She is convinced the panel now understands the importance of the northern services.
"I believe the committee members now understand. Maybe now the government will include some kind of clause that the new owners have to provide the same service or better after they take over," Kejick said. "My personal feeling is they're going to go ahead and do it."