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Questions about who qualifies surround journalism supports in federal budget

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  • OTTAWA — Concerns are being raised about limits to who might qualify for aid under a section of this week’s federal budget geared toward supporting journalism, and whether the money will, in the long run, save a sector of Canada’s media industry that has been in financial freefall for a decade.

    Tuesday’s federal budget disclosed new details about the distribution of $595 million that had been earmarked in the fall economic statement for promoting Canadian journalism.

    Qualifying criteria would see money directed at journalistic organizations primarily involved in the production of original news, with an emphasis placed on coverage of democratic institutions and processes.

    The budget also revealed an “independent panel of experts from the Canadian journalism sector” would be created to help figure out which news will be eligible to receive money or tax credits over a five-year period.

    The Opposition Conservatives have dismissed the measures, accusing the Liberals of buying off the media in advance of the October election, at taxpayer expense.

    The independent panel is key to ensuring the government itself isn’t perceived to have a hand in deciding who gets money, and who doesn’t, says Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

    “We must protect journalistic independence and that’s why an independent experts panel will define eligibility to these new investments,” the minister told The Canadian Press in an email. “We are going to the root of the problem and creating concrete measures to support Canadian newspapers, big and small.”

    But that specificity — that the government means to support newspapers in particular — is what draws criticism.

    A 2017 report by the Public Policy Forum, called “Shattered Mirror,” indicated that about one-third of journalism jobs in Canada were lost between 2010 and 2017 as advertising revenue for newspapers, TV and radio stations shrank dramatically. Much of the revenues media outlets depend on have been siphoned off by online platforms such as Google and Facebook. The result has been not only layoffs throughout the industry but the outright closure of many local papers.

    “Canadian written press has taken (the biggest) hit as they’ve lost half of their jobs since 2010,” Rodriguez notes. The government, in announcing plans to help the industry, has cited the findings of the Public Policy Forum, which has warned that fewer journalists reporting on public affairs will ultimately harm democracy.

    The budget proposed refundable tax credits to help media organizations cover up to a quarter of their labour costs, but the credits would only be made available to what are deemed “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” and would exclude entities “carrying on a broadcasting undertaking.”

    The Canadian Association of Broadcasters calls that unfair.

    “If the government is truly committed to recognizing the vital role media plays in helping citizens make informed decisions, it must find a way to include radio and television news outlets in this tax-credit regime,” the association’s board chair Lenore Gibson, a lawyer for Bell Media Inc., said in a statement.

    Magazine publishers also would not qualify for the tax credits if they already receive aid through the Canadian Periodical Fund.

    Media union CWA Canada welcomed the budget measures but worried that the rules could allow a traditional media giant such as Postmedia Network Inc. to benefit without necessarily helping journalism.

    “We need to know there will be rules to ensure that a company like Postmedia can’t simply take millions of dollars in labour tax credits and pass that on to the debt-holders who control it or to pay huge executive salaries or bonuses,” CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon said. He represents journalists at Postmedia papers in Ottawa, Regina and Montreal, among others, and at the CBC and The Canadian Press.

    A qualified organization would have to be set up as a corporation, partnership or trust. If it is a public corporation, it must be listed on a Canadian stock exchange and not be controlled by non-Canadian citizens. If it’s a private corporation, it must be at least 75 per cent Canadian-owned.

    Postmedia, which operates dozens of weekly and daily publications, including the National Post, along with several websites and magazines, is a publicly traded company. Its executive chairman Paul Godfrey has been a vocal proponent of government support of the country’s news industry and called the tax-credit scheme “a turning point in the plight of newspapers” when it was announced in the fall.

    A spokeswoman for Postmedia said the guidelines unveiled by the Trudeau government so far indicate the company would qualify for the labour tax credits, but added that it’s too soon to say for certain.

    News Media Canada, which represents 800 publications throughout Canada, also said Friday it was unclear whether the country’s biggest media firms would qualify for the tax credits. A spokesman, however, said some community newspapers had already indicated they planned to hire more journalists based on details provided in Tuesday’s budget.

    April Lindgren, who operates Ryerson University’s local-news research project, questioned whether the measures will result in more journalists being hired to cover local news.

    “I don’t think it’s going to spark a whole bunch of new hires of journalists,” Lindgren said.

    Regardless, under the parameters set out in the budget, most of the aid money would be funnelled to struggling mainstream players, said Chris Waddell, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism who questions the logic behind the move.

    “We’re in a situation where, in fact, government is subsidizing the least likely people to succeed in the current format,” said Waddell. “My question is why? To what end?”

    Nearly 270 local news outlets have either closed or merged in 194 communities across Canada since 2008, according to Ryerson’s latest tracking data, published last month.

    In that same timeframe, 108 new or merged outlets have been launched in 78 communities.

    The bulk of the journalism funding proposed in the budget — $360 million over five years — is attached to the labour tax credits. Once the budget is approved, the credits would apply retroactively to the beginning of this year and cover 25 per cent of the costs of journalists working a minimum of 26 hours per week for 40 consecutive weeks.

    Qualifying organizations would also be required to employ at least two journalists who spend at least three-quarters of their time “engaged in the production of news content, including by researching, collecting information, verifying facts, photographing, writing, editing, designing and otherwise preparing content.”

    And news content would be defined as “matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes.”

    Outlets primarily focused on a particular topic such as sports, arts, entertainment or other industry-specific news would not meet that test.

    The budget also includes tax credits of 15 per cent on subscriptions to digital news websites, allowing Canadians to claim up to $500 worth of subscriptions per year to qualify for a maximum $75 non-refundable tax credit. But that credit won’t be available until 2020 — after the next federal election.

    Such a tax credit is doomed because there is so much free content online, and the public cannot differentiate between quality and commodity news, said Waddell.

    “People are not refusing to buy online subscriptions because they’re $15 per month rather than $13 a month,” he said. “They’re refusing to buy because they see the alternative is zero dollars a month.”

    As well, the budget proposes allowing registered journalism organizations to qualify as charities through the Canada Revenue Agency, so they can issue charitable tax receipts to people or registered charities who donate money to them.

    Among the restrictions being imposed for charitable status qualification, news organizations must have a board of directors operating at arm’s length from each other, must not be “factually controlled by a person” and must not receive money from any one donor that represents more than 20 per cent of total annual revenues.

    Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

    Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave an incorrect title for Paul Godfrey, the executive chairman of Postmedia. He is no longer the CEO.


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    Soldiers deploying to flood-prone areas as water levels rise in New Brunswick

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  • FREDERICTON — About 120 Canadian soldiers will soon be deployed in western New Brunswick to help residents threatened by rising floodwaters.

    The soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in southern New Brunswick have been tasked with helping fill sandbags and assisting with evacuating homes, if necessary.

    Lt.-Col. Sean French, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, says the soldiers are also prepared to conduct “wellness checks” in various communities, using heavy vehicles that can move through deep water.

    Water levels in the Saint John River Basin are expected to rise significantly over the next few days, reaching or passing flood stage in several areas.

    With heavy rain expected to continue through the day, particularly in northern New Brunswick, residents of 15 communities have been warned to remain on high alert.

    Greg MacCallum, director of New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Organization, says the rising waters are sure to lead to road closures in several areas, particularly in the Fredericton area and communities farther south.

     

    The Canadian Press



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    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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