The Rotting Heart of CBC Ottawa: Network Admits to Sloppy Gatineau Park Coverage
CBC Ottawa’s response to my complaint over its botched and slanted August 9 coverage regarding the threat of more residential construction in the Pontiac section of Gatineau Park was beyond pathetic. To such an extent, that I sent a formal complaint to the CBC Ombudsman.
And because this latest mistake-ridden coverage is symptomatic of CBC Ottawa’s persistent failure to protect the public interest where Gatineau Park reporting is concerned, I directed my complaint at the station’s news management team, and not at the reporter or interviewer.
In her September 14 response, managing editor Ruth Zowdu admitted that CBC was guilty of unacceptable “sloppiness” in reporting on the municipality of Pontiac’s new builder friendly bylaw, and that she had “followed up with the people who contributed to this sloppiness.” Optimistically, she added that she was “confident that their attention to detail will be significantly improved in future coverage on this issue and others as well.”
However, her own response was careless, sloppy and filled with mush, convincing me the problem has more to do with CBC Ottawa’s management/culture, and its apparent desire to deliberately ignore or downplay serious issues affecting Gatineau Park, than it does with reporter Kimberley Molina. Accordingly, I don’t buy Ms. Zowdu’s assurances that CBC’s sloppiness on this issue has been addressed.
The most serious blunder in Ms. Zowdu’s response, spotlighting her own bias and contempt for the facts, was her defence of the word “grandfathered” as used in CBC’s August 9 report and Ottawa Morning interview. Here is what she said about use of this term:
“You suggest that [CBC Ottawa’s] use of the term ‘grandfathered’ suggests [sic] that the private properties that exist within Gatineau Park are ‘in perfect harmony’ with the park. I disagree. This term, used both in the online story and again in the introduction to the interview with Ms. Labadie is used to suggest that the owners of the homes are not seen to be in active breach [!] of the rules because the properties were present first.”
What utter nonsense. Ms. Zowdu says the term was “used to suggest that the owners of the homes are not seen to be in active breach of the rules because the properties were present first.” The point is: private landowners have been and continue to be in “active breach of the rules,” to the tune of 132 new houses in the park since 1992, and Pontiac’s new bylaw will aid, abet and facilitate further breach of those rules/master plans.
Moreover, Ms. Zowdu didn’t specify what “rules” she was referring to as she bent over backwards to defend private property in the park (besides, saying private properties were there first perfectly parrots what the Kingsmere and Meech Lake Association say). If, as Ms. Zowdu claims, private park lands had been “grandfathered,” how would she explain expropriations and threats of expropriation at lac Philippe in the 1950s? Or the six major expropriations of residential developments in the park: the Bourque Brother’s lac la Pêche subdivision; the Hobbs subdivision at lac la Pêche; the Sully-Woods subdivision in Meech Creek Valley; the Carl McInnis subdivision near Pink Lake; the Dunn-Woodhouse subdivision at Kingsmere; the Roderick Fraser Sparks expropriation, and all those others: Quain at Kingsmere, Grierson at Kingsmere, Franck Lynch at Shawano; Tom Main at Brown’s Lake? (See Dr. Michael Lait’s PhD thesis The Rotting Heart of Gatineau Park, first draft.)
Since Ms. Zowdu made up her own definition of the term grandfathered, I provided the Ombudsman with half a dozen definitions from various online sources, which pretty much said the same thing: “Grandfathered: to arrange for someone or something not to be subject to a new law or regulation that applies to everyone or everything else” (MacMillan Dictionary).
So what are the actual “rules” and what do they say? Those rules are based on the following: Section 10 (1) of the National Capital Act says the NCC has the authority to “prepare plans for and assist in the development, conservation and improvement of the National Capital Region in order that the nature and character of the seat of the Government of Canada may be in accordance with its national significance,” while section 10(2)(c) says the NCC may also “construct, maintain and operate parks...”
In this case, the plans come in the form of the 1952 (FDC), 1980, 1990 and 2005 Gatineau Park Master Plans—all of which clearly underline that private properties inside Gatineau Park are nonconforming and must eventually be removed, as part of the NCC’s efforts to construct, maintain and operate Gatineau Park (see NCC Policies on Private Property in Gatineau Park for details:https://www.scribd.com/document/385589950/Precis-on-Private-Property-and-Gatineau-Park-2-doc).
Add to this the 1935 Lower Gatineau Woodlands Survey (the park’s founding document, which proposed “gradual land acquisition” over the national park option), along with the 1946, 1947, and 1952 Advisory Committee on Gatineau Park draft master plans, the 1988 Treasury Board National Interest Land Mass designation, and two NCC task forces (1989 and 2008), all of which stipulate that Gatineau Park private lands must be acquired.
So, instead of actually examining the “rules” Ms. Zowdu confirmed CBC’s private-property-in-a-public-park bias, made up her own definition and ridiculously parroted the Kingsmere and Meech Lake Association rhetoric “(“private properties were there first”—well, actually, Gatineau Park is located on unceded Algonquin land...).
The CBC’s mission is to serve the public interest, and its primary allegiance is to the public, or so it claims in its journalistic standards. In this case, CBC Ottawa gave every indication that it sides with the private interests who are busily hacking the park to pieces.
At the end of her limp defence of “fictional” grandfather protection, Ms. Zowdu again tripped over her feet, saying, “In our work to verify this, the National Capital Commission (NCC) wrote to us saying that the homes ‘were there when the park was created in 1938. Since that time NCC and its predecessors have been acquiring private lands within the boundary of the park.’”
Well, the park’s first boundary was set in 1960 by Order in Council PC 1960-579—there were no boundaries in 1938. And the NCC had only one predecessor, the Federal District Commission, where Gatineau Park land acquisition is concerned. So Ms. Zowdu used NCC information to justify her propagating fake facts. Her job is not to repeat NCC claptrap; it’s to verify whether or not its claims are accurate.
Maybe CBC Ottawa might have done itself a favour by covering the Honourable Mira Spivak’s November 2005 question of privilege in the Senate, when she caught the NCC brazenly lying to parliamentarians on the nature of Gatineau Park’s boundaries… There’s still lots of material to report on there…
Time and again, Ms. Zowdu attempted to justify CBC Ottawa’s sloppy reporting by claiming that information provided by the NCC was presented to ensure balance and fairness. Well, repeating information that is wrong isn’t balanced reporting; it’s misinforming CBC listeners...
To wit: Ms. Zowdu quoted NCC information claiming that nearly “half” of remaining private properties in the park had been acquired since 2008... whereas the only information publicly available confirms that the agency has purchased 214 of the 600 hectares of the remaining private properties. That’s a little over one third, and nowhere near half. The attached photo, a screen shot of an NCC video posted on YouTube on October 25, 2017, pegs the number of private park properties bought since 2008 at 61 (214 hectares). The NCC has made no announcements regarding large property acquisitions since, something it would have done at its June or September board meetings...
Ms. Zowdu also parroted/defended the NCC claim that private lands represent less than two percent of Gatineau Park’s area—a weak attempt to downplay or excuse the scourge of private property proliferation in the park. Well, most of the park is inaccessible, and the private lands there crowd around public facilities. For instance, according to the NCC’s 2010 Gatineau Park Conservation Plan (p. 165), nearly 40 percent of park visits are concentrated at Meech Lake.
Furthermore, to support her claim of CBC Ottawa’s balanced and fair reporting, she quoted NCC confusion whereby the agency, in the same paragraph, said it bought 67 park properties since 2008, before saying it had bought only six properties. A trained and critical eye would never let that pass... let alone send it to me as evidence of fair and accurate reporting.
And, as though mimicking the NCC’s tendency to speak out of both sides of its mouth, she admitted that CBC made two errors in its report... before writing at the end of her missive that it was three mistakes... Fair, balanced, accurate, whatever...
Besides, as I told Ottawa Morning director Julia Sisler (who also worked for the Fifth Estate...), who telephoned me last August, only roughly 10% of what the NCC says about Gatineau Park should be believed... I can list countless examples (they’re all on public record), but I’ll settle for pointing to NCC flak Jean Wolff’s alternate facts arguing no garbage had been spread all along Gatineau Park trails in 2010, or that the Highway 5 extension didn’t cut through Gatineau Park in 2012... Or those two diametrically opposed NCC responses to exactly the same question asked by two different parliamentarians about the park’s boundaries in 2005 (see Senator Spivak’s November 22, 2005 question of privilege). Or the NCC erasing and rewriting park history...
Ms. Zowdu made another serious blunder in her response, which I see as an attempt to defend CBC ignorance, mediocrity and sloppiness. Although Pontiac officials used Quebec farmland protection as one of their key arguments to downplay fears over residential development, Ms. Zowdu wrote: “I do not believe that it is fair to expect a host in a live interview situation like this one to know where Quebec stands when it comes to strictness in agricultural rules.”
That is the language of slaves and ignorance, basically saying that the Ottawa Morning interviewer shouldn’t have been expected to know what he was talking about... Pontiac’s own Web site confirms that one property was recently removed from farmland protection. Besides, cursory research reveals that between 2005 and 2014, the Quebec government approved 63 percent of requests for removing land from agricultural zones: 9,444 hectares were affected. So CBC listeners are lulled into thinking there’s no risk of development inside a federal park, while Ms. Zowdu lets the Ottawa Morning host off the hook. (I note that, on September 11, 2018, Pontiac councillors adopted motions asking the Quebec government to remove such protection from a number of properties. So much for all those assurances.)
The complaint I sent to the Ombudsman addresses only the most recent example of CBC Ottawa’s deeply flawed/nearly non-existent coverage of Gatineau Park and it points to a much wider slant, bias, disregard, or whatever you want to call it... There are so many examples strongly suggesting that CBC’s primary allegiance is, not to the public, but to protecting the status quo and the vested interests who profit from it. For instance:
1) On July 1, 2018, Gatineau Park celebrated its 80th birthday (French urban planner Jacques Gréber called it “the essential feature of any plan for developing the nation’s capital.”); yet, not a word from CBC Ottawa—although it sure had no problem reporting on the opening of the new O’Brien House luxury boutique hotel, whose original owner, Ambrose O’Brien, was treasurer of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League... and a key player in the park’s creation... Not one word about the park’s origins... maybe because that would have embarrassed the NCC and park residents, who prefer to hide that part of the story...;
2) CBC Ottawa has never covered the Meech Lake Association’s repeated attempts to pressure the NCC to close public facilities (Blanchet Beach and the McCloskey Boat Launch), yet the public record is littered with evidence of this;
3) In 2017, Dr. Michael Lait successfully defended his PhD thesis title The Rotting Heart of Gatineau Park, highlighting the cancer of private property proliferation in the park. Not a word from CBC Ottawa, although Radio-Canada made an effort to report on the study’s findings (I sent the link to Dr. Lait’s thesis to CBC’s Fifth Estate. Not a word back... and guess who lives on the shores of Kingsmere Lake... Now let’s not upset our employees and their cozy little status quo...);
4) One of the property owners affected by Pontiac’s new bylaw is Katharine Fletcher, who owns over 40 acres in the park. And she’s a member of the NCC’s public advisory committee on Gatineau Park master plan renewal. As is Joanne Hamilton, whose house is built on the lakebed at Meech Lake and whose property was extended by dump filling the lake (the NCC owns all lakebeds in Gatineau Park). Could these possibly, remotely, by any stretch of the imagination be conflicts of interest, or have the appearance of conflicts of interest? CBC is much too busy reporting fluff and protecting the status quo to even bother investigating...
5) Park administration is an unholy mess. A park is basically three things: a) boundaries; b) land mass; c) land management. Yet CBC Ottawa has never reported on the mysterious location of the park’s boundaries, what actually sets them, or the NCC’s lying to Parliament about them. Nor has it even tried to debunk the myth of the so-called Quebec lands inside the park (whereby the NCC claims that the provincial government, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, owns 12,500 acres of Gatineau Park, or 17 percent of its territory). And, as mentioned above, CBC Ottawa has suppressed or ignored the FDC/NCC’s age-old policy and obligation to acquire all private lands in the park (misrepresenting them as “grandfathered” is incontrovertible evidence of this).
So much for CBC’s journalistic mission to inform, reveal, and contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society. Instead, it appears to prefer offering botched and slanted reports on important issues affecting the park, in my view, to protect the status quo, and its friends and employees who live inside Gatineau Park... As a result, CBC Ottawa’s audience gets fluff, circuses and mush instead of honest in-depth reporting... While the park dies the death of a thousand cuts right before our eyes.
Note: on September 11, 2018, the Pontiac Municipal Council adopted the new bylaw allowing residential construction inside Gatineau Park. Fourteen properties covering roughly 300 acres are under threat. CBC Ottawa didn’t bother to report on this latest frontal attack on the park’s ecological and public vocation, the public purse and all Canadians.
Finally, at least one MP (Greg Fergus) has confirmed that the government will be introducing Gatineau Park legislation in the coming months. Given the above, I’d bet that CBC will ignore the issue, or provide coverage that protects the private property interests of its friends and employee(s)... in violation of its alleged primary allegiance to the public...
Below is Ms. Zowdu's response to me.
From: Ruth Zowdu <email@example.com>
Sent: September 14, 2018 7:36 PM
Subject: Response to your complaint to the CBC Ombudsman
Dear Mr. Murray,
I am writing in response to your complaint to the CBC Ombudsman regarding the CBC Ottawa coverage of proposed changes to bylaws governing the residences within Gatineau Park. The ombudsman has forwarded your concerns to me because, as managing editor at CBC Ottawa, I am responsible for the journalism at the station.
You wrote because you felt that the reporting done by one of our reporters and the corresponding interview on Ottawa Morning were incorrect and biased. I will address the specific complaints you outlined in your email.
The story written by our reporter covered a proposed change to a bylaw governing what can be done to privately owned homes that exist within the boundaries of Gatineau Park. We wrote a story about the proposed changes on the same day a meeting was being held to discuss the proposal. Our morning show interviewed Pontiac mayor Joanne Labadie the morning after the meeting
Let me say first that it is very clear that you are passionate about the preservation of Gatineau Park and that you have invested considerable time in this issue. You were present at the meeting and we included quotes from you in our online story. We played your comments on our radio program as part of the introduction to the interview with Ms. Labadie. Ms. Labadie also referred to you within the body of the interview.
In all of our reporting we aim to be thorough and accurate. We always aim to be fair and balanced in our reporting. In this particular case we made two errors which I will outline below. I do, however, respectfully disagree with your characterization of our work on this story as 'fake news' or 'peddling fake facts.'
I will address your concerns in the order you presented them. First, on the matter of the online news story done by our reporter:
1. You suggest that the use of the term 'grandfathered' suggests that the private properties that exist within Gatineau Park are 'in perfect harmony' with the park. I disagree. This term, used both in the online story and again in the introduction to the interview with Ms. Labadie is used to suggest that the owners of the homes are not seen to be in active breach of the rules because the properties were present first. In our work to verify this, the National Capital Commission (NCC) wrote to us saying that the homes 'were there when the park was created in 1938. Since that time NCC and its predecessors have been acquiring private lands within the boundary of the park.'
2. You point out an error made by our reporter in which she wrote that the NCC began to acquire private property in 2008. This was incorrect and, as you point out, CBC made the correction after you made your initial complaint.
3. You said that our reporter 'makes up facts' about the number of acres of private lands acquired. Our reporter got her facts directly from the National Capital Commission. Here is the entire statement she received from the NCC. - 'On January 1, 2008, the NCC had listed 405 private properties for a total area of approximately 600 hectares inside Gatineau Park's perimeter. Today, there are 338 properties left covering only 361 hectares inside the perimeters of the park. The remaining private lands represent less than two per cent of the total area of Gatineau Park. The outcome of this acquisition practice is that the NCC has acquired almost half of the identified private land mass within the park boundaries: since January 2008, the NCC has already acquired 6 properties representing a total of 238.1 hectares.'
4. You point out a second error in our story. Our reporter described the property of Sheila McCrindle, who was quoted in the story, as one that 'borders' on Gatineau Park. In fact, the property is within the boundaries of the park. We have corrected this error.
5. You say that our reporter 'parrots the NCC claim' that private lands represent less than 2% of the park's area. The information came directly from the NCC which is the government body responsible for the park. The statement is correctly attributed to the NCC.
In your complaint you go on to share your concerns about an interview done by fill-in host Giacomo Panico on Ottawa Morning. Again, I will address the concerns you presented in your email.
1. The host introduced the interview by using the term 'grandfathered' to describe the homes that are within park boundaries. I have addressed this concern above.
2. You quoted the introduction and noted that the host listed renovation and rebuilds as possible changes to properties. You suggested that he purposely left out the term 'construction.' It's true that he did not list construction as a possibility. However, your own quote was included in the introduction pointing out a concern about possible larger developments within the park. In addition, within the body of the interview with Ms. Labadie, Mr. Panico asked about the possibility of larger developments and pointed out that this is the fear of many people when they look to the future of the park. I feel that this concern was adequately represented within the Ottawa Morning interview.
3. You say that the host 'lets Sheila McCrindle get away with' saying that most of the private lands are in the agricultural zone and that it is strictly covered by CPTAQ (Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Quebec.) Ms.McCrindle's comments were part of the tape played at the beginning of the interview. You have listed some detailed information about the approval ratings of the CPTAQ. While these details may be relevant to the larger discussion about this specific property in the park, I do not expect our morning show host to be fully informed on the approval ratings of Quebec's governing agricultural body for the purposes of an interview about a possible change to a bylaw governing residences in Gatineau Park.
You suggest that the host allowed the audience to be lulled into thinking there is no risk of development inside the park. I disagree. The host raised the fear of development. In the tape we played before the interview, you raised that fear as well. Ms. Labadie does not seem to share the same concern, but the host did address it.
4. You believe the host should have challenged the mayor when she said that Quebec's agricultural zoning is among the strictest in the country. I can understand your concern here, but I do not believe that it is fair to expect a host in a live interview situation like this one to know where Quebec stands when it comes to strictness in agricultural rules.
5. You say the host made up the NCC's 'right of first refusal.' Upon investigation, it does appear that the host made an error in this case. The host, in doing his own research to prepare for the interview, read articles that described a proposal to establish a first right of refusal for properties within the park when they were put up for sale. In fact, that rule does not exist. We contacted the NCC to ask about their policies on buying properties. Here is what they said: "Since the 2005 Gatineau Park Master Plan prioritized a conversation mandate, it has been the practice, based on the availability of resources, to acquire when possible priority properties inside the boundaries of the park to consolidate and secure important conservation lands. The focus is to acquire properties that are inside the park's perimeter as they become available and depending on available resources. To pursue that goal and to comply with the National Capital Act, the NCC obtained (on Sept 5, 2008) a Government of Canada Order-in-Council that pre-approves NCC acquisitions inside the perimeter of the park." So, while the NCC does aim to acquire properties, they do not have the right of refusal. This was an error on our part and I have had a follow up conversation with the host on this matter.
Over all, I believe that our coverage of the proposed change to the rules governing private properties located within Gatineau Park was fair and balanced. It included at least two points of view, including yours. However, we made three errors in our coverage and that indicates a sloppiness that is not acceptable. I can assure you I have followed up with the people who contributed to this sloppiness and I am confident that their attention to detail will be significantly improved in future coverage on this issue and others as well.
Finally, it is my responsibility to tell you that if you are not satisfied with this response, you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance with CBC's journalistic policies. The Ombudsman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.