The office of the attorney general of Canada has concluded that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) overstepped its authority when it imposed requirements on CBC/Radio-Canada in response to the repeated use of the N-word on-air.

The attorney general’s motion, which ran to more than 100 pages, recommended the Federal Court of Appeal set aside the CRTC’s decision. Although the final decision rests with the court, a lawyer who spoke to Radio-Canada said it is unlikely the court will disagree with the attorney general’s position.

CBC/Radio-Canada disputed the CRTC’s June 29 decision, which required Société Radio-Canada to provide a written apology to the complainant and to report to the CRTC on internal measures and programming practices to address similar issues in the future.

Radio-Canada apologized to the complainant but appealed the CRTC decision regardless, saying the regulator had overstepped its authority.

The CRTC’s decision

The CRTC’s decision came in response to a complaint from Ricardo Lamour, a Black Montreal resident who heard the segment while waiting to appear as a guest on the radio show.

During the roughly six-and-a-half minute segment, which aired on the 15-18 afternoon radio program on Aug. 17, 2020, host Annie Desrochers and columnist Simon Jodoin said the N-word three times in French and once in English.

Desrochers and Jodoin used the word in the context of an on-air discussion about a petition that demanded the dismissal of a Concordia University professor who had quoted the title of a well-known book by Pierre Vallières that includes the N-word.

In its ruling on the complaint, the CRTC found that Radio-Canada did not implement all the necessary measures to mitigate the impact of the word on its audience.

It also said broadcasting the 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.”

The CRTC required Radio-Canada to provide a written apology to the complainant and to report to the CRTC on internal measures and programming practices to better address similar issues in the future. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In response, roughly 50 Radio-Canada personalities signed an open letter that appeared in La Presse claiming the decision threatened journalistic freedom and independence while opening the door to censorship and self-censorship.

In a statement, CBC/Radio-Canada apologized to the complainant and other listeners who may have been hurt by the use of the word, while maintaining that the CRTC’s decision represented an attempt “to give itself the power to interfere with journalistic independence.”

Martine Valois, a law professor at the University of Montréal, said the attorney general rarely publishes such an extensive motion. Speaking in French, Valois told Radio-Canada that the importance of the case required a more comprehensive response.

The office of the attorney general of Canada represents the Crown and therefore often defends federal organizations and agencies, such as the CRTC.

Valois said its foremost responsibility, however, is to defend Canadian laws.

The final decision will rest with the Federal Court of Appeal.

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