In the current age of social media, information circulates through many channels that are accessible to everyone, wherever they live. Not long ago, radio stations were the only francophone voice and means of communication, especially in minority communities. The case of Toronto and south-central Ontario is a perfect example. When Société Radio-Canada launched CJBC on 1 October 1964, Franco-Ontarians in the region finally had access to news, weather forecasts, interviews, music and children’s programs in their language.
A Long Struggle
When the CJBC 860 AM radio station took to the airwaves, the ensuing battle resembled that of David and Goliath. The underdog was the community of 100,000 francophones in Oshawa, Toronto, Penetanguishene, Hamilton, Welland, Port Colborne and St. Catharines; they were fighting against the anglophone establishment of Canada’s largest city. For over a year, the Association de la radio-télévision française (ARTF) lobbied the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)/Société Radio-Canada (SRC) to make CJBC an entirely French-language station. After a court challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court, an outcry in the English-language media and protests in the House of Commons, the CBC/SRC finally granted the ARTF’s request.
Note that Toronto was at the time the only Canadian city with two public radio stations: CBL and CJBC. Making one of them a French-language station took nothing away from the English-speaking majority in the city. Toronto also boasted five private English-language stations, not to mention a large number of American stations. In less than a year, the new French-language CJBC gained significant support from francophiles, as highlighted by radio host Chantal Beauregard in an interview with the Toronto Telegram on 11 September 1965:
It isn’t only French-speaking people who listen to us. We get letters from people who say, “We don’t understand a word, but keep it up anyway.” Or sometimes they’ll write us bilingual letters —one sentence in English and the next in French. We were pretty nervous and, I guess, over-sensitive at first. But there was no need to be. The people here have been very nice.
From the first season (1964–65) and for many years afterward, Jacques Gauthier hosted the program Salut les copains, which showcased the major successes of French and French-Canadian music. Following the example of other popular Ontario radio stations such as CBOF-Ottawa (1964), CBEF-Windsor (1970) and CBON-Sudbury (1978), CJBC-Toronto aired local and provincial news programs. Along with these stations, Radio-Canada later started the Ontario POP contest to discover Franco-Ontarian authors, composers and performers.
For over 10 years, CJBC presented a big name in Ontario or Québécois music during the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations. The show was recorded and later broadcast, often nationally. CJBC showcased stars such as Pauline Julien, Louise Forestier, Céline Dion, Daniel Lavoie, Robert Paquette, the group CANO, Carmen Campagne, Richard Séguin and Paul Demers. When the community was ready to take over these cultural events (the Ontario POP contest and the Saint-Jean celebrations), CJBC passed the torch to a Franco-Ontarian institution.
The station showed the same level of community involvement in providing assistance to the less fortunate. Radiothons organized by CJBC collected considerable sums to pay for Christmas baskets. Radio-Canada was so active in the southern Ontario region it served that the initialism CJBC could just as well have stood for “Compagnon Journalier et Bâtisseur de la Communauté” [Community Journalism and Building Companion].
CJBC as a Training Centre
More than any other station in Ontario, Acadia or Western Canada, CJBC was truly a training centre for many radio hosts and journalists. It was a springboard toward Montréal for some who became national and even international celebrities. Suzanne Laberge, Jean-Michel Leprince, Céline Galipeau, Chantal Hébert, Winston McQuade, Claude Deschênes, Julie Miville-Dechêne and many others got their start at CJBC. Alain Crevier shared some of his vivid memories of his time at CJBC:
Toronto, a quiet city? Certainly not for me! Ben Johnson, language and economic crises from Sault Ste. Marie to Brockville, the death of the Meech Lake Accord, the NDP’s election of Bob Rae, conversations with Jack Layton, and so on. Some of my favourite memories? Working with my colleagues, with Julie Miville-Dechêne and Céline Galipeau. I learned so much by working with these people!
Because of its strategic location in the heart of Canada’s largest city, CJBC was never endangered or even hit hard by the waves of cuts to Canada’s public broadcaster. Somewhat ironically, the station has extended its listening area as far as Windsor for afternoon programming, and it can consequently be considered one of a kind in the large family of CBC/SRC radio stations.
Today, with the exception of Toronto and Penetanguishene, no community served by CJBC has access to French-language community radio. CJBC is the one and only voice through which Franco-Ontarians can recognize and affirm their identity.