Ouimet was one of a small, quixotic band of public broadcasters
who dreamed that television could make a truly Canadian culture.
He played a commanding role as engineer, manager, and eventually
administrator in the formation and maintenance of a Canadian television
system during the 1950s and 1960s. But his hopes were never realized,
a lesson which demonstrates the limits of the cultural power of
was first employed in 1932 by a Montreal firm then experimenting
with television. He joined the engineering staff of Canada's public
broadcaster, soon called the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
in 1934. After the war, he became the CBC's television specialist:
in 1946 he began work on a report on the technology of television;
three years later he was appointed both coordinator of television
and chief engineer, and in January 1953 he became general manager.
Thus he was the chief operating officer of CBC-TV, which had commenced
broadcasting in September 1952, during the years it spread across
the country. In one forum after another Ouimet, the CBC chairman
Davidson Dunton, and other managers sold the idea of public television,
supported by both tax and ad revenues, as a tool of cultural nationalism
that could counter the sway of New York and Hollywood. In the next
six years the initial two stations expanded to thirty-six (as of
31 March 1995), eight owned and operated by the CBC and the rest
private affiliates, reaching well over 80% of the population. On
Dominion Day, 1 July 1958, the opening of a microwave relay system
from Victoria on the west coast to Halifax on the east gave the
CBC the longest television network in the world. It was a great
triumph of engineering, and a source of national pride--though the
most popular English-language shows carried on the network were
nearly always American in origin.
became president of the CBC in 1958, which made him one of few high
ranked French Canadians in the service of the federal government.
How ironic that his first crisis involved Radio-Canada, as the French-language
service of the CBC was known. Early in 1959, a labor dispute involving
French-language producers in Montreal and English-language managers
in Ottawa eliminated most of the popular local programming in Quebec
for over two months. The partial shutdown excited nationalist passions
in Quebec and left behind a legacy of bitterness that Ouimet could
crisis strengthened the presumption that Ouimet's sympathies were
on the side of authority, not creativity. Before long, he was portrayed
as a distant ruler, more interested in "housekeeping" than "program
content," to borrow the terminology of one government commission
which severely criticized the CBC for waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy.
Finally in 1966 Ouimet ran afoul of the producers in Toronto, the
center of English-language television. Ottawa management had tried
to impose its authority over the extraordinarily successful public
affairs show This Hour Has Seven Days (1964-66) whose bold
opinion and sensational style had captured a mass audience. That
upset Ouimet who adhered to a creed of public broadcasting in which
the CBC was neutral, educational, but never partisan. When the Seven
Days crew declared war on management, they won the support of Toronto
producers, many journalists, and much of the public. Eventually,
after three months of agitation, including a parliamentary inquiry,
the appointment of a federal mediator, even an attempt to secure
a new president, Ouimet had his way: Seven Days disappeared
from the airwaves. It was a pyrrhic victory, however, since public
affairs broadcasting in Canada would not recover a similar kind
of significance until the appearance of The Journal in the
Ultimately much more significant was what had happened to the television
system in Canada. The 1958 Broadcasting Act led to the end of the
CBC's network monopoly and a partial privatization of the system.
The new independent stations, especially the affiliates of the Canadian
Television Network (CTV) in English Canada, used cheap American
programs to win audience share. Ouimet and his managers believed
they had to compete by offering their own imports to retain viewers
and boost advertising revenues. Indeed these revenues were necessary
to support the production of less popular Canadian content. The
annual parliamentary grant of funds was never sufficient.
in 1967, Ouimet retired from the presidency, though he would continue
in public service as head of Telesat Canada (1969-80), a crown corporation
in the field of telecommunications. He left broadcasting just before
the onset of a new act that further reduced the stature of the CBC.
His legacy was decidedly mixed. Public television still won the
attention of nearly half the Canadian audience for its mix of popular
and demanding programming. But the English-language service offered
only a few Canadian examples of storytelling, the great staple of
popular television, and specialized much more in sports coverage,
news and public affairs, and minority programming. The promise of
a cultural renaissance had never materialized. Direct American competition
had secured nearly one-quarter of the Canadian audience outside
of Quebec by 1967. Only in French Canada was the CBC able to create
a continuing series of local dramas, known as téléromans,
that proved enormously popular with audiences. Television merely
built upon the fact that in English Canada tastes were emphatically
American, whereas in French Canada there was a strong tradition
of homegrown entertainment.
OUIMET. Born in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Educated at McGill
University, Montreal, degree in electrical engineering, 1932. Built
TV set and did broadcast experiments for Canadian Television Ltd.,
1933-34; engineer, Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, 1934
and assistant chief engineer at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
when it replaced CRBC, 1946; coordinator of TV, chief engineer and
advisor to the board of the CBC, 1949; general manager, CBC, 1953;
named the Father of Canadian Television for building the world's
biggest TV system when CBC pioneered Canadian TV, 1950s; president
of CBC, 1958; retired, 1967; chair of Telesat Canada, 1969-80; in
retirement worked with UNESCO, served on committees and task forces,
wrote on communication technology and the erosion of Canadian sovereignty.
Died in 1988.
"Television and Its Impact on Our Way of Life." (Address to Alumnae
Society of McGill University). 16 February 1953, National Archives
of Canada RG41 v.401 file 23?1?4 pt.1.
Future Role of CBC." CBC Times (Toronto), 30 January?3 February
Eric. Inside Seven Days. Scarborough, Canada: Prentice-Hall,
Frank. The Public Eye: Television and the Politics of Canadian
Broadcasting 1952-1968. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
Marc, Missed Opportunities. The Story of Canada's Broadcasting
Policy. Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press, 1990.
Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967.
Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990.
See also Canada;
Has Seven Days