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CBC head spars with Conservative MPs as she testifies about executive bonuses

OTTAWA — An appearance by the CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. at a parliamentary committee turned personal Tuesday, even before Catherine Tait faced a barrage of questions from Conservative MPs over executive bonuses.
CEO and president Catherine Tait will appear before the Heritage committee alongside Marco Dubé, the company's chief transformation officer. Tait waits to appear at the Heritage Committee, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — An appearance by the CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. at a parliamentary committee turned personal Tuesday, even before Catherine Tait faced a barrage of questions from Conservative MPs over executive bonuses.

Before Tait's testimony, the public broadcaster published a letter it had sent to the committee chair in March, which accused Conservative MPs of deliberately spreading false accusations about the company and Tait. 

The same letter was handed out to media by a CBC executive prior to the meeting. 

The letter said "deliberately false accusations" have been damaging to Tait's reputation and that of the CBC. It singled out Conservative MPs Kevin Waugh and Rachael Thomas for comments they had made.

Both had accused Tait of lying and misleading the committee over executive bonuses during a previous meeting. 

Executive bonuses have been a focal point of the committee's work as it studies recent job cuts made within CBC/Radio-Canada.

During one exchange with Thomas over the timeline for making a decision on whether executives will get a bonus this year, Tait rejected accusations that she was misleading the committee. 

"Either you lied on January 30th or you're lying now," Thomas said. 

Tait previously told the committee a decision over bonuses would begin in March, at the end of the fiscal year. But during Tuesday's committee meeting Thomas, her party’s heritage critic, took umbrage when Tait had no updates. 

"I really take objection to being called a liar, which has happened several times. This is not the first time I have been called a liar by certain members of this committee," Tait said speaking to Thomas. 

"This is the first time in a 40 year career anybody has addressed me in this way."

Following the meeting, Tait said there has been a lot of misinformation circulating "from certain members" but declined to say whom. 

"I think you saw in the committee what happened. I think I'll go to the next question," she said. 

Tait said no decisions around bonuses to executives have been made yet for the 2023-24 fiscal year, but the issue will be discussed in mid-June with the board of directors. 

Following the meeting, Thomas said that Tait has been a "fierce advocate for bonuses both for herself and the top executive team."

"When asked numerous times whether or not she would consider cutting back on those bonuses, she has buckled down and insisted that they should be considered. She's not taking them off the table."

But Tait insisted that money is performance pay that is part of some employees' overall total compensation under existing contracts.

In December, CBC announced it was set to cut 600 jobs and would allow 200 more vacancies to go unfilled, along with $40 million in cuts to productions. It said it would aim to head off a projected $125-million shortfall in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

But new projected revenue, including a $42 million injection from the federal government, will help manage this year without further job cuts, Tait told MPs Tuesday.

In total, the public broadcaster eliminated 205 vacant positions and laid off 141 employees since December, she said. 

Twice as many managers were laid off as unionized workers, with more employees laid off within CBC, as opposed to its French arm, Radio-Canada, said Marco Dubé, the company's chief transformation officer. 

"But to be clear, we are not out of the woods," Tait said in her opening statement to the committee.

"You have heard it from other witnesses. All Canadian media organizations face serious challenges from a digital world ruled by global players who simply do not share the same commitment to our country's interests."

She told parliamentarians that the public broadcaster is there to keep people informed, build trust, strengthen democracy and promote local culture.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge has said she wants the public broadcaster's role redefined before the next federal election, and has tapped a committee of experts to help with that. 

Tait is set to remain in her role until January, and again didn't rule out a bonus for herself, which she said could come her way up to nine months after she leaves. 

"I'll have to wait," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2024. 

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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