A contestant flips a calf in the tie-down roping event during the Calgary Stampede rodeo in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo: REUTERS/Todd Korol)
As our national public broadcaster, the CBC should presumably reflect modern Canadian values, but when it comes to its coverage of the Calgary Stampede, it chooses to ignore the values of the majority of Canadians who are opposed to rodeos.
A 2015 survey by polling company Insights West found that 63 per cent of Canadians oppose the use of animals in rodeo. But CBC Sports, in its public pronouncements says, "The Calgary Stampede is a wonderful, entertaining and authentic Canadian tradition that has special meaning for millions across the country."
But what about the millions more who disagree with what happens to animals in rodeos? Clearly, their opposition stems from ethical concerns about animal welfare, an important social value. It seems those concerns don't count for much when pitted against a minority of enthusiastic rodeo viewers. (The CBC has also ignored a online petition signed by more than 20,000 people urging the corporation to stop its rodeo broadcasts.)
When it comes to ethically indefensible uses of animals, rodeo is near the top of the list.
The CBC and the Stampede defend the rodeo on the basis of tradition, but in fact, there is very little about the Stampede's rodeo that is "authentic" or even Canadian when it comes to our western heritage. The Stampede's founder, Guy Weadick, was an American vaudeville and Wild West show performer. He invented the chuckwagon race for the Stampede in 1923. Real cowboys of the Old West did not race chuckwagons. Nor did they ride bulls (why would they?) or wrestle steers. Steer-wrestling was originated in the 1930s by yet another American Wild West show entertainer.
But it's not the Stampede's myth-making (abetted by the CBC) that animal advocates and so many Canadians object to. It's the brutalization of animals for the sake of human amusement.
Rodeos subject animals to fear, stress and pain just to entertain a crowd. Three-month-old calves running at high speed are roped to a sudden halt, picked up, thrown to the ground and tied up. Steers have their necks twisted until they fall to the ground or are roped by the horns and hind legs, often stretching the animal off its feet. Horses and bulls are tormented by a "flank strap" tied around their hindquarters, which is tightened to make them buck. When it comes to ethically indefensible uses of animals, rodeo is near the top of the list.
Calf-roping at the Calgary Stampede (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur)
Not only are the majority of Canadians opposed to all this, so are virtually all animal welfare agencies, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These are the organizations entrusted with preventing cruelty to animals, yet their views are apparently meaningless to the CBC.
By ignoring these views and the concerns of millions of Canadians, CBC is contravening its own program policy, which states:
"In any situation where a significant segment of the audience might reasonably be expected to be disturbed or offended for any reason by an element of program content, program personnel responsible must take appropriate pre-broadcast steps to remove or reduce such risk."
Yet CBC's rodeo coverage is broadcast live in the middle of the day with no warning to viewers about the nature of the content.
The CBC has defended its promotion of the Stampede (in a letter to the Vancouver Humane Society), arguing that it is "popular with millions of Canadians." But popularity is not a measure of morality.
Historically, sensational events from medieval bull-baiting to 19th century freak shows have always drawn crowds. In 1906, a New York zoo put an African tribesman on public display. A crowd of 40,000 people lined up to see him. Would such events be morally defensible now? No, because civilized, ethical voices argued against them and ultimately shifted public opinion.
Public attitudes on morality do change over time -- but only when they are informed by cultural institutions willing to scrutinize and confront the societal norms of the day. The CBC, as one of Canada's most important public institutions, should be doing exactly that.
Instead, the corporation is acting as the Calgary Stampede's public relations agency and unthinking cheerleader. It needs to develop a corporate conscience, stop pandering to rodeo fans and start addressing the legitimate concerns of compassionate Canadians. It needs to stop broadcasting animal cruelty.
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