SiriusXM re the song “Squaws Along the Yukon” by Hank Thompson on the channel Willie’s Roadhouse

ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PANEL
CBSC Decision 15/16-1767
2018 CBSC 3
February 21, 2018
A. Noël (Chair), D. Ish, J. La Rose, J. Medline, D. Proctor, T. Rajan

THE FACTS

The satellite radio channel Willie’s Roadhouse is an American channel carried by Canadian satellite radio service SiriusXM.  It labels itself a “classic country” channel.

On July 12, 2016, Willie’s Roadhouse played the song “Squaws Along the Yukon” by American country singer Hank Thompson (1925-2007).  The song was released in 1958 and hit number 2 that year on the US country music charts.  Thompson’s musical style was described as “honky tonk Western swing”.

The lyrics to the song are as follows:

There’s a salmon colored girl who sets my heart a whirl

Who lives along the Yukon far away

Where the northern lights they shine she rubs her nose to mine

She cuddles close and I can hear her say

Ooga ooga mooshka, which means that I love you

If you will be my baby, I will ooga ooga mooshka you

Then I take her hand in mine and set her on my knee

The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me

She makes her underwear from the hides of grizzly bear

And bathes in ice cold water every day

Her skin I love to touch but I just can’t touch it much

Because her fur lined parka’s in the way

Ooga ooga mooshka, which means that I love you

If you will be my baby, I will ooga ooga mooshka you

Then I take her hand in mine and set her on my knee

The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me

She’s got the air corps down the sourdoughs hang around

Cheechakos try to date her night and day

With a landing gear that’s fine and a fuselage divine

And a smile that you can see a mile away

Ooga ooga mooshka, which means that I love you

If you will be my baby, I will ooga ooga mooshka you

Then I take her hand in mine and set her on my knee

The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me

Carry me back to old Alaska

The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me

The CBSC received a complaint about the broadcast of the song on July 12.  The complainant characterized it as “offensive racist sexist content”.

SiriusXM responded to the complainant on September 9.  It apologized for “any unintended offence [its] broadcast of the Song may have caused [the complainant] and understand [his] concern given some of the outdated and insensitive references made in the Song.”  It further pointed out that

the artistic expression in this case must be considered in the context of its era and its particular genre.  The Song was first released in 1960 [sic, actually 1958], more than 56 years ago.  The Song is by a well-known artist of the country music genre.  The Song was broadcast on the Willie’s Roadhouse channel which is a classic country station featuring songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Willie’s Roadhouse is a classic country channel that at its best reflects the richness of country music’s history and includes older original recordings like the Song.  Such older recordings may at times reflect the insensitivity and ignorance of past eras and on occasion may use language and convey views that are now viewed by society as outdated and inappropriate.  Given that the artistic expression of the Song must be viewed in the context of the era it was recorded in, and that it was broadcast in the context of our classic country music channel we are of the view that broadcasting the Song did not violate the Code.

The complainant wrote back to the CBSC, stating that she did not find SiriusXM’s response acceptable.  She wrote that SiriusXM broadcasts “this material in Canada, and it should meet Canadian standards”, not American ones.  She wrote again on October 20, making the additional comment:  “In 2016 there should be no excuse for broadcasting song lyrics with mysogynist and racial slurs.  It is not in the spirit of moving forward on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”  (The full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix.)

THE DECISION

The English-Language Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 – Human Rights

Recognizing that every person has the right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 2 – Human Rights

Recognizing that every person has the right to the full enjoyment of certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 3 – Negative Portrayal

In an effort to ensure appropriate depictions of all individuals and groups, broadcasters shall refrain from airing unduly negative portrayals of persons with respect to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.  Negative portrayal can take many different forms, including (but not limited to) stereotyping, stigmatization and victimization, derision of myths, traditions or practices, degrading material, and exploitation.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 4 – Stereotyping

Recognizing that stereotyping is a form of generalization that is frequently simplistic, belittling, hurtful or prejudicial, while being unreflective of the complexity of the group being stereotyped, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no unduly negative stereotypical material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 7 – Degrading Material

Broadcasters shall avoid the airing of degrading material, whether reflected in words, sounds, images or by other means, which is based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 9 – Language & Terminology

Broadcasters shall be sensitive to, and avoid, the usage of derogatory or inappropriate language or terminology in references to individuals or groups based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

a. Equality of the sexes must be recognized and reinforced through the proper use of language and terminology. Broadcasters shall employ language of a non-sexist nature in their programming, by avoiding, whenever possible, expressions which relate to only one gender.

b. It is understood that language and terminology evolve over time. Some language and terminology may be inappropriate when used with respect to identifiable groups on the basis of their race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.  Broadcasters shall remain vigilant with respect to the evolving appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular words and phrases, keeping in mind prevailing community standards.

CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 10 – Contextual Considerations

Broadcasts may fairly include material that would otherwise appear to breach one of the foregoing provisions in the following contextual circumstances:

a. Legitimate artistic usage: Individuals who are themselves bigoted or intolerant may be part of a fictional or non-fictional program, provided that the program is not itself abusive or unduly discriminatory;

b. Comedic, humorous or satirical usage: Although the comedic, humorous or satirical intention or nature of programming is not an absolute defence with respect to the proscriptions of this Code, it is understood that some comedic, humorous or satirical content, although discriminatory or stereotypical, may be light and relatively inoffensive, rather than abusive or unduly discriminatory;

c. Intellectual treatment: Programming apparently for academic, artistic, humanitarian, journalistic, scientific or research purposes, or otherwise in the public interest, may be broadcast, provided that it: is not abusive or unduly discriminatory; does not incite contempt for, or severely ridicule, an enumerated group; and is not likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against an enumerated group.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence, read the lyrics of the song and listened to it.  The Panel concludes that the broadcast of the song violates Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, as well as Clauses 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 of the Equitable Portrayal Code.

Satellite Radio in Canada

At the outset, the Panel notes that the complainant asserted that if content is broadcast in Canada, it should meet Canadian standards.  While some American signals are exempt from Canadian rules, SiriusXM is licensed by the CRTC.  In that CRTC licence, and in the service’s contract with the CBSC, SiriusXM is clearly responsible for all content that is broadcast on their service, regardless of where that programming originates.  In the CBSC contract, while the CBSC acknowledged that, as a pay service, there may be greater latitude with respect to mature content (such as coarse language or sexual references) than what is acceptable over the air, there is no extra latitude with respect to abusive or unduly discriminatory content.

The Word “Squaw”

The Panel considers that the word “squaw” has for several decades had very negative connotations when used to describe Indigenous women.  It embodies elements of both racial and sexual slurs.  The Panel considers that these negative connotations existed when the song was initially published.  The Panel recognizes, however, that historically the word may have been in relatively common usage among certain groups in society.

Language evolves over time.  While this word was perhaps once widely used, it is no longer generally acceptable.  The Panel notes as evidence the many efforts to have the word removed from place names across the United States, multiple dictionary definitions[1] and the adjudicators’ experiences.  The Panel finds unequivocally that the word on its face is not acceptable for broadcast in Canada absent one of the considerations set out in Clause 10 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.

The Song

The song in question was released in 1958 by a popular American country music artist.  In Review of the Atlantic Regional Panel decision in CHOZ-FM re the song “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, the Panel observed that:

The ad hoc National Panel’s view is that age alone will not “save” a challenged song but the Panel does acknowledge that it is one of the factors to consider.[2]

In considering the use of the word “squaw” in this song, the Panel recognizes that in 1958 the word was in more common usage.  The word would likely have been used by some without a thought to its offensiveness or any discriminatory intent, while others would have considered its use offensive.  In this case, while the Panel does not believe the intent of the song was necessarily to be offensive, it considers that through a modern lens there are numerous problematic elements.  In addition to the prominent use of the word “squaw”, references to a “salmon colored girl” and making underwear from the hides of grizzly bears, the nonsense language “Ooga ooga mooshka”, the line “The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me”, and the paternalistic tone expressed throughout as exemplified by the line “Then I take her hand in mine and set her on my knee” combine to render the song all the more problematic.  Taken together, the noted elements of the song demean and belittle Indigenous women.

As noted above, the word “squaw” itself is derogatory and inappropriate.  Its use in this song constitutes a breach of Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Clauses 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 of the Equitable Portrayal Code.  Further, the song in its entirety breaches Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Clauses 2, 4, and 7 of the CAB Equitable Portayal Code.

Contextual Considerations

Clause 10 sets out certain exceptions that can mitigate a breach for content that might otherwise fall afoul the Equitable Portrayal Code.  SiriusXM argued that, in programming the song on a channel devoted to classic country music, listeners were provided with sufficient context with respect to the song’s original time.  Said context also provided listeners sufficient warning that such content might be heard.

Under Clause 10, there may be situations where, with sufficient context, the song could be broadcast.  For example, if it were played within the context of a program examining the treatment of Indigenous people in popular culture, or during a program that explored hit songs of the era which included appropriate advisories adverting to the inappropriate content of the song in the present, the broadcast might fall into the category of programming described in Clause 10(c).  That was not the case here.  The Panel does not consider the fact that a channel is devoted to classic country music as sufficient in and of itself for context under Clause 10.

Clause 10(b) anticipates comedic, humorous or satiric usage.  Although the Panel views the original intent of the song to be light, it does not consider that the song constitutes actual comedy in the manner outlined in Clause 10(b).  In the view of the Panel the broadcast of this song does not fall into any of the categories set out in Clause 10 and therefore no contextual considerations serve to “save” SiriusXM from having breached the code.

Additional Comments by Adjudicator J. Medline

I agree with the Panel’s decision that the broadcast of “Squaws Along the Yukon” violates Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, as well as Clauses 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 of the Equitable Portrayal Code (EPC).  As the Decision notes, various dictionaries describe the word and associated usage as “offensive,” “contemptuous,” and “disparaging.”  For example:

The Oxford English Dictionary (free) explicitly notes that the word “squaw” is offensive and explains current usage as follows:

Until relatively recently, the word squaw was used neutrally in anthropological and other contexts to mean a North American Indian woman or wife.  With changes in the political climate in the second half of the 20th century, however, the derogatory attitudes of the past toward American Indian women mean that the word cannot now be used in any sense without being regarded as offensive.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that the word “squaw” is “now often offensive” and “usually disparaging.”

Dictionary.com defines “squaw” as follows:

Older Use:  Disparaging and Offensive – a contemptuous term used to refer to a North American Indian woman, especially a wife.

Slang:  Disparaging and Offensive.

a. a contemptuous term used to refer to a wife.

b. a contemptuous term used to refer to any woman or girl.

Collins English Dictionary notes that the term “squaw” as it relates to a “North American Indian woman or wife” is “now considered offensive” in the United States – and that it is just plain “offensive” in other jurisdictions.

And individual lyrics (and the song as a whole) only serve to reinforce the disparaging nature of the word.

Moreover, as the Decision notes, there is nothing in the song that “saves” this broadcast.  None of the contextual considerations outlined in Clause 10 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code applies in the current case.

So I cannot find fault with the Decision.  The broadcast of the song breaches several CBSC Code clauses as currently written; and SiriusXM, a licensed Canadian pay audio service, has contracted with the CBSC to observe and follow the Codes.  Moreover, SiriusXM has access to online and print dictionaries so could have assessed its appropriateness before playing the song.

At the same time, I am sympathetic to the principal arguments outlined by SiriusXM in its response to the complaint — particularly as they relate to the age of the song (1958) and the original context of the song’s creation and broadcast:

Such older recordings may at times reflect the insensitivity and ignorance of past eras and on occasion may use language and convey views that are now viewed by society as outdated and inappropriate.  Given that the artistic expression of the Song must be viewed in the context of the era it was recorded in, and that it was broadcast in the context of our classic country music channel we are of the view that broadcasting the song did not violate the Code.

The remedy for breach involves public announcement of the Decision in multiple venues; but practically speaking, the real impact is that any Canadian broadcaster contracted with the CBSC (which include most CRTC-licensed entities) will no longer be permitted to broadcast this song unless it can somehow contextualize its airplay under one of three (3) relatively narrow and subjective considerations:  legitimate artistic usage; comedic, humorous or satirical usage; or intellectual treatment.

I suppose a good case could be made that future airplay of this song, with a disclaimer highlighting the inappropriateness of its content today, could serve an educational purpose – it might actually improve our national understanding of, and the damage inflicted by, historical insults on identifiable groups.  But frankly, I am uncomfortable applying current community standards to songs created and broadcast in a completely different era.  Of note:  As above, at least one dictionary indicates that the term was “used neutrally in anthropological and other contexts” until sometime in the second half of the 20th century (although I note some on the Panel contend, perhaps accurately, that the term was always offensive, including in 1958); and adjudging comedic value 60 years after the fact, no matter how grotesque it appears to modern eyes or ears, seems to me a dangerous game (if language and terminology styles and acceptance can change and evolve, so can comedic tastes).

I believe broadcasters and CBSC adjudicators should be permitted to heavily weight original and historical context in their respective programming and assessment decisions.  This song is 60 years old.  Before the CBSC or broadcasting Codes even existed.  Before certain broadcast media even existed. That has to mean something.  The song was relevant and popular in its day – a genuine hit as the Decision notes.  We can’t (shouldn’t?) pretend past eras never existed; and retrospectively sanitizing the arts carries obvious dangers and slippery slopes.  Songs like this can serve to educate and inform current thoughts even without contextualization, no?

Most critically, I am concerned that this Decision could chill future broadcast of older songs, TV programs, and so on.  The Decision is narrowly applied to the song at hand – but in my opinion, it centres on a particularly difficult section of the EPC, namely that “Broadcasters shall remain vigilant with respect of the evolving appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular words and phrases, keeping in mind prevailing community standards.”  The intent of this part of the EPC is laudable; but constant and continuous review of community standards by all manner of broadcasters in every medium (particularly for national providers like SiriusXM) is obviously challenging, fraught with subjective assessment, and has the potential to obliterate entire periods of history, performance, arts.  I’m worried a decision such as the one we have today will be relied upon too heavily and applied too broadly.  It is no stretch to imagine a Station Manager or Radio Programmer concluding, “We can’t even air a No. 2 song from 1958!  There is no way I’m allowing that song or that word on this station.”  Being mindful of the Codes is one thing; being scared by them is quite another.

Look, this is a bad song.  The lyrics are cringe-worthy.  Any song that begins with “There’s a salmon-colored girl….” and includes lyrics such as “She makes her underwear from the hides of grizzly bear” and “the squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me” isn’t going to appeal to modern tastes or ears or align with the relevant Codes as they are currently written.  The Panel’s Decision to find Code breaches in this case was correct.  But this case puts a spotlight on a larger issue, and we need to address it:  Should historical context be given (more) weight in broadcaster programming decisions and by CBSC adjudicators?  I believe it should – and have genuine qualms applying current levels of acceptance to older content unless explicit contextualization is present.  Assessment of prevailing tastes on new content, terminology, or comedic value is a hard task; uniformly applying current expectations to the past is perhaps a dangerous one.  I believe it would be helpful for adjudicators to have guidance on how to assess historical content in these cases, and perhaps in the future allow the original context to be an explicit and perhaps weighted consideration under Clause 10 of the Equitable Portrayal Code.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant.  The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, although considerable time elapsed between the receipt of the complaint and the broadcaster’s response, SiriusXM provided a lengthy, thoughtful, and well reasoned reply to the complainant, outlining the context of the song, previous CBSC rulings and its view of the song’s broadcast in the present day.  The Panel commends SiriusXM for the thorough nature of the response.  The broadcaster has fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and, subject to the announcement of this decision, nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

As per the terms of its Broadcaster Associate contract with the CBSC, SiriusXM is required to:  1) post an announcement regarding the decision, in the following terms, on the home page of its website within three business days following the release of this decision and that post must remain on the website for a minimum of 14 days; 2) announce the decision, in the following terms, on its “Canada Talks” channel, which is available to all Canadian subscribers, three (3) times on a weekday, within three business days following the release of this decision, at the following times:  during, the 9 o’clock hour, noon hour, and 5 o’clock hour; 3) within the fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcement, to provide written confirmation of the posting and date and times of the broadcast of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 4) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation to the complainant.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that SiriusXM breached the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code on July 12, 2016.  On the channel Willie’s Roadhouse, a song was played that contained discriminatory, degrading and derogatory references to Indigenous women.  This is contrary to clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, as well as clauses 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

[1] For example, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word is “Now considered offensive” (5th ed., Oxford University Press, p. 2986), while the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary similarly states that the word is “now often offensive” and “usually disparaging” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/squaw)

[2] Review of the Atlantic Regional Panel decision in CHOZ-FM re the song “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits (CBSC Review of Decision 09/10-0818, May 17, 2011)


Appendix

The Complaint

The following complaint of July 12, 2016 was sent to the CRTC and forwarded to the CBSC in due course:

Sirius XM Radio, channel 59 “Willie’s Roadhouse,” offensive racist sexist content:  song played at 1:59 pm PST Tuesday July 12, containing the refrain “Squaws of the Yukon Valley are good enough for me.”  How can they not know that “squaw” is just as offensive as “nigger” and should have been purged from their playlist!?

Broadcaster Response

SiriusXM responded to the complainant on September 9:

Thank you for being a SiriusXM Canada subscriber and for the opportunity to address the complaint that you have filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (the “CBSC”) regarding the Hank Thompson song: “Squaws Along the Yukon” (the “Song”).  We apologize for any unintended offence our broadcast of the Song may have caused you and understand your concern given some of the outdated and insensitive references made in the Song.

Please understand that as a broadcaster we take responsibility for the content we broadcast.  Equally, we also take seriously our role in respecting the freedom of expression, including, journalistic expression and creative expression of the artists, performers and journalists we broadcast.  Given the diversity of our programming there may be times when some listeners may be offended and, in general, the opinions expressed are those of the participants or performers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SiriusXM Canada.

We have reviewed your complaint in the context of the CBSC’s Equitable Portrayal Code (“Code”) which requires that broadcasters avoid airing, among other things, discriminatory, degrading, sexist, and victimizing material.  Application of these requirements must be principled and take into consideration legitimate artistic expression.  Reference is made to the CBSC decision regarding broadcast of the Dire Straits’ song “Money for Nothing” which is available at the following link (https://www.cbsc.ca/choz-fm-re-the-song-money-for-nothing-by-dire-straits/).  In that case, the panel found the song in question to be offside the Code but justified due its context.

While we are mindful of evolving standards of decency and propriety, given the guidance provided by the “Money for Nothing” decision, the artistic expression in this case must be considered in the context of its era and its particular genre.  The Song was first released in 1960, more than 56 years ago.  The Song is by a well-known artist of the country music genre.  The Song was broadcast on the Willie’s Roadhouse channel which is a classic country station featuring songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Willie’s Roadhouse is a classic country channel that at its best reflects the richness of country music’s history and includes older original recordings like the Song.  Such older recordings may at times reflect the insensitivity and ignorance of past eras and on occasion may use language and convey views that are now viewed by society as outdated and inappropriate.  Given that the artistic expression of the Song must be viewed in the context of the era it was recorded in, and that it was broadcast in the context of our classic country music channel we are of the view that broadcasting the Song did not violate the Code.

Again, please accept our sincere apologies for any offence our broadcast has caused and thank you for affording us this opportunity to provide an explanation.

Additional Correspondence

On September 9, the complainant wrote back to SiriusXM and copied the CBSC:

I do not find your reply acceptable.  I understand that you are broadcasting historical material on this channel which does not meet the smell test of today.

However, I have one question for you:  do you broadcast songs using the word “nigger?”  I want an answer to this question.  I have never heard that word on SiruisXM.

If you censor the offensive word “nigger” you should also censor the offensive word “squaw.”  To think there is any difference is racist and sexist.

Are you perhaps an American who does not understand offence to First Nations people as well as you understand offence to African Americans?  You broadcast this material in Canada, and it should meet Canadian standards.

The same day, the complainant also wrote directly to the CBSC with the short note:

Thank you.  I intend to pursue the matter.  […].

On October 20, the complainant sent an additional message to the CBSC:

Thank you for your email.  To those concerned with adjudicating this complaint, I wish to add the following comments:

In 2016 there should be no excuse for broadcasting song lyrics with mysogynist and racial slurs.  It is not in the spirit of moving forward on reconciliation with indigenous peoples.  It promotes the attitudes which have contributed to the deaths of missing and murdered indigenous women.