Canada’s Sun News Network, dubbed “Fox News North” by the media, is barely on the air for half an hour when Ezra Levant, icon of the Canadian right, starts off the debut edition of his show, The Source, by broadcasting images of the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

“What’s the big deal? We just showed it. Nothing bad happened,” Levant tells his audience as a magazine spread of the cartoons appears on screen.

For Levant, this is more than what must to him seem like a spectacular opening to Sun News (if it causes riots in the Middle East, all the better for ratings, eh?), it’s also something of a personal issue. Levant was dragged in front of the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal in 2006 when the magazine he ran at the time, the Western Standard, ran that very cartoon spread. He became something of a hero to free speech advocates with his bravado performance in front of that tribunal, challenging both its notions of human rights and its legitimacy. These days, Levant prefers to parrot Glenn Beck with accusations that George Soros is a Nazi collaborator, so it’s nice to see him harken back to a time when he had more substantial things to add to the political debate.

To be sure, “Fox News North” has nothing to do with Fox News. It’s the new broadcast arm of the Sun newspapers, a chain of low-brow tabloids in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and elsewhere, basically a Canuck version of the UK Sun tabloid (right down to the scantily-clad page three girl), and similar in tone to the New York Post. But while both the UK Sun and the NY Post are Murdoch properties, the Sun papers in Canada aren’t. The Sun chain has been annoying Canadian progressives for nearly four decades now, and the papers have largely settled into a secondary role in the Canadian media landscape. The tabloids, along with the new network and a local TV station in Toronto called Sun TV, are owned by a Montreal-based company called Quebecor, and Rupert Murdoch has no part in it.

But right off the bat we get a sense that this network has more than a little in common with the ethos of those Murdoch properties when Krista Erickson (think “Gretchen Carlson North”), one of its anchors, appears as a page three girl in the Sun papers Monday morning. Clever marketing gimmick (maybe, if you’re not particularly interested in women viewers), but not exactly inspiring for those of us looking for evidence of serious journalism. So for me the question is just how well these stale, economically challenged and increasingly irrelevant tabloids will be able to make the jump to the brash, attention-grabbing, almost hypnosis-inducing style of Fox News.

At first glance, pretty damn well. It looks like Fox News; it feels like Fox News. The chyrons look like Fox News chyrons. The hosts are dressed like Fox News hosts. It all looks like Fox News, right down to the mild orange filter that gives the guests and hosts a healthy, tanned look. And make no mistake — right off the bat we’re engaging in the culture war. The Daily Brief, 6 p.m., hosted by David Akin, has as its first topic health care reform. “Report: Canada’s System Broken,” the chyron warns. Here we go. Time for an all-out attack on Canada’s universal health care system.

But wait a minute. What am I hearing here? Could this be a sound, rational argument about spiraling health care costs and the options available? Hold on a sec. Did someone mention raising taxes as a way of continuing to fund the system as it exists? My ears can hardly believe what they’re hearing, but I’m pretty sure someone has just made the sober point that we are probably doing ourselves a disservice by setting up a false “binary” view of health care (the Canadian system versus the US system) and that we should look to Europe for better ways to operate universal health care schemes.

Nobody mentioned “socialism.” Nobody screamed “class warfare.” For a moment, I closed my eyes and just listened, and it could have been “NPR North.”

Okay, so maybe it was just that one issue. After all, privatizing health care is a hard sell in Canada. Up next on Daily Brief is a report on Vancouver’s government-sanctioned heroin injection site. Now things are getting juicy. Sun News is clearly hitting all the big culture-war issues for conservatives. Now the sparks will fly.

But wait, what’s this? The report begins with the correspondent (blonde, attractive, well dressed) informing us of a study saying the safe injection site has reduced drug deaths in Vancouver. And I’m pretty sure that, through the fog of shock now engulfing me, I can hear Akin mention that some three-quarters of the people living around the site support its continued existence. Case closed. “Fox News North” is against the drug war.

So, hmm. Maybe it’s just their first day. Maybe they haven’t got the hang of it just yet.

Not all is lost for the culture warriors, though: No fewer than three prime time shows devote a segment to attacking the CBC, Canada’s state broadcaster, with Levant popping up to accuse CBC’s Vote Compass interactive graphic of trying to fool conservatives into thinking they’re liberals. Add to that the Sun tabloids running the same stories criticizing the CBC, and this all begins to look more like a concerted attack on a competing broadcaster than actual reporting….

But even with all that it all comes off a little too … sane. The oil sands are good, Ezra says, because we can use the profits to build schools. Almost makes sense to me. It’s all seems actually thought out in advance, too calm and too… well, Canadian. In a whole evening of viewing, the expression “government bolshevism” only grabs my attention once. So maybe this is more “Fox News Lite” than “Fox News North.” Can you even do a (somewhat) polite, (mostly) respectful, (sometimes) thoughtful version of Fox News? These hosers are damn well going to try.

So far they’ve only hit on the big hot-button issues that resonate among Canadian conservatives; tomorrow they’re going to have to start covering the election. And when they do, the Canadian political establishment will start paying attention.

But will I? Watching Sun News tonight was fun, in the sort of way watching a car wreck on the freeway is fun. But  Ezra’s going to have to do better than a lame attempt at angering Muslims if he wants me to tune in again.

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Daniel Tencer

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