Aboriginal TV Launched

Long before the arrival of European visitors, the Cree of northern Saskatchewan used the area's rivers for communication. Travellers carried information by canoe from community to community.

Aboriginal TV Launched

Long before the arrival of European visitors, the Cree of northern Saskatchewan used the area's rivers for communication. Travellers carried information by canoe from community to community. In 1991, native broadcasters honoured that tradition, creating a non-profit radio station called the Missinipi Broadcasting Corp., after the Cree word for "big river." Today, the La Ronge, Sask.-based station broadcasts to 44 aboriginal communities and offers two hours a day each of programming in Dene and Cree. "Aboriginal peoples' relationship to communication is unique," says Missinipi's 29-year-old general manager Marty Ballentyne, who is from Saskatchewan's Peter Ballentyne Cree Nation. "We come from an oral storytelling tradition. Until 100 years ago, that was our sole source of information, stories told around the fire or at meeting places."

That "meeting place" is now going national, thanks to the launch this week of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. It is one of two new cable channels - ROBTv, a business channel, is the other - to go national on Sept. 1, while two others, the entertainment station Star! and Canadian Learning Television, will be available in select markets. The Winnipeg-based Aboriginal Network will offer programs in English, French and at least a dozen aboriginal languages. That will give indigenous producers what many consider a long-overdue forum for their work. And, they hope, help shatter some of the stereotypes about Inuit and native people. In fact, to many, APTN is one of the most significant events in 20th-century aboriginal history. "For the first time, our community can start to be creative," says Brenda Chambers, a 35-year-old Whitehorse-based independent television producer from Yukon's Tlingit people. "Before, you had to fit into someone else's agenda."

In its first year, the channel will air previously produced Canadian aboriginal drama, children's shows and current affairs programming, along with programs from indigenous peoples around the world. And with the strong interest in aboriginal culture in both Europe and Japan, APTN hopes to tap into the global marketplace and sell its programs abroad. But for now, most of its revenues will come from being carried in basic cable packages throughout Canada. APTN will cost subscribers 15 cents a month. (That is cheaper than other specialty channels: CTV's Sportsnet, for example, costs 80 cents.) The network is subsidizing areas with fewer than 2,000 subscribers, who will pay 7 ½ cents.

Nevertheless, APTN executives are committed to spending $5.9 million on original programming. Missinipi's Ballentyne, for instance, is creating Heartbeat of the Earth, a 13-episode series about Cree, Dene and Métis cultures. Abraham Tagalik, an Inuk raised in Frobisher Bay, N.W.T., who is APTN's chief operating officer, says the network is committed to celebrating all aspects of aboriginal culture, even those that are not accepted by some in mainstream western society. "We won't shy away from hunting seal or caribou," Tagalik says. "We'll do a program about a boy who goes seal hunting with his father and then comes home and shares the meat with his family and then uses the skin for clothing."

It promises to be an eclectic array of programming, from documentaries to drama. Spirit Bay portrays life in a fictional Northern Ontario community. Kiviu's Journey is a six-part series on Inuit history and legends, while imagineNATIVE will explore a mixture of experimental aboriginal drama, documentaries and music. APTN will also carry aboriginal programming from outside Canada, such as the New Zealand series Greenstone.

Hopes are high that APTN can draw relatively large audiences. Chambers - who is working on a series about aboriginal entrepreneurship - is convinced it can. Her most recent effort, a four-part current affairs show called All My Relations, drew a healthy 400,000 viewers, when it aired on CBC Television in April, 1998. "I think there is going to be a huge appetite for these shows," she says. "There is a diversity that the mainstream hasn't recognized." APTN's management, in fact, is predicting it will have seven million subscribers by the end of 2001. And they expect to do that even though a key segment of their core audience lives in isolated communities. Many native and Inuit communities, in fact, are wired. Some, like the northern Saskatchewan town of La Loche (population 1,966), have their own cable systems. Others rely on satellites. "There are 1.2 million aboriginal people in Canada," says Tony Greco, APTN's director of affiliate relations. "We expect 90 per cent will be able to receive APTN by the end of December."

It is a remarkable target, considering television did not arrive in the North until 1975. Back then, arctic communities were allowed to hold a vote on whether they wanted to receive a TV signal. Tagalik says the older generation worried that TV would have a corrupting influence, but eventually accepted it. And programs carried on conventional television often were alien to aboriginal life. Tagalik, who watched TV for the first time at age 9, recalls that his favourite show was The Six Million Dollar Man. Any aboriginal programming was token. "They did it to get brownie points," he says.

Depictions of native people were almost universally degrading. Aboriginals were pigeonholed into one of two North American stereotypes: savages or sidekicks. Tagalik says these depictions exacerbated feelings of alienation in aboriginal communities already suffering from social problems. "It was cowboys and Indians - the John Wayne version," he says. "The natives were always villains. They were criminals waiting to ambush people. That's carried over. It's not cool to be aboriginal. Our kids are not made to feel pride in their culture."

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is an outgrowth of Yellowknife-based Television Northern Canada, a regional network that began broadcasting in 1992. TVNC aired a daily newscast and covered aboriginal issues such as the land-claims hearings. It had 100,000 viewers and produced the Inuit children's show Takuginai in both Inuktitut and English. In 1998, Tagalik, who was then chairman of TVNC, created a consensus among his network and many southern aboriginal TV producers to put a bid forward. These included Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki from Quebec, and actor Gary Farmer, a Cayuga from southern Ontario. In February, the CRTC granted them a licence. That was despite objections from the CBC, whose management argued its network was already doing a good job covering native issues. APTN also had to overcome many cable companies' objections to it being a mandatory part of their service. But the CRTC held firm. Now, the voice APTN will give aboriginal people may prove resounding. "We have to look seven generations back and seven generations forward to get a sense of what this means for our people and for Canada," says Ballentyne. "It's a stage for our storytellers and a place for Canada to gather around and listen."

Maclean's September 6, 1999