The development of Indigenous media in Canada

Indigenous media has a long history in Canada. While the earliest newspapers aimed at Indigenous readers were published by settlers, there have been Indigenous-run papers since Ojibwa chief, doctor and publisher launched The Indian in Hagersville, Ontario, in 1885. This tradition has continued with papers such as Wawatay News, based in northern Ontario and Edmonton’s Windspeaker.[1]

The arrival of electronic mass media provided a new challenge. Early in the history of Canadian television, when television began to bombard the airwaves in northern communities, Canada’s Indigenous people made the connection between cultural survival and the ownership and control of media.

Community radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Northern Service short-wave radio had been an integral part of northern life since the mid-1950s. By the early 1970s, 16 percent of Northern Service programming was in Inuktitut and, with CBC and government-funded training and technical support, radio began to be used throughout the north for everything from political information and local news to bingo and the communication of family messages.

The catalyst for Indigenous-owned and operated broadcasting came in 1973 when the CBC began beaming southern Canadian and American television via satellite into northern communities. Communities welcomed some programs, such as Hockey Night in Canada, but many Indigenous leaders and elders saw southern programming as a threat to their language and cultural traditions. They were upset that the sounds and images entering every home failed to reflect anything of their own reality and values.

One young leader, Rosemary Kuptana, who later became president of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, likened the onslaught of southern television to the neutron bomb. “This is the bomb that kills the people,” she noted, “but leaves the buildings standing.”[2]

Between 1976 and 1981, with large grants from the federal government and new satellites Hermes and Anik B, Indigenous organizations from Alberta to Quebec began to experiment with interactive communication and the production of original programming. The pilots were so successful that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s regulatory agency, licensed the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada in 1981 to set up an Inuit broadcasting corporation to provide Inuktitut-language television services to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Northern Quebec and Labrador.[3]

Later that same year, the CRTC approved an application from two First Nations groups to establish a satellite radio network to deliver programming in several Indigenous languages to communities in the Yukon and western NWT. By this time, CBC’s Northern Service had doubled its Indigenous-language programming.

By the early 1980s, the components for Indigenous-owned and managed broadcasting were in place across the country: politicized Indigenous organizations, 13 Indigenous communications societies (Inuit, First Nations and Métis), a sympathetic regulatory body (CRTC) and a government with new policies and funding programs.

In 1983, the Canadian government set up a $40-million fund to stimulate Indigenous radio and television production in northern regions of Canada. That same year, the federal government came out with the Northern Broadcasting Policy. It set out the principles of “fair access” by First Peoples to northern broadcasting distribution systems, so as to enable them to develop their cultures and languages. In most parts of the North, this meant access to the CBC’s distribution system, but the policy proved difficult to implement and failed to meet expectations for Indigenous services.

In 1988, following years of persistent lobbying by Indigenous communications groups, the federal government allocated $10 million for a dedicated northern satellite transponder. Television Northern Canada (TVNC) spanned five time zones and extended to the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Arctic Quebec and Labrador—one-third of Canada’s land mass. In 1991, the right of First Peoples to have control over their own communications was enshrined in the Broadcasting Act and, in 1995, the CRTC approved TVNC’s application to make Indigenous programming available to southern communities.

TVNC’s success led to feverish lobbying to establish a national Indigenous network. Support from the Canadian public was strong. According to an Angus Reid survey, two-thirds of Canadians were in favour of it, and 68 percent said they’d be willing to pay 15 cents more on their monthly cable bill to make it happen.[4]

In 1999, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) became a reality. As part of a first-tier (basic) cable service, APTN became available to 8 million homes in the North and across southern Canada via cable TV, direct-to-home and satellite.

The Globe and Mail captured this important milestone in an editorial:

“Just to be seen on TV makes people genuine in a way that almost nothing else in the 20th-century culture does. This is the psychological underpinning for the CRTC’s recent decision to grant a licence for an Aboriginal television network. Not only will the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network be a place for Native people to present themselves to one another in English, French and 15 Native languages, but it will be an electronic arena in which many Canadians will encounter Aboriginals in ways they might never do otherwise.”[5]

APTN has opened many doors. It has provided Indigenous artists, writers, actors and producers with the skills and the means to bring Indigenous people their own images and messages—through documentaries, dramas, children’s series, educational programs, news, current events and even cooking shows. It has provided an opportunity for Indigenous people to cut through the oppressive stereotypes that dominate southern television and present new models for youth. Indigenous actor and producer Jennifer Podemski describes the importance of the channel, saying “I would not exist without APTN. I don’t think I would have gotten my foot in the door because all I want to do is tell Native stories.”[6]

APTN is a giant step forward. Every year, its development is imitated even more by other Indigenous broadcasting and community radio services. Isuma.tv, an international website intended to develop Indigenous audiovisual production from all peoples of the world, has also experienced unprecedented growth. Today, many communities are working to develop their own community radio and several national radio networks have appeared, such as Native Communications Inc. (NCI), which operates out of Manitoba; Aboriginal Radio, a forum for the issues of Indigenous people from North, South and Central America; and CIHW FM, the community radio of the Hurons-Wendat in Wendake. Indigenous radio continues to grow, with new stations launching in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton in 2017.[7] You can use this site to keep up-to-date on most Indigenous radio programs: http://www.turtleisland.org/news/news-radio.htm.

As a medium that makes it possible to connect various communities from the same nation with one another, community radio offers social connectivity. This is in addition to the large national Indigenous radio stations, such as SOCAM (Société de communication Atikamekw-Montagnaise). That’s exactly what interested a young Atikamekw, Patrick Boivin, in the award-winning short film Territoire des ondes (Land of the Airwaves). In this documentary, Boivin associates the drum, the traditional communication tool, with the radio.

The distribution of Boivin’s film through digital platforms like YouTube points to the latest development in Indigenous media. Though limited by a lack of consistent, high-speed internet access to remote and Indigenous communities, the ability to produce and distribute media over the internet has created many new opportunities for Indigenous media makers. The relatively small size of audio files has made podcasting a popular outlet, with shows such as comedian Ryan McMahon’s Red Man Laughing drawing tens of thousands of listeners.[8]

To learn more about Indigenous artists and media, see the section Indigenous expression in the arts and media.

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[1] Craig, S. (2017) “Indigenous media audiences are bigger than ever, but – like others in the industry – profits remain elusive.” Financial Post. Retrieved from https://financialpost.com/news/indigenous-media-audiences-are-bigger-than-ever-but-profits-remain-elusive

[2] Brisebois, D. (1983) “The Inuit Broadcasting Corporation.” Anthropologica 25 (1): 105-15

[3] Brisebois, D. (1990) “Whiteout Warning.” Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from https://inuitbroadcasting.ca/whiteout-warning/

[4] Angus Reid Group. (1998) “Aboriginal Television Network Would Build Bridge of Understanding Between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Canadians, Says Majority.” Angus Reid Institute. Retrieved from https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/publication/1998-02/pr060298.pdf

[5] Editorial. (1999) “The Native Media.” The Globe and Mail.

[6] Roberts, S. (2022) ”The Superficial Diversity of Canadian TV.” The Walrus. Retrieved from https://thewalrus.ca/canadian-television/

[7] CBC. (2017) “New radio stations to serve urban Indigenous communities in 5 cities: CRTC.” CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/five-new-urban-indigenous-radio-stations-crtc-1.4160784

[8] Craig, S. (2017) “Indigenous media audiences are bigger than ever, but – like others in the industry – profits remain elusive.” Financial Post. Retrieved from https://financialpost.com/news/indigenous-media-audiences-are-bigger-than-ever-but-profits-remain-elusive

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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