American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Aboriginal Peoples Television Network

"History would have been told differently if our reporters had been there." Or so claims the aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), Canada's first and only aboriginal television network, established in 1999. The journey from concept to active broadcaster was, however, long and at times arduous.

In the late 1960s, aboriginal opposition to proposed changes to federal legislation aimed at terminating Canadian Indian special status manifested itself in the form of political organizations. In an attempt to keep aboriginal people nationwide informed of political events, several organizations established newsletters, many of which developed into larger monthly and weekly newspapers. An aboriginal print media industry slowly developed that eventually expanded to include small, community-based aboriginal-owned radio stations. During the early 1990s, however, significant cutbacks to federal funding nearly crippled the industry. While a number of publications survived, national statistics showed newspaper readership numbers to be waning while television viewers to be increasing significantly. Federal aboriginal officials soon began to promote the creation of a national aboriginal television network in an attempt to stabilize the national aboriginal communications program.

A small northern aboriginal television network, Television Northern Canada (TVNC), which began broadcasting northern and aboriginal programming from the Yukon to northern Labrador in 1991, was the catalyst that fueled the national aboriginal television network debate. A federal survey followed in 1998 that showed two-thirds of all Canadians supporting the idea of a national aboriginal television network, even if it meant displacing available services. Additional surveys demonstrated that Canadians were willing to pay an additional 15 percent for their monthly cable bill to receive an aboriginal television network. Canadian public support combined with strong lobbying by aboriginal communities, producers, and a variety of organizations led the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to announce in February 1999 that the APTN would receive a national broadcast license.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), Canada's first national aboriginal television network dedicated to Native programming, was launched on September 1, 1999. With programming for and about aboriginal people, APTN was developed to provide aboriginal producers, directors, actors, writers, and media professionals the opportunity to create innovative and relevant programming for national viewers reflecting Canada's diverse aboriginal cultures, both contemporary and historic. APTN offers a window into these worlds through a variety of programming, including dramas, entertainment specials, documentaries, news magazines, children's series, cooking shows, and education programs.

As APTN has grown, so has its audience. What was an upstart national television network with a limited market has evolved into an important entertainment, news, and educational choice delivered to more than 9 million households in Canada. Seventy percent of APTN programming originates in Canada, with more than half of the programs broadcast in English, 15 percent in French, and one-quarter in a variety of aboriginal languages including Inuktitut, Cree, Inuinaqtuun, Ojibway, Inuvialuktun, Mohawk, Dene, Gwich'in and Miqma'aq, Slavey, Dogrib, Chipweyan, and Tlingit. Nearly half of its programming is APTN-specific and cannot be seen on other networks. APTN airs 70 percent Canadian content with the remaining 30 percent of the schedule devoted to broadcasting indigenous programming from Australia, New Zealand, Central and South America, and the United States. Perhaps most notably, the majority of APTN programming originates with independent aboriginal producers from across the country and around the world, with the exception of news and live events. Network revenues are derived predominantly from subscriber fees and advertising proceeds. Employees of aboriginal descent comprise three-quarters of the APTN staff.

APTN has become more important than people realized following its inaugural 1999 broadcast. Recent data indicate that there are 500 aboriginal producers and broadcasters operating from a limited pool of money and that the communications system needs an influx of $10 million (Belanger, Newhouse, and Fitzmaurice, 2005). Without this funding, most of these broadcasters could be off the air in less than a year. With statistics showing that APTN viewing numbers have grown from weekly totals of 900,000 in 1999 to over 1,750,000 in 2003, APTN could become the main source of aboriginal news and entertainment in Canada in the near future.

Yale D. Belanger


Further Reading
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). "APTN Viewing Audience Continues to Grow." Available at: http://aptn.ca:8080/Whats _New/whatsnew_html. Accessed March 27, 2005.; Baltruschat, Doris. 2004. "Television and Canada's Aboriginal Communities: Seeking Opportunities Through Traditional Storytelling and Digital Technologies." Canadian Journal of Communications 29: 47–59.; Belanger, Yale, David Newhouse, and Kevin Fitzmaurice. 2005. Creating a Seat at the Table: Aboriginal Programming at Canadian Heritage. Gatineau, QC: Canadian Heritage.
 

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