Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network
In this age of omnipresent television sets and proliferating minicomputers (coming to the seat of a pair of pants near you!), it can be hard to believe that in the late 1970s, if you lived south of 60 degrees latitude in Canada there was no regular television or radio broadcasting. It's even harder to believe if you know that Canada's federal government is still intermittently indulging an obsession with bringing high-speed internet to every isolated small community, even when the folks who live there would appreciate potable water and affordable housing more.
The best you could get 'North of 60' would be ham radio operators and smaller, shortwave radio stations. The idea of a television network featuring exclusively programming made by Indigenous people period let alone any Indigenous people living North of 60 was apparently all but unthinkable in official circles. The earliest federal programmes that made television and radio programming in the North focused on bringing programming to the Southerners who came North to work, but rarely stayed. For the more neo-conservatove leaning folks in the audience, no private businesses were up to the idea either.
On one hand, Inuit and Dene were pleased with the new federal funding for radio stations and access to television made available by the federal programmes. They began competing for the grants and making their own shows right away, and using the radio stations in unanticipated ways. Many people didn't (and still don't) have telephones, so the local radio station soon became the central place to drop off brief messages for the announcer to read out at designated times of the day. Alongside the birthday wishes and community events announcements were brief check-ins from family members returning from hunting trips and reminders to pick up certain goods on the trip from a larger town like Yellowknife to a smaller place like Lutselk'e.
On the other hand, Inuit and Dene were intensely frustrated with what they were seeing and hearing. Practically all the programming was coming from the South, which meant it referred to nothing that they were familiar with, and nothing that was especially relevant, either. Sometimes even the local weather was tough to get. Neither Indigenous people nor their languages were in evidence. Worse yet, the influx of Southern programming came at a time when chances of cultural and linguistic survival were looking bleak due to the ongoing cultural deprogramming efforts of the local branches of the residential school system.
Frustrated though they were, Inuit and Dene refused to give up. By the 1980s, Television Northern Canada was established, with better representation of Northerners in general and Northern Indigenous cultures and languages as an explicit part of its mandate. Contrary to what anyone expected, it grew so fast that what had once seemed unthinkable grew into a real plan. Indigenous people in the South became more involved, bringing in a history of work in film, theatre, radio, and publishing of their own. Surveys of Canadians showed that two thirds of them were willing to pay a bit more on their cable bills to support an Indigenous television network, despite escalating costs and dropping quality in the television programming they were seeing on conventional stations. 1991 saw the right of Indigenous peoples to control their own communications written into the Canadian Broadcasting Act.
Eight years of hard work later, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) launched on September 1, 1999. Headquartered in Winnipeg, the network buys the majority of its programming from independent producers. It shows material from Australia, New Zealand, Central America, South America, and the United States, while still beating Canadian content quotas. Over half of those shows can't be seen anywhere else. Some of APTN's interactive programming may be familiar to Canadian readers through word of mouth or commercial spots on other networks, including of course 'Bingo and a Movie.' 2004 was another banner year for the network, as it opened its Saskatoon news bureau and celebrated its fifth anniversary. Toay it is possible to download episodes of APTN's programming to watch on your computer.
Despite ongoing support from viewers and a significant proportion of Canadians, APTN hasn't had a ride without any bumps. Although many authors refer to APTN as being available as part of a 'basic cable' package, it isn't. Since cable companies regularly give APTN a channel number between 55 and 60, most Indigenous people in Canda never get to see it because they can't afford those channels, even today as pizza-platter sattelite television pushes down prices. Many non-Indigenous Canadians likely don't see much of APTN because higher cable channel numbers are often poorly watched. Evidently APTN has overcome this, but the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission was actually considering requiring cable providers to move it up their grids a few years ago. Then there is the legacy of Television Northern Canada, which means there is a greater body of Inuktitut language shows on APTN than for any other Indigenous language on the network. This became such a bone of contention that it was seriously examined at APTN's most recent license renewal. While Inuktitut is one of the three most spoken Indigenous languages in Canada (the other two are Cree and Ojibwe), because language is such a powerful vehicle for culture, this is a huge consideration.