The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s APTN National News is celebrating 21 years of groundbreaking investigative journalism and Indigenous storytelling in Canada this month.
In those 21 years, they have become a leading voice of the people in our country, and remain the first exclusively Indigenous media outlet of this scale in the entire world.
By seeking truth and amplifying voices previously unheard, APTN has found major success as an agent of change in Canada in only two decades.
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has roots dating back to 1991, with Television North Canada. It covered Indigenous and Northern issues and was first broadcasted from Yukon and Northern Labrador. In 1998, chairman Abraham Tagalik bid for a new national Indigenous network, and in 1999 CRTC granted them their national broadcast license.
April 16, 2000, InVision aired as the first national Aboriginal newscast in the world, debuting the first-ever Indigenous news team. The air was electric in the Winnipeg studio as crew, writers, and producers were able to collaborate with one another as an entirely Indigenous team for the first time, ever.
“Everybody spoke the same language,” says Karyn Pugliese, who began her career with APTN in 2000 and was Director of News and Current Affairs from 2012 to 2019. “It was like we all cared about the same things. I mean, we have different opinions, but we’re starting from a similar worldview. If we talk about treaty rights or Indigenous rights, we believe they exist! I didn’t have to go in and try to explain to somebody, ‘I’m not making this stuff up! There is such thing as a treaty right!’”
The network was launched during a time when there was a sincere need for a deeper understanding of Canada’s Indigenous population and a shift in the narrative surrounding them. Pugliese began with the network as the Ottawa correspondent and recalls the absurdity of being in an Aboriginal Affairs Committee meeting around that time.
“They get somebody from the Indian Affairs to come in and give them a Powerpoint presentation explaining, ‘What are Aboriginal people in Canada?’ It was incredible to me. You had a bureaucrat up there saying ‘Okay so we’ve got three groups of Aboriginal people in Canada.’ The entire room was just furiously taking notes. And the thing was — there were three big pieces of legislation coming up that had been initiated by the government that are gonna go to this community and impact our peoples’ lives, and they don’t know the first thing about us.”
Clearly, Indigenous issues were not often discussed or understood by large swaths of the country. Within minutes of the very first broadcast of InVision, anchor Carol Adams states with hopeful gravitas, “The mainstream media has tended to focus mainly on negative stories when talking about our people. The truth hasn’t been reflected until now.”
In the face of this social climate, an ambitious team came together to start a new conversation. As with any new project, they needed to make it work with the resources of the time. With no money, no internet, and not even a satellite truck, they endeavoured to gather stories from across the largest country in the hemisphere. Not to mention the fact that many of the areas of interest were quite remote.
“I once got driven 6 hours north to a community,” recalls Pugliese, “And the cameraman had a family emergency and had to leave. So I stayed because it was a breaking story – it was a roadblock – then I hitchhiked home with the equipment.”
Reporters and camera crews would usually film on location and mail the tapes back to Winnipeg from wherever they were. “We joke about it now,” comments Cheryl McKenzie, the current Director of News and Current Affairs. “We say, ‘we’ll have breaking news for you… tomorrow!’”
They were no doubt in an underdog position. “People wanted us to fail,” Pugliese says. “Dan [Dan David, founding member of APTN News] said, there’s a lot of people out there just waiting for us to be yet another example of Indigenous people who can’t do anything for themselves. ‘Wait, they’re gonna blow it,’ and people were saying that. People were very angry that APTN got mandatory coverage and people referred to us as the station that was shoved down their throat.”
Eventually, InVision changed over from a once-weekly broadcast to a five-nights-a-week program. From then on it was called APTN National News, which meant that they were serious about becoming a fixture on the national stage and weren’t going anywhere.
It soon became evident that the news network had a huge responsibility to connect their viewers — who were dispersed in nations across the land — in a way that was never before possible. By seeing stories from other nations, communities were able to ally with one another and discuss solutions to shared problems. “It changed a lot about who Indigenous people are,” says Pugliese.
Notably, when APTN began covering the Assembly of First Nations leadership elections, it was the first time the average Indigenous person had the opportunity to witness the inner workings of their own government.
Since 2000, they’ve also covered every Canadian federal election. They had always called every party leader in for a debate or an interview, “And that wasn’t happening,” says McKenzie.
“So we ended up interviewing the Indigenous Affairs minister and then the shadow cabinet, or sometimes Indigenous candidates from each party and have our elections debate that way. It was only in the 2016 election when we finally got all the leaders, except for the Conservatives.” Though she does go on to say Erin O’Toole has shown more interest than his priors in meeting.
Cheryl McKenzie anchored APTN National News from 2012 and became executive show producer in 2016, and during that year she facilitated a historic first. Justin Trudeau, who was newly elected at the time, joined McKenzie in a live “town hall” style broadcast on the channel.
Never before had a sitting prime minister been interviewed by Indigenous media, and by reaching Indigenous voters it would no doubt be a factor in his being elected.
Moving forward, APTN has another first in history lined up, says McKenzie. “We’ve been brought on as meaningful editorial partners in producing the Federal leaders debate, along with CBC news, CTV news and Global news. That has never happened before.” This could be considered another huge stride in the mobilization of Indigenous voters.
On The Ground
While APTN has emerged as a part of Canada’s mainstream media landscape, its heart and history lie with the smaller communities that it has always represented. For over 20 years APTN has provided opportunities to ambitious journalists with a punk-rock mentality.
“We weren’t trying to be the voices of our people, we were amplifying the voices of the people.” says Pugliese.
Take her Gull Bay, Ontario story as an example.
Due to unfit insulation materials that were approved by the Department of Indian Affairs, several homes in the community had become ridden with toxic black mould. When people naturally refused to live in these homes, the number of defaulted mortgages got so high that the entire community sank into severe debt. The community was forced to undergo third party management to relieve financial pressure, but this third party company eventually worsened the debt threefold.
“I went down to Andy Mitchell, who was the Minister of Indian Affairs at the time,” says Pugliese, “and I kept asking him one question, ‘are you gonna fix the houses? Are you gonna fix the houses? Are you gonna fix the houses?’ And eventually he said yes because the cameras were on him. The community did get the money.” Pugliese goes on to add, “the sad part is they probably just took it out of other Northern housing initiatives in other places that needed the money, right? So you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, but they did get a boost of money to address the houses.”
In the 90’s, Abraham Tagalik saw an opportunity. A need that was yet unsatisfied.
APTN’s story can serve as inspiration to anyone who hears opportunity in the silence.
Despite how pivotal the APTN and it’s National News has been these 21 years, there’s more work to be done and opportunities to uncover.
“I just want to encourage Indigenous young people to get their education and to go into journalism or broadcasting,” says Cheryl McKenzie, “because even though you hear about these mass layoffs in the media industry, there is still definitely room for Indigenous voices. And at APTN there are opportunities that come up now and then.”