“APTN has forever changed the broadcasting landscape of Canada. We were invisible to Canadian audiences until 1999 but we are no longer invisible.” ~ Jean LaRose
By JEAN LAROSE
Aboriginal Peoples in Canada were invisible to almost all Canadians until APTN went to air on September 1, 1999. Before that date, the only opportunities for Canadians to see Aboriginal Peoples, who consist of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples, were only on newscasts when they were the news item. Often, that was for the wrong reason: a protest, a conflict, a major breakdown in relations.
…APTN aired more than 15 hours every day of major Olympic events in full HD, of which four to six was in Aboriginal languages.
APTN has changed that. During the course of the last 12 years, APTN has been presenting Canadian audiences with programming that reflects our reality as well as helping to break the stereotypes and prejudices that so often cloud the thinking of many Canadians. From a very humble beginning in the North of Canada where programming reflected that region and its Peoples, we now offer the full range of programming that reflects all of our Peoples from across the vast country of Canada in programming categories and genres of all types.
Our dramatic series are generating huge interest with Canadians who are seeing us in a new light, in roles that they have never seen us before and portraying a reality that is ours in ways only we can present. Through series like “Blackstone”, “Cashing In” or “Mixed Blessings”, we are creating programming that is thought provoking as well as controversial. We partnered with some of Canada’s major broadcasters to develop and produce these series so we could air them on some of their specialty networks as well as on APTN. This would have been unheard of years ago but is now reality.
APTN has also been broadcasting daily newscasts for the past seven years. A major difference is our perspective on news. We look at what impacts daily events and decisions have on our Peoples and that is the focus of our news programming. Canadians who watch our news as well as mainstream newscasts have said that on the same news item, they feel they are watching different news stories completely. The focus and the lens are aimed at our Peoples interests and that makes for a completely different perspective altogether.
Growing a New Industry
Another major change since 1999 is the creation of an Aboriginal production industry. When APTN launched, there were fewer than 10 Aboriginal producers and their options were very limited. We now have more than 80 producers who write, develop, produce, and present cutting edge programming in all categories and genres, all in HD and many versioned in more than one language so the stories can be shared in our languages as well as English and French, the official languages of Canada. APTN has aired programming in 23 of the 52 Aboriginal languages of Canada and does it consistently in 15 Aboriginal languages. Many of these productions have been winning awards across Canada and the world. Most producers credit the creation of APTN as the reason they have been able to tell our stories in ways that were not possible a short 12 years ago.
APTN is also a small industry in itself. From its launch with less than 20 employees, we have grown into a national network covering the vast Canadian landscape with 11 bureaus and offices as well as employing more than 150 people. Nearly 75 percent of them are Aboriginal individuals and the network has developed a very sophisticated mentorship and training program to give our Peoples opportunities to develop in their field and quickly gain the skills, experience, and knowledge needed to move up to higher level positions in the organization. Every senior manager must train and mentor at least one high potential individual and so must middle managers. This ensures continuity within the organization as well as a strong signal to staff that the opportunity for them to remain with the network and make it a life-long career is possible.
APTN was also a partner with the Canadian Olympic Broadcasting Consortium that aired the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. This was a major milestone for us. Against all odds and certainly against common wisdom that we couldn’t pull it off, APTN aired more than 15 hours every day of major Olympic events in full HD, of which four to six was in Aboriginal languages. This had never been attempted before and was not expected to happen. Our staff and community came together to create what is now history. APTN hired and trained Aboriginal language speakers to be sports commentators and within six months, these highly dedicated and motivated individuals went to air doing the play-by-play of Olympic events daily. They brought skateboarding, figure skating, downhill racing, and other sports to life in languages that in many cases had no words for the events. They created the words and expressions to describe the events and brought our communities to tears of joy and pride. Many Elders told us hearing the language on the world stage made them feel that their years of fighting for the language paid off.
…Non-Aboriginal senior managers were hired under
Many people have asked me if this was an easy road. It wasn’t. From the outset, we faced huge challenges.
There were very few Aboriginal industry professionals in Canada. When the network launched, it meant finding dedicated and passionate individuals who would tackle the job while learning it as they went along. This proved challenging and APTN had many setbacks in the first few years.
When I was brought on in 2002, APTN faced a serious financial shortfall of CA$5.5 million. I tackled that by cutting back programming commitments for a year and reviewing organizational policies and procedures. In reality, that meant creating most of them as there were very few in place. We also needed to find new senior managers as many had left. APTN launched into a very innovative mentorship program. Non-Aboriginal senior managers were hired under “sunset contracts” to train and mentor promising Aboriginal staff into the senior management roles. Those contracts, for a period of three to five years, allowed huge knowledge and expertise transfers to our staff and helped us refine our policies and procedures. All of those mentors are now gone and the management team is almost fully Aboriginal.
APTN also had half its staff unionized by then. The relationship with the union was rocky at best and needed to be improved. We launched into a major relationship-building exercise with the union, working closely with them to explain our financial situation, listening to their concerns and addressing them to the extent we could and demonstrating an openness to discuss any matter with them. The relationship has now grown to the point that there are very few, if any, conflicts. We always consult with them on personnel matters.
This is now policy at APTN. The union is involved in every step of the way, being advised from early on when we have an issue with a staff member and keeping them involved at all times in the process. We also negotiated a five-year collective agreement. This was the result of a very open and frank discussions on our ability to pay and their expectations. Pre-negotiation consultations led to a negotiating session that lasted three hours and concluded with an agreement in principle, ratified almost unanimously by the union membership as well as the Board of APTN. Such a relationship is not typical but APTN strongly believes that it must act at all times in a fair and transparent way with its staff.
Keeping it Frugal
Finally, the operative word at APTN is “frugality”. That is the key which allows the network to use its sparse resources in the best manner possible. All staff travel is done by discount air carriers except when not available on some trips and, whenever possible, must be booked during seat sales. No one is allowed to travel business or first class and that applies from the CEO down to all employees. Hotel accommodation must be reasonable (no 5-star or even 4-star hotels) and expenses must all be supported by receipts and details.
We are now developing a purchasing policy that will see all purchases compared for value and price to ensure that we always get the best prices and guarantees. APTN has also purchased its building; a $12,000 savings monthly against the lease payments paid before. All of this means that APTN is putting as much money as possible into programming and ensuring that we have a truly world-class network that tells the world who we, the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, truly are.
APTN has forever changed the broadcasting landscape of Canada. We were invisible to Canadian audiences until 1999 but we are no longer invisible. We are slowly building an audience of Canadians who are eager and interested in hearing our stories and our history. Over time, we expect it to change the ways Canadians think of us and about us, and will hopefully lead to significant changes for our Peoples in the political arena as well.
Jean LaRose was named Chief Executive Officer of APTN in November 2002. LaRose is a First Nations citizen from the Abenakis First Nation of Odanak. He was raised in Ottawa where he studied Journalism at Algonquin College and obtained his B.A. in Social Communication at the University of Ottawa. He later began study for his Masters in Public Administration at L'Ecole Nationale d'Administration Publique (ENAP).
LaRose sits on the Board of Directors of the National Screen Institute, the Pay and Specialty Television Board of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and the NISGA'A Commercial Group. He also served on the National Capital Commission Advisory Committee on its mandate review to provide Aboriginal perspective as it pertains to the future plans of the NCC, and the Advisory Committee on Indigenous Property and Authenticity Rights that was established by Heritage Canada.
In early 2011, LaRose was one of 14 outstanding achievers identified by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation as making a profound impact on his community, across Canada, and worldwide.