Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No. 3

October 13, 2005


Broadcasting in the North

Lorna Roth shares her insights in a new book

By Karen Herland

Lorna Roth has compiled the story of Northern broadcasting based on her own experiences in Northern Canada.

Photo by Steve Pariso

Communications Studies professor Lorna Roth was lucky enough to find herself in Northern Canada in early 1975, just three years after television broadcasts became available there.

Now, three decades later, she has transformed her experiences with indigenous media development into a history of Canadian First Peoples broadcasting called Something New in The Air: The Story of First Peoples Television Broadcasting in Canada.

Roth, who always been interested in issues related to minorities and remote regions, became involved in a National Film Board (NFB) project to prepare two Inuit communities to produce their own programming.

The first images broadcast up north were notable for their absence of First Peoples’ imagery. “It was as if they did not exist.” Instead, Inuit TV viewers watched soap operas to learn more about communities to the south.

Through the NFB, Roth worked in a studio that allowed people to see movies and learn the craft of filmmaking. Eventually, the local people took over, and began producing their own community TV programs.

Over time, the full impact of these two initial projects, the development of various Native Communication societies, and the support of the federal government became clearer. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, started in 1999, has just received a seven-year license renewal.

“We now have the most advanced aboriginal broadcasting system in the world,” Roth said. The Canadian system is used as a model to develop comparable indigenous systems around the world.

In Something New in The Air, Roth records the impact that hearing their own language and seeing their own programming has had on Northern and Southern communities, and places these stories in the larger context of Canadian broadcasting policies and practices.

Roth credits the success of national indigenous television to the persistent efforts of First Peoples to take control f their own information and entertainment services and to the dedication of key people at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunica- tions Commission (CRTC) and the federal department of heritage who insisted that aboriginal communities’ right to self-representation should be enshrined in policy, and legislation.

“In the early ’80s, several regulatory bureaucrats did not see a difference between ethnic and aboriginal communities,” Roth said. They feared that granting licenses to aboriginals would lead other groups to demand similar access.

“But First Peoples don’t have another community or country to go back to.” This is the only place where their stories, histories and culture can be reflected back to them, and out to the world.

It was that key distinction that shaped policy changes in the ‘80s and ‘90s which eventually led to Canada’s leading position in aboriginal broadcasting.

The development of legislation was critical to this process. Roth points out that with a population of approximately three million, many of whom are scattered throughout the North, a territory one-third the size of Canada’s entire land mass, “there was no way that televison could be a privately funded endeavour; it had to be publicly subsidized.”

The legislation mandated clear sanctions and enabling mechanisms for ensuring aboriginal access to the airwaves, “Otherwise, you just have an amiable negotiation between this person and that person.”

Roth herself has not been north in quite some time. She waited until APTN was up and operating for a while before publishing her research. “I wanted to see the direction it took and the issues that were raised.”

Many of her contacts are no longer involved in media, “It’s interesting — a lot of them are politicians now.” They are using their skills at reaching people and addressing issues in a different context.

Something New in The Air will be launched in the basement lounge of the School of Community and Public Affairs, at 2149 Mackay St. on Oct. 17 at 5:45 p.m.

This event will kick off a week of activities for International Media Democracy Day. Clemencia Rodriguez and John D. H. Downing will give keynote speeches in Room H-110 on Oct. 18. They will also be present for Roth’s book launch. For a complete list of activities, visit www.ubercultureorg/projects/imdd.html.

Roth is also involved in inaugurating a speaker series on Nov. 17, with the School of Community and Public Affairs and the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations. The first event will feature Jean LaRose, of APTN, and Jacques Bensimon, of the NFB.