APTN News celebrates 20 years of sharing the stories of the First Peoples

Two decades ago a small group of Indigenous journalists, producers and television crew were brought together to create a national news program for the First Peoples of Turtle Island.

It was the first time something like this was done – a national newscast dedicated to sharing stories of Indigenous Peoples by Indigenous Peoples across Canada.

In turn, Apr. 16, 2000 marked a new day for Canadian broadcast journalism with the launch of APTN’s news program called InVision News, which would eventually morph into APTN National News.

During the first newscast then host Carol Adams introduced herself to viewers using traditional language – something not heard of at the time.

She went on to say, “our purpose: telling the stories of our people from the perspective of our people. Since television news first began many years ago the mainstream media has tended to focus mainly on negative stories when talking about our people. The truth hasn’t been reflected until now.”

It’s true, up until this point, media coverage around Indigenous people was often fraught with stereotypes, miseducation and a general lack of understanding around Indigenous groups in the country.

When InVision News launched it opened up the opportunity to develop a new way of reporting on communities.

Bruce Spence, a current producer with APTN News who has been with the team since the beginning, remembers the weeks leading up to the launch.

“There was lots of excitement in the air. There was a lot of anxiety as well because it had never been done before,” he said.

The network first launched in 1992 under the name Television Northern Canada (TVNC). The network serviced the Canadian territories and remote northern parts of the provinces. Seven years later TVNC rebranded as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network after years of lobbying the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to issue a licence to broadcast nationally.

The headquarters was set up in Winnipeg where it still remains.

The news team had to start from the ground up beginning with construction of a television studio.

After months of meticulous preparation InVision News was ready to debut.

“We had a few guests come into the newsroom to watch the show go to air and there was a lot of hooting, hollering, cheering and backslapping,” recalled Spence.

“It was a triumphant moment to get that show on the air.”

The newscast ran once a week until it went to a Monday to Friday schedule in 2002.

InVision News – APTN’s first newscast from April 16, 2000

Around the same time InVision hit television screens APTN also launched the weekly current affairs program Contact.

Cree host Rick Harp helmed the weekly call in show five seasons before Inuk host Madeleine Allakariallak took over for two seasons and then Anishinaabe and Cree host Cheryl McKenzie for two more seasons before the show ended.

The show aimed to dig deeper into timely topics such as traditions, the Sixties Scoop and the environment, even taking the show on the road to Yellowknife to explore the latter topic.

From the beginning APTN News has strived to tell stories others won’t – whether that’s reports of police dropping Indigenous men outside of city limits in what is known as “starlight tours” or families fighting to get justice for the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country. All experiences First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups were living but when they voiced these truths they often fell on deaf ears.

Francine Compton began her career at APTN News in 2000 when she was 19-years-old. Over the years Compton has taken on many roles and is now the executive producer for the national news program.

She remembers the news team hustling everyday to tell these stories, but it would be awhile before others paid attention.

“We were on the block for at least a decade before starting to have our issues noticed, before starting to see our issues lead the top story on other mainstream national news networks,” said Compton.

Most recently, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the development of environmental projects in Alberta and British Columbia were some of the stories making mainstream national newscasts.

But more could still be done. Take for instance coverage around the latter has been boiled down to anti-pipeline stories when, in fact, the issue goes much deeper – sovereignty over Indigenous lands and the right to protect sources of water.

In 2009, APTN News launched a new version of Contact called InFocus and APTN Investigates. It was the first Indigenous investigative news program in Canada.

Slowly but surely mainstream media took notice as both programs tackled topics such as health, residential schools and reconciliation.

But Compton believes the pivotal moment came in 2012.

“Idle No More really was a catalyst in changing that and having other journalists and outlets wake up and say, ‘what’s going on here?’” she said.

Compton adds other media was often getting direction from APTN in terms of how and what they were covering during this time.

Two years later, in 2014, APTN News expanded its programming with the introduction of Nation to Nation, Face to Face and The Laughing Drum. While, reporters for the national newscast continued to cover important topics such as Standing Rock and water and housing issues on Indigenous lands.

Cheryl McKenzie, current news director, credits the APTN news team for pushing to cover stories important to the network’s audience.

“We really value journalists’ perspectives from across the country. That’s really how we know what’s happening…is based on what the reporters and video journalists are telling us,” said McKenzie. “We give people a lot of editorial freedom that you would not get in other national networks.”

APTN News continues to make a name for itself. For the past several years reporters and stories have been recognized with various national awards. Most recently, scoring several nominations from this year’s Canadian Screen Awards.

However, the best reward has been staying true to what that small group of reporters, producers and television crew set out to do two decades ago.

“My special moments at APTN are when we serve our people and they are proud of us and feel that we have done a service for them,” said Compton.

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