Canadian Programming Service

First Peoples of Canada have become internationally acknowledged as having the most advanced and fair Fourth World (indigenous peoples) broadcasting system, based on a 1991 legislated recognition of their collective communications and cultural rights as Peoples with a special status. In the Canadian context, "First Peoples" is an inclusive term referring to both the Inuit (known elsewhere as "Eskimos") and the Amerindian populations, the latter also known as First Nations. The language of the Inuit is Inuktitut. Aboriginal-initiated media in Northern Canada (North of the 55th parallel line) has had a relatively long history when compared with Fourth World/indigenous communities elsewhere. The stages through which this broadcasting history has evolved were initiated by First Peoples themselves as they struggled for their inclusion in the policy and practice decisions pertaining to broadcasting services to be received by their national communities. Partly as a result of the pioneering and persistent activities of First Peoples to make their programming an integral part of the Canadian media infrastructure, Canada has also come to be identified as a model of media resistance against the overwhelming forces of continental integration in North America.

It is difficult to talk about the introduction of television into the North without acknowledging its relationship to radio. This is because radio set a very special attitudinal context for the arrival of television. First Peoples expected that television would have local and regional indigenous input, as well as national, Southern-produced programming, as had been the case with radio. A brief overview of Northern radio is, therefore, foundational to understanding why First Peoples reacted the way they did to television.

Radio entered the North in the late 1920s, at the same time that airplanes began to develop easy access to the Arctic. By the early thirties, trading posts, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police centres, and religious missions were equipped with high frequency radios to maintain contact with their headquarters in the South. Native peoples did not have direct access to these early radio services. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) Northern Service was established, taking over the infrastructure of shortwave transmitters established by the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Transport.

In 1960, the first Inuit-language broadcasts occurred and by 1972, 17% of the CBC shortwave service was in Inuktitut. Since the early 1970s, First Peoples have demanded access to radio in the North. All three levels of government have responded positively to native requests; seed money and core funding from provincial/territorial and federal government communications and cultural programs have assisted First Peoples in their radio development process. As a consequence, culturally-relevant, native-language radio programming has become an integral part of the Northern media infrastructure. Radio is simple to learn, operate, and maintain; it is an important information tool and readily adaptable to local indigenous-language programming.

The Canadian federal government's public subsidisation of native-produced media began formally in 1974 with the development of its Native Communications Program (NCP). Between then and 1996, 117 First Peoples' community radio stations have become operational across Canada, including those below the Hamelin line (the line at latitude 55 that separates the North from the South). With the exception of the Inuit service in the Northwest Territories, whose CBC regional radio programming has always been and continues to be satisfactory and representative of their concerns, all other Northern regions have both a network of local radio stations and one publicly-subsidised regional service.

The Native Communications Program was terminated quite suddenly in 1990 by the Secretary of State, who stated that vertical budgetary cutbacks were the reason for its dissolution. Evidence of concrete Program successes and public outcry did not result in the program's reinstatement. Funding for native local radio remains tenuous. In general, most Northern communities do not have a large enough advertising base to convert to private radio. They, therefore, depend on either public subsidy or some guaranteed way of maintaining stable funding. To date, most community radio stations operate radio bingos for their baseline fund-raising strategy.

Regionally, both radio and television broadcasting evolved rapidly in response to the launching of the Anik satellite in 1972. In 1973, the North was hooked up to the South through radio and television services and for the first time, Inuit and First Nations were able to have access to the images, voices, and messages that United States and metropolitan-based Canadians produced with Southern audiences in mind. The parachuting in of Southern, culturally-irrelevant television programming into Northern communities by the CBC Northern Service acted as a catalyst for indigenous constituency groups to organize broadcasting services in their own languages (dialects), reflecting their own cultures, as they had achieved in radio. Almost immediately after its initial mystique dissipated, native peoples and their Southern supporters began to lobby for their own television programming and network services. They wanted participatory and language rights, as well as decision- making responsibilities about programming and Southern service expansion. By the mid-1970s, First Peoples across the country had secured funding, established Native Communications Societies (NCS) to be the responsible administrative party for their communications activities, and begun operating local community television projects.

Beginning in 1976, in response to their clearly articulated demands, the federal government made large grants available for native organizations to be used for technical experiments with the Hermes (1976) and Anik B satellites (1978-1981). In 1976, the Alberta Native Communications Society and Taqramiut Nipingat Incorporated (TNI) of Northern Quebec received money to do interactive audio experiments with the Hermes satellite. In 1978, funding was provided to Inuit Tapirisat (Brotherhood) of Canada (ITC) of the Northwest Territories and TNI to complete a more sophisticated interactive series of technical, community development, and educational experiments on the Anik B satellite. By 1981, after the establishment of five Northern television production studios, after two and a half years of staff training, and after six months of experimental access, it was unquestionably demonstrated that the organizations involved were capable of: (1) organizing complex satellite--based audio/video interactive experiments involving five communities; (2) managing five production centres and satellite uplink/downlink ground stations; (3) coordinating a large staff in different locations, as well as a budget of over a million dollars; (4) producing hundreds of hours of high quality program output; (5) documenting technical data related to satellite experimentation and viable uses of the satellite for Northern interactive communications; and, finally, (6) documenting the whole process as evidence of their credibility as a potential broadcasting licensee.

In 1981, based on the positive results of its Anik-B demonstration project called Inukshuk, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation was licensed as a Northern television service by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's regulatory agency, to provide Inuktitut-language services to the Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec, and Labrador. In this same period, other Native Communications Societies across the North were at varying stages of radio and television development, also in preparation for the licensing process and all in support of the establishment of a legislated recognition of their media demands as a distinct constituency group within the Canadian state.

At this time, the federal government undertook a one-year consultation and planning process, the outcome of which was the Northern Broadcasting Policy (1983), and an accompanying program vehicle, the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP). These policy and funding decisions became the foundation for the eventual enshrinement of aboriginal broadcasting in the 1991 Broadcasting Act.

The Northern Broadcasting Policy set out the principle of "fair access" by native Northerners to the production and distribution of programming in their territories. It further established the principle of consultation with First Peoples before Southern-based decisions were to be made about Northern telecommunications services. By 1983, thirteen regional Native Communication Societies had been established to be the recipients of funding from the NNBAP. The NNBAP coordinators set up a program structure within the Department of the Secretary of State (Native Citizens Directorate) and were mandated to distribute $40.3 million over a four-year period. The money was to be used for the production of 20 hours of regional native radio and 5 hours of regional aboriginal television per week. Funding has eroded annually, but the Program is still operational.

As the NNBAP implementation process proceeded, it became apparent that fair distribution of radio and television programming was a key problem because of the implicit assumption within the Northern Broadcasting Policy that this task would be taken care of by either CBC Northern Service or by CANCOM (Canadian Satellite Communications Inc.), a Northern program distributor. In both cases, negotiations between Native Communication Societies and broadcasters had become bogged down over prime time access hours and preemption of national programming.

In 1988, the federal government responded to persistent native lobbying by the National Aboriginal Communications Society (a lobby group representing the interests of the NCS groups) for more secure distribution services by laying out $10 million toward the establishment of a dedicated Northern satellite transponder (channel). By 1992, Television Northern Canada (TVNC) was on the air. Owned and programmed by 13 aboriginal broadcast groups, plus government and education organizations located in the North, it is a pan-Arctic satellite service that distributes 100 hours of programming to 94 Northern communities. It is considered to be a primary level of service in the North. In 1995, TVNC applied for permission from the CRTC to be placed on the list of eligible channels to be picked up by cable operators in the South. In November 1995, approval was granted, making it possible for TVNC to become available in a variety of Southern Canadian markets, should cable operators decide to make it part of their discretionary packages. It is already accessible on an off-air basis to those who own satellite dishes because its signal is not scrambled.

In December 1995, TVNC joined together with two Northern companies, Arctic Co-Operatives Limited and NorthwesTel, for the purposes of designing an information highway infrastructure that will meet the specific cross-cultural needs of Northerners.

Since 1992, First Peoples of Canada and consultants who have worked with them have become involved in international media development processes based on the assumption that sharing of communications experiences and resources among indigenous nations can only be beneficial. For example, initiatives encouraged by the United Nations, Canadian International Development Agency, and private organizations have included several media projects undertaken in Belize and Bolivia and television program exchanges have already taken place among Greenlandic, Alaskan, and Canadian Inuit, and aboriginal peoples from Australia.

Despite challenges for more secure, long-term funding and improved access, First Peoples of Canada have established themselves as pioneers in the development of cross-cultural television links across Canada's vast (sub)Arctic regions. Currently, they are extending their media knowledges outside of their Northern borders into the South and beyond. Technical advances in local, regional, and national telecommunications services, conjoined with the social and cultural goals of First Peoples' broadcasters, have demonstrated that it is possible to use media in a sensitive manner to express cultural heterogeneity, rather than homogeneity. To date, from the rudimentary evidence aggregated, it appears that First Peoples have refashioned television broadcasting. They have indigenized it--transformed it into a tool for inter-community and national development. They have utilized television programming as a vehicle of mediation into their own historically ruptured pasts and as a pathway into more globally-integrated futures.

-Lorna Roth


Canadian Radio-television Commission. Decision CRTC 91-826. Television Northern Canada Incorporated. Ottawa, Canada: CRTC, 28 October 1991.

____________. "Native Broadcasting Policy." Public Notice CRTC 1990-1989. Ottawa, Canada. 20 September 1990.

____________. The 1980's--A Decade Of Diversity: Broadcasting Satellites and Pay-TV. Report of the Committee on Extension of Service to Northern and Remote Communities. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Government Publishing House, 1980.

Government of Canada. Broadcasting Act. Ottawa, Canada, 4 June 1991.

_____________. The Northern Broadcasting Policy. News Release. 10 March 1983.

Koebberling, Ursel. The Application of Communication Technologies in Canada's Inuit Communities (Ph.D. dissertation, Simon Fraser University, 1988).

Mander, Gerry. In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & The Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Roth, Lorna. Northern Voices and Mediating Structures: The Emergence and Development of First Peoples' Television Broadcasting in the Canadian North (Ph.D. dissertation, Canada: Concordia University, 1994).

Roth, Lorna, and Gail Valaskakis. "Aboriginal Broadcasting in Canada: A Case Study in Democratization." In Raboy, Marc, and Peter A. Bruck, editors. Communication for and Against Democracy. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.

Stiles, Mark, and William Litwack. Native Broadcasting In the North Of Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Commission for UNESCO-Report 54, 1988.

Valaskakis, Gail. "Television and Cultural Integration: Implications for Native Communities in the Canadian North." In Lorimer, R., and D. Wilson, editors. Communication Canada: Issues In Broadcasting And New Technologies. Toronto: Kagan and Woo, 1988.

Wilson, Thomas C. Ten Years of Satellite Television in the Eastern Arctic: Cultural Implications for the Diffusion Of Educational Technology. (Ph.D. dissertation,Concordia University, 1987).


See also Australian Programming (Aboriginal); Canadian Production Companies