LIKE so many other success stories, this one started out as a crazy dream.
It began in the 1980s, when the federal government shaped a new policy aimed at creating broadcast initiatives that might help Canada's northern aboriginal populations preserve their languages and cultures.
Several steps -- and perhaps a few more crazy dreams -- later, a national aboriginal TV network was born.
This week, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) celebrates 10 years on the air, and the Winnipegbased broadcast entity's staff, directors and viewers are revelling in the shared realization that dreams can come true.
"One thing about APTN is that the people here are excited about what they do and why they're doing it," says Sky Bridges, APTN's director of marketing. "There's a lot of excitement in the building about this."
APTN will mark its 10th anniversary this Tuesday with a 90-minute special titled Milestones, Memories and Moving Forward
(10 p.m., APTN). Hosted, in three separate segments, by Don Burnstick and Skeena Reece, Jennifer Podemski and Lorne Cardinal, the retrospective takes a look back at the network's origins, sorts through some of its on-air success stories and looks ahead to some of the exciting developments the near future holds.
Since its fairly humble beginning, which included a live concert celebration at The Forks as APTN took to the airwaves of Sept.
1, 1999, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has become the definitive TV voice for Canada's native populations.
Broadcasting three separate regional feeds and a newly launched high-definition channel and providing programs in English, French and at least 15 different aboriginal languages, APTN has become a crucial source of news and entertainment for Canada's northern and rural native populations, as well as a cultural touchstone for First Nations folks who have relocated to urban centres.
"It's absolutely more obvious with northern and rural aboriginals," says Bridges. "They say this (network) is a vital part of their dayto- day lives, in terms of the news service, finding out what's happening across the country and connecting with their culture.
"When I talk to urban aboriginals, what I hear is that for them, because they don't live that day-to-day type of (traditional) life, the network is a way to connect, remember and reconnect with their culture."
As a provider of news and information from an aboriginal perspective, APTN has made an ever-increasing commitment to building the infrastructure necessary to deliver the goods. From the development of several signature programs focused on native issues -- most notably the daily APTN National News and the coast-to-coast call-in series Contact
-- to the establishment of news bureaus across Canada and the training of an entire generation of aboriginal reporters, anchors and editors, APTN has added a new voice to the nation's journalistic landscape.
"Looking at it from that perspective, it's absolutely news through the lens of aboriginal people and culture," he says, "I think we've broken down a lot of stereotypes and barriers, and given Canadians a chance to see what aboriginal culture is. As a people, we've come an extremely long way, and I think APTN has helped to build that pride and preserve that culture."
On the less-serious side of the TV equation -- the entertainment side -- APTN has also made important inroads. Starting with a roster that included a few homegrown shows and a roster of movies and specials, the network's programmers sought inventive ways to draw viewers to APTN's out-of-the-way position on the dial (it currently resides at Channel 108 on Shaw TV's local cable lineup).
The first big success was the irreverent Bingo and a Movie franchise, which created a lot of buzz during APTN's early years and got viewers intrigued about the network's primetime schedule.
"One of the reasons it was so successful is that it showcased the aboriginal sense of humour," Bridges explains. "We like to poke fun at ourselves and laugh at ourselves, and this idea that aboriginal people like to play bingo was one of those things. We packaged it with our movies, and it just evolved from there. It caught on and became popular, I think, because it brought forward our humour."
Since then, APTN has attracted viewers -- and awards -- with a growing roster of drama and comedy titles that includes Moccasin Flats, renegadepress.com, Fish Out of Water, Moose TV , Rabbit Fall, Cashing In and Mixed Blessings. During daytime hours, the network keeps kids and their parents entertained -- again, in several languages -- with shows like Tipi Tales, This Is Turtle Island and Wapos Bay.
APTN currently employs nearly 140 people, with about 100 of them based at its Portage Avenue downtown headquarters. Fully threequarters of its workforce is aboriginal.
But the greatest impact of APTN's first 10 years, according to Bridges, is the manner in which it has simply given native peoples the feeling that they -- in terms of the broader TV landscape -- exist.
"When I do focus groups and speak to aboriginal people, so many of them who have come from a difficult past of not being proud to say they're aboriginal; suddenly, they are seeing brown faces on the television screen," he says. "Suddenly, they're engaged with their culture, and seeing things in their own language. It means so much to them. They're proud. And that accomplishment, in itself, represents a major turning point."
Sept. 1, 1999: Launches with a gala outdoor concert at The Forks; the new network is beamed into nine million Canadian homes.
March 30, 2000: Premieres Contact, its flagship live call-in current-affairs program focused on aboriginal issues.
April 16, 2000: InVision News debuts, airing coast to coast twice weekly.
May 2000: Opens a news bureau in Ottawa.
July 12, 2000: InVision News provides live coverage of the Assembly of First Nations elections in Ottawa.
Nov. 27, 2000: InVision News airs live coverage of Canada's federal election from an aboriginal perspective.
June 2001: Receives four first-place honours at the Native American Journalists Association's Native Media Awards in Buffalo, N.Y.
Oct. 28, 2002: Launches its third season of programming, including 14 new shows and, for the first time, a full 24-hour broadcast day. Included in the schedule is APTN National News, the world's first daily aboriginal news program.
Jan. 6, 2003: Opens a news bureau in Yellowknife.
September 2003: Opens a news bureau in Montreal.
June 2004: APTN National News hosts two all-party debates during federal election.
September 2004: Opens a news bureau in Saskatoon.
Aug. 31, 2005: CRTC grants APTN a seven-year licence renewal.
May 2006: Opens a news bureau in Vancouver.
August 2006: Opens a news bureau in Edmonton.
September 2006: Opens a news bureau in Iqaluit.
October 2006: APTN's Wapos Bay and renegadepress.com are honoured at the Gemini Awards.
June 21, 2007: Hosts the inaugural Aboriginal Day Live concert, broadcast nationally from Winnipeg.
April 1, 2008: Launches a high-definition version of its channel, carried on Bell ExpressVu.
June 11, 2008: APTN is the only network to carry live coverage, in its entirety, of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology to survivors of the residential school system.
Oct. 14, 2008: Recognized as on of the Top 20 employers in Manitoba.
Jan. 13, 2009: Named an official broadcaster of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Sept. 1, 2009: APTN celebrates its 10th anniversary with the 90-minute special Milestones, Memories and Moving Forward, featuring Lorne Cardinal, Jennifer Podemski, Don Burnstick and Skeena Reece.
-- source: APTN