The Aboriginal Multi-Media Society (AMMSA) building stands two stories tall, sandwiched between warehouses in one of Edmonton’s many light-industrial areas – a far cry from the Heritage Canada boardroom that served as its first home 21 years ago. It’s an average, stand-alone building, occupying an innocuous piece of Alberta real estate, but make no mistake – the society’s place on Canada’s media landscape is anything but innocuous. AMMSA is a success story in a tale of Aboriginal newspapers that includes sabotage, burning effigies and at least one near-death experience.

AMMSA’s editor-in-chief, Debora Steel, meets me in the bright, airy reception area and suggests a tour. She leads me down a long corridor as sales reps, reporters and editors wave from their offices. We’re on the second floor – the print area. AMMSA publishes five monthly newspapers, and Steel oversees them all. “Here’s the production area,” she announces as we enter an open area at the hub of the long hallways. “We’re in production once every two weeks,” she explains. “The four regionals are done at the same time, and Windspeaker is done on its own.”

Windspeaker is arguably one of Canada’s most respected national Aboriginal newspapers. It has attracted prominent columnists like the award-winning Ojibwa playwright Drew Hayden Taylor and National Magazine Award winning journalist Dan David. Windspeaker’s senior writer is the very white Paul Barnsley, who many describe as one of Canada’s best Aboriginal-affairs investigative reporters. “I’ve had a lot of other job offers, but I choose to stay here,” he says. “It’s a hell of a privilege for a non-native person to be involved in this – it’s a day-by-day way of learning about other cultures.”

Almost half of AMMSA’s staff is non-native. “I’ve been described as ‘the white editor,’ and I find that very dismissive,” says the blonde, green-eyed Steel. “I run five papers, and that takes a certain level of skill. I’ve worked here for 10 years now. I’ve never not got a story because I’m white.

“I approach news from a news point of view,” Steel continues. “Where it becomes an issue for me is on cultural and spiritual matters – I make a conscious effort to not let the message be filtered through me. I’m not here as an interpreter of cultural and spiritual matters.”

Yet matters cultural and spiritual are very much a part of AMMSA’s mandate. Down one floor, Steel introduces me to Denise Miller, the cultural liaison and reporter for AMMSA’s radio station, CFWE. Miller spends a lot of time travelling to communities and interviewing elders. Her pieces contribute to CFWE’s traditional culture content. I ask if it’s difficult getting elders to open up to the microphone. Miller nods, and Steel elaborates. “You learn a lot about patience, especially with traditional people,” she explains. “But if you put in the time, they learn to reach out.”

Not everyone appreciates AMMSA’s attempts to reach out. According to Steel and Barnsley, life at Windspeaker is full of intrigue. The office occasionally receives anonymous phone calls from bureaucrats appalled by their departments’ treatment of Aboriginal issues. Yet, says Steel, this is part of the attraction to working at Windspeaker. “We get brown paper bags with documents slipped under the door,” she says with a smile.

The next day I’m treated to another tour, this time with AMMSA’s head honcho Bert Crowfoot. The man behind what some call the society’s “media empire,” Crowfoot is AMMSA’s founder and chief executive officer. He has a nondescript boardroom for taking care of business, and an office furnished to keep him in touch with his spiritual side. A smudging area sits on the floor next to his desk for his morning ceremonies, and he has sweetgrass on hand for his guests. His bookcase is filled with awards, gifts and sentimental items, including his son and daughter’s first pair of moccasins. Crowfoot’s office feels more like a living room than the office of a big-time publisher.

Crowfoot describes his management style as “hands-off” and believes good, solid journalism sells papers. He’s never killed a story, and has allowed Windspeaker to run unflattering stories about his friends and even his brother. “The key is having a reputation for being fair and objective,” he says. “We get calls from the Edmonton Journal and CBC to pick up stories. You know you’ve arrived when you get calls like that.”

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It’s Thursday night, and the sound of bingo balls rumbling and popping echoes throughout the first floor of the AMMSA headquarters. The twice-weekly show, Radio Bingo, brings in cash for AMMSA. Listeners can buy AMMSA bingo cards from stores on their local reserves, then play along at home as the game airs live. The station has one phone line to determine the first caller to claim bingo; the winner then mails in his card to claim the cash prizes. But tonight things are not business as usual. The bingo line is ringing non-stop. The calls are mostly from Fort Chipewyan, but not to claim bingos – they’re reporting poor reception. “I don’t buy it,” grumbles station manager Alan Standerwick. “They’re deliberately tying up the lines.” Standerwick halts the game, then paces back to his office as a recording telling listeners to stand by fills the airwaves.

Standerwick comes back into the room. “The RCMP and security have been notified,” he announces, referring to the problem with AMMSA’s satellite dish in the Fort Chipewyan area. There have been problems with the dish all day, prompting him to request a security presence. He later explains that the evening’s sabotage was likely orchestrated by a community radio station operator on a reserve in the Fort Chipewyan area, acting in the belief that CFWE takes listeners away from his station. Standerwick suspects the man coaxed friends into calling the AMMSA line to tie it up and halt the game. “You will make note that the crew is demonstrating grace under pressure, eh?” Standerwick winks.

The next morning, Crowfoot and Steel smile wearily when I ask if such sabotage attempts have happened before. “That’s why all our big towers are off reserve,” Crowfoot says. He explains that they’ve had a few incidents of vandals shooting out antenna bases, misaligning satellite dishes, and even unplugging dishes. Steel nods, and then laughs as she relates a less sinister problem. “Sometimes kids use the satellites as a slide – we have to put machine grease on some of the dishes so they can’t get up.”

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That AMMSA even requires satellites is one testament to how far it’s come since its origins in 1983 – 10 years after the Trudeau government established the Native Communications Program (NCP) in 1973 to support Canada’s few struggling Aboriginal newspapers. The feds wanted to make funds available for Aboriginal groups to start new papers, enabling communities to raise their profile and help them pursue citizenship rights. The Alberta Native Communications Society (ANCS) was the NCP’s pilot project. The ANCS publication The Native People was Canada’s first modern-day Aboriginal newspaper, founded in 1966. Crowfoot joined the team in 1977.

After the ANCS folded in 1982, Crowfoot picked up the pieces and founded AMMSA with help from the NCP and the Alberta government. AMMSA’s first paper was published in March 1983, and was whipped up in the boardroom of Edmonton’s Heritage Canada office. Circulated across Alberta, the weekly paper was temporarily called AMMSA, “A new dawn in Aboriginal communications.” Three years later, it became Windspeaker.

Meanwhile, the NCP got the media ball rolling across the country – Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories started papers, each of which made substantial contributions to Aboriginal journalism. The Saskatchewan Indian placed second in political reporting at the Unity Awards in Media in the U.S. Many credit The Micmac News in Nova Scotia for breaking the Donald Marshall story. And in Yellowknife, The Native Press often set the news agenda. “The mainstream covered things they knew The Native Press would be covering to avoid looking stupid,” says former editor Lee Selleck.

By 1989, the NCP was pumping $3.4 million a year into Aboriginal media societies. It wasn’t a perfect system, though. The NCP stipulated that the media societies it funded must be non-profit organizations, which required boards of directors. “The big failing [of the NCP] was the government allowed political people to sit on these boards,” says Dan David, who writes a media column for Windspeaker. Crowfoot agrees: “Writers would write about leaders, and all these guys you wrote about were on the board. They’d fire all the people who wrote bad things about them.”

By the late 1980s, the Progressive Conservatives were in power, and the Mulroney government faced opposition over funding not just one, but two Aboriginal media programs – the NCP and the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP, which supported Aboriginal television and radio stations in the North). In 1990, without explanation, the Tories abruptly cut the NCP. Media societies were given six weeks notice. There was a public outcry against the cut, and many Aboriginal media societies lobbied the government to reverse the decision. Protesters in Iqaluit burned an effigy of Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Gerry Weiner.

“When the government cut the NCP, I don’t think they realized just how much damage they did to the development of Aboriginal communications,” says David. “They were just developing a sense of independence, a sense of purpose.” The Native Press’ Selleck argues the government knew exactly what it was doing. “The aim of cutting the NCP, in my opinion, was to be rid of them [Aboriginal papers] altogether,” he says. “The government should have done it in a businesslike fashion. Turning off the tap overnight didn’t give us enough time.” He believes some Tories saw Aboriginal media as a thorn in their side that fostered communication and strengthened the land claims movement.

Over the next few years, at least six of the 10 papers funded by the NCP stopped publishing as a direct result of the cut (see sidebar). AMMSA’s reaction to the cut was not jubilant, but Crowfoot knew his paper could recover from near death. Because he wasn’t comfortable depending on unstable government funding, he’d been working on a five-year self-sufficiency plan for the society. But the sudden cut caught him off guard. At the time, AMMSA was getting the biggest chunk of the NCP. Crowfoot acted quickly, and immediately cut his staff in half and published Windspeaker biweekly instead of weekly. AMMSA had a $250,000 nest egg that got it through the lean times. Crowfoot didn’t waste any time lobbying the cut – he put his energy into preserving his business. He changed his advertising strategy to target more “whales” – big companies with large advertising budgets. “AMMSA is very business-minded,” he explains. “We turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.”

Crowfoot also saw an opportunity in the NCP cut’s aftermath. As Aboriginal papers went under, AMMSA slowly expanded. Windspeaker went national, and in 1993 AMMSA launched Alberta Sweetgrass to cover local events – the graduations, the bake sales, the regional band politics – events Windspeaker abandoned when it broadened its market. In 1996, AMMSA established Saskatchewan Sage, followed by Raven’s Eye in 1997 in British Columbia and the Yukon, and Ontario Birchbark in 2002.

Crowfoot says government funding is not necessary for Aboriginal publishing. He believes government money breeds a “welfare mentality” among publishers, and can make them lose their drive. Roland Bellerose, publisher of the Calgary-based aboriginaltimes magazine, agrees. “I don’t believe entrepreneurs need government funding,” he says. “If not done properly, it destabilizes free enterprise’s ability to weed out the weak.” Both publishers acknowledge they would accept funding if it was available, but say it’s dangerous to become dependent on handouts.

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It’s taken Crowfoot 21 years to build his empire, and it continues to grow. Steel describes AMMSA’s tentative plans to team up with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and eventually run a hands-on training program for journalists on site. “It’s still just a shiny object, it’s so early,” she says. “We’re still in the idea stage.”
As Steel leads me back upstairs, we pass announcer Levi Lefthand in the on-air booth. The powwow singer smiles and greets us during a commercial break. “I’m very much into my culture, and very proud to be Aboriginal,” he says earnestly. “I’m very proud to be part of this team.”