Interview on aptn infocus

It was a warm evening in August 2016. Karyn Pugliese gazed at the camp fire she’d built after a day of canoeing on Lake Temagami in northeastern Ontario. She wasn’t thinking about the crackling flames or the stars hanging low in the sky. She was thinking about work. Something was bothering her. Pugliese, executive director of news and current affairs at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), wanted to tell a story but didn’t know how. The story was child welfare, an issue that reporter Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais suggested two months earlier at a training session. The reporters held the belief that child welfare should be covered everyday along with water, hunger, healthcare, and housing. Pugliese looked at them, puzzled. “Guys, we are television, and the legalities of child welfare will be huge,” she said. People would come to them with stories that were difficult to verify. She knew that her team wouldn’t be able to identify young children or parents on camera. For two months, Pugliese procrastinated, wrote down ideas in the middle of the night, and tossed and turned, until she found herself talking it out with a friend by that campfire. “I thought, ‘Where do I feel this story in my body and what is it really about?’”

In her Winnipeg office the following month, she expanded the topic of child welfare to what she considered the most under-reported Indigenous story in Canada: the breakdown and rebuilding of families. The bigger picture came to her in part from watching the scenes outside the office window. “I see people drink and laugh and wave at us in that window, I see people drink and fight in that window. Sometimes they see us watching and they move away looking ashamed,” she says. “I think, ‘That’s someone’s parents. They’ve been through something and they are not doing very well.’” Pugliese wanted to explore why some people are resilient and recover from abuse while others can’t, as well as the supports that exist to help families in crisis. “We know there are some communities, because of residential schools and child welfare removing children, where no one has raised their own child in three generations,” she says. “Who would you call if you don’t have a mother or a sister to ask for help about your kid?”

She soon set up the child welfare assignments. Robinson-Desjarlais posted a call-out on her personal Facebook page looking for parents who had been through the system. APTN’s Vancouver video journalist Tina House helped reporters develop stories about parents keeping their children out of the social services system. Reporters interviewed a daughter of a residential school survivor. A woman with addiction issues, she grew up in the child welfare system and was trying to understand parenting with support from Sheway, a Vancouver community program. “Her own mother died young,” Pugliese says. “She had to learn how to hug her children.”

By October, APTN was ready to launch a new season. The schedule included a call-in segment about child welfare on the analytical news show InFocus, a dedicated family feature on APTN National News, and an interview on Nation to Nation with Cindy Blackstock, an activist who had recently won a case against the federal government for giving lower funding to First Nations child welfare. “Residential school feeds child welfare that feeds prostitution that feeds missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Pugliese says. “If we start putting the stories together, we’re going to get a pretty good idea of what’s happened to our families.”

APTN’s greatest strength is telling those in-depth stories. It’s the non-profit channel on which First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people share their lives with one another and the rest of Canada. APTN offers a window into the culture and politics of Indigenous Peoples with programming that includes documentaries, investigative news, dramas, comedies, cooking shows, children’s series, and an annual live multi-city stage festival celebrating National Aboriginal Day. Throughout its near-18-year history, the network has changed the ways Canadians perceive Indigenous Peoples by providing a multi-dimensional vantage point. If awards are any indication, APTN is succeeding. Last year, the nine-person team from APTN Investigates was up against much larger network shows like CBC’s The Fifth Estate and CTV’s W5 when it was nominated for four Canadian Association of Journalists awards; it took home two, for its human rights and labour reporting. With strong local sources, balanced coverage, and community trust, APTN journalists break stories before the issues become part of the national narrative. Mainstream news, such as CBC Indigenous and The Globe and Mail, have started providing stronger coverage of major stories emerging from Indigenous communities, but APTN goes deeper by including more context and detail than viewers will find anywhere else.

The upward-sweeping arch of copper brown metal shimmers like faint northern lights and curves to the top of APTN’s head office and studio in Winnipeg. The architecture provides a dramatic touch, and APTN’s Indigenous garden next to the building gives a sense of growth and renewal to the section of Portage Avenue just west of Main Street, close to the old, sprawling Portage Place mall, Dollarama and Money Mart stores, and an imposing concrete-and-glass Rogers tower. Once inside, I pass through the heavy front doors and a security checkpoint, and I get buzzed through another door before taking the elevator to the sixth floor. The drifting scent of blackberry sage and sweetgrass candles on the boardroom table in APTN CEO Jean La Rose’s office hits me right away, but it’s his barely contained energy that fills the room. Outside his door, an open mousetrap attached to a blue sign reads, “Complaint Department. Press Button for Service.” (“There haven’t been any complaints,” he says.) Inside the large office, three walls painted warm burnt orange, pale red, and deep blue are backdrops to a collection of Aboriginal art, wildlife photography, and a large Tribal Nations map.There’s also a framed hockey sweater signed by players and coaches from the APTN series Hit the Ice, and posters of APTN-produced movies like Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian — a film detailing cinema’s history of degrading Indigenous stereotypes. Standing at the end of the table and wearing his black APTN baseball cap, La Rose looks like a sports coach pumped to bring his team to victory. These days, his mind is on expansion plans, so he’s knocking on doors in the United States, looking for opportunities to launch a new service. La Rose says that APTN is moving up the chain of command in the interview process to the people who make the decisions. “If we do anything, we have to be self-sufficient from the beginning.” That’s crucial, especially since APTN receives no government funding, unlike the CBC. This keeps the network independent, but to be profitable in a new country is another story.

Wearing a short-sleeved khaki brown shirt and black jeans, with a thick black Fitbit and silver bracelet on one arm and a wide-band Casio sports watch on the other, he’s definitely not dressed in the usual executive attire. But then, he’s not the usual CEO. La Rose is someone who speaks his mind, and he’s never shy to criticize external entities that cross him. A member of the Abenaki First Nation in Quebec, he studied journalism at Algonquin College in Ottawa. La Rose became CEO of APTN in 2002 after working as director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy organization. It was a position that gave him a deep understanding of the country’s 634 First Nations. The experience makes him uniquely qualified for the job — with 1.4 million Indigenous people in Canada who speak 60 different languages, there’s a lot to cover.

With such a broad scope, it seems inevitable the network would face criticism from its viewers. Anyone who thinks APTN only takes the side of the Aboriginal communities it serves, doesn’t understand their complexities. Even the comedy-drama Mohawk Girls — which has been described as Sex and the City, Mohawk style, and is one of the network’s biggest hits — garners complaints from older viewers and the Mohawk community. “They say it’s not representative of our community,” La Rose says. “According to everything we’ve read, and what the producers and young people tell us, it’s actually the best representation they’ve seen of their community.” The same is true of Blackstone, a show that ran on APTN and then moved onto Netflix due to its popularity. La Rose shakes his head and explains how one First Nation chief blasted him, calling the show “horrendous” and saying he was insulted — people might think the chief on Blackstone was meant to be him. “I thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t say that if I were you, because everything that is wrong about being a leader is in that chief,’” he says. La Rose has learned that you can’t please everyone, particularly when trying to accurately represent Indigenous communities that have been misrepresented for so long. But it doesn’t stop him from trying.

APTN is the first independent, national Aboriginal network in the world and, in 2016, it broadcasted in English, French, and 20 Indigenous languages. But the channel’s story begins 25 years before its inception, when a young woman named Lorna Roth was working in Frobisher Bay (later named Iqaluit), Baffin Island, for the National Film Board. In her book, Something New in the Air, where she charts the development of Indigenous television, Roth recounts a time when she accompanied an Inuit student while he visited his grandfather. She arrived at the small house, constructed of Ski-Doo–crate wood patched with snow, to find the student’s grandfather intently watching The Edge of Night on a 21-inch Sony television propped on a dresser. Five days a week at exactly 12:30 p.m., the town looked deserted as almost all of its residents tuned in to the long-running soap opera. Roth realized that the northerners, many of whom couldn’t understand English, were using television as an anthropological field site “to learn about the ‘qallunaat,’ or ‘white people.’” At the time, broadcasting only went one way: from south to north. After a few attempts to create a northern TV network, an application for a service known as Television Northern Canada — APTN’s original form — was approved in 1991. Roth, now a professor in Concordia University’s communication studies department, says that the Broadcasting Act of 1991 legally recognized for the first time that Aboriginal broadcasting was an intrinsic part of the Canadian broadcasting system. “It made a strong argument going forward for a licence, even though it didn’t have the total support of everyone in Canada. Most people didn’t even know about it,” she says. APTN’s licence approval and subsequent launch took place in 1999, expanding the network nationwide. Initially, the channel number was placed high on the spectrum, making the network difficult to find and having an impact on advertising revenue. Still, Roth says, APTN is here to to stay. “Obviously its idea is to provide a perspective that is absent from the larger broadcasting system,” she says. “That’s what it is doing very well and that’s why it was put on the air.”

APTN’s perspective is crucial in this time of truth and reconciliation. National newspapers, magazines, and radio and television networks have all told stories of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). But the APTN documentary series Taken, which launched last September and is now producing its second season, covers a purely Indigenous view. Each 30-minute episode focuses on one or two women’s stories and recreates the last moments before they disappeared, using realistic storytelling. “It’s as true a reflection of the events as possible without us trying to steer the viewer in any direction,” La Rose says. “That’s what pure journalism should be.”

Taken was created and developed by Lisa Meeches, Kyle Irving, and Rebecca Gibson from Eagle Vision, a Winnipeg-based independent film and television production company. “Three years ago, other broadcasters didn’t think there would be an audience for this, but Jean La Rose got behind Taken and made it happen by bringing CBC to the table,” says Irving. CBC plans to broadcast the program this summer. Inspired by America’s Most Wanted, the show asks viewers to call Crime Stoppers if they have tips. On Taken, Meeches (the show’s host) introduces each segment with comments from the families, law enforcement, experts, and academics to give a deeper perspective. “We tell stories from all regions to properly represent the fact that this issue affects a cross section of people,” Irving says. Female writers penned each of the first season’s 13 episodes, and women directed half of them. JJ Neepin, a member of the Fox Lake Cree Nation and the owner of JJNeepinFilms, directed two of the upcoming season’s episodes, which were written by her sister and creative partner, Justina Neepin. She says it sometimes takes an Aboriginal woman to tell such a story: “As a Cree First Nations woman, I face mild racism every day. When I talk to the families, I almost feel it could have been me, but I didn’t go to that party or I looked over my shoulder at the right time and made it home.” The familiar accusations that mainstream journalists leave a community immediately after they get the story don’t apply here. The show’s producers and spiritual advisors stay in touch with families directly, on the phone, and through the show’s Facebook page. A memorial page on displays the names of over a thousand MMIWG, which move like stars floating toward the screen. When users click on a woman’s name, her age and last-known location appear with an invitation to honour her by burning sage in an e-ceremony.

When Taken launched last September, Irving complains, it was almost impossible to get entertainment reporters to promote it. “They all said, ‘We’ll wait for the CBC premiere.’ But anytime I put a video on our Facebook page, it gets 10,000 views within 24 hours and up to 27,000 within a few days. So we spread the word that way,” he says. John Doyle of the Globe and Mail is one of the few television critics published nationally and his influence is as mighty as the acerbic sense of humour he uses when he can’t find anything good about a program. According to Doyle, it is difficult to give niche shows like Taken much attention from September to early November because of the concurrent avalanche of major premieres, ranging from HBO dramas to Netflix documentaries. “There is a basic problem with APTN and other Canadian channels that don’t get a lot of attention and it may be in the marketing and publicity for shows,” he says. “People who are shrewd enough on subjects not immediately popular will hire an individual publicist. If these publicists are good, they know how to approach me to let me know this is important to view.” Doyle was one of the first critics to promote Mohawk Girls, which got his attention because the producers contacted him at a time when there wasn’t a lot of competition. Another show Doyle likes is APTN Investigates, a hard-hitting news program whose stories change lives. “I’ve seen some of the episodes and they are very good,” he says. Nick Taylor-Vaisey, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), says the show has high-quality reporting, and he believes that it will be just a matter of time before the rest of Canada figures it out. “APTN Investigates’ reporters have windows into communities because they have built up trust and proven their storytelling can make a difference.”

The man behind APTN Investigates is executive producer Paul Barnsley, who has been reporting in the Aboriginal community for 24 years. When I met him for lunch at Winnipeg’s Feast Cafe Bistro, Barnsley was preparing for a trip to Toronto to accept a lifetime achievement award from Journalists for Human Rights. Short and wiry with a head full of tight red curls streaked with grey, Barnsley lights up a Colts Mild cigarrillo while we wait in the cold for a taxi. He laughs, recalling the early 1990s when he worked for the now-discontinued Tekawennake newspaper in Ohsweken, Ontario, near Brantford. “Back when the Six Nations Warrior Society was involved in the cigarette trade, someone approached me and said, ‘You white guys come and get what you want and then leave and forget about us,’” says Barnsley. “I knew I wouldn’t have any credibility if I did that.” He never left.

The episode that, at the time, garnered APTN Investigates its largest national attention was its coverage of the Bruce Carson scandal in 2011. The story was full of sordid details about an aging bureaucrat’s sex life and his connection to a company selling water systems to First Nations — gumshoe detective work at its best. It started when, outside a gas station in Kingston, a source gave Ottawa freelancer Kenneth Jackson a box sealed with duct tape. It contained dozens of emails about Carson, a senior advisor to former prime minister Stephen Harper. Barnsley, Jackson, and APTN journalist Jorge Barrera pieced the emails together and discovered that Carson was using his government connections to open doors in First Nations communities for a water treatment company called H2O Professionals. Mainstream journalists wrote about the scan- dal but didn’t go deep into the First Nations water treatment side of the story. Instead, they focused on the part about Carson’s fiancée, Michele McPherson — a former escort decades his junior — having a lucrative con- tract with the company. “Mainstream went for the hooker angle,” says Barnsley. Carson’s on-camera interview is difficult to watch — he boldly promotes the water company and then tries to skulk away after realizing APTN has the information to sink him. “I felt like Ben Bradlee,” says Barnsley with a laugh. “Every journalist should have one story like that.” Carson was found not guilty in 2015 because it was determined that officials he approached in 2011 within Indian and Northern Affairs Canada didn’t have authority to approve or purchase water treatment systems on behalf of First Nations. However, that acquittal was overturned by the Court of Appeal in February 2017, and Carson was convicted and found guilty of criminal in influence-peddling.

Back in Winnipeg, the nightly APTN National News is wrapping up in the station’s studio, a cone-shaped, chrome-and-Plexiglas teepee. Baseball caps are pulled low and heads are down in the quiet control room across the hall. Pugliese is watching the small screen, ensuring every second of the show goes o perfectly. Afterwards, her loud, infectious laugh fills the newsroom as she returns to her office, where papers are piled up high on her desk, on her chair, and in boxes all over the floor. In the interview for her position at APTN, when the inevitable question about her biggest weakness came up, Pugliese let the interviewers know right upfront. “I’m a messy desk person. You’ll never fix it. People have tried,” she says, laughing. Although keeping her desk tidy is not her first priority, she is just as concerned with the meticulous details in her work as she is with the big picture. “Primarily, we are having a conversation among ourselves and inviting the rest of Canada to have a look,” she says. “We are trying to open it up.”

Pugliese is of Algonquin and Italian descent and a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Pikwàkanagàn in the Ottawa Valley. She joined APTN in 2012 with over 15 years of broadcasting, communications, and investigative reporting experience. She is clear on her view that APTN also tells stories that uncover corruption in their own communities. At a CAJ conference last year, APTN sponsored a panel called “Following the Money in Indian Country.” The panel discussed the Aboriginal-owned Tribal Councils Investment Group, which made millions of dollars in profit intended to help impoverished members of Manitoba First Nations. An APTN story exposed how the investment group blew the money on strippers, booze, and exotic trips. “Journalists were asking me, ‘What about us going into Native communities for those kinds of stories — do we have the right?’ And the answer is, of course you do,” she says. This editorial approach is what keeps APTN relevant.

In the end, Pugliese always comes back to the five topics her reporters decided the station should be covering every day. For example, water: Indigenous people are at the forefront, involved in everything from pro- testing dirty water to protesting the construction of oil pipelines in places where a spill could be devastating. Last August, APTN reporter Dennis Ward and two camera operators were the first and, at times, the only national journalists at the Standing Rock protest site in North Dakota. APTN Investigates presented Ward’s documentary, “Clash at Standing Rock,” at the end of November, showcasing exclusive footage. The network continues its coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order to move forward with its construction. Now, the whole world is watching.

“Mainstream media moves in when it looks like it’s going to be a flashpoint, but the stories we did about North Dakota got the highest online hits we’ve ever had — more than a million views,” Pugliese says. “Everything we do has a deep story because everything has context.”

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