Manitoba History: Book Review: Lorna Roth, Something New in the Air: The Story of First Peoples Television Broadcasting in Canada

by Len Kuffert
University of Manitoba

Number 52, June 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It cannot be a simple task to write the history – or as Lorna Roth calls it, “the story” – of how television and the lives of aboriginal peoples have intersected in Canada, especially when that story involves the contentious issue of what aboriginal programming should look like. Most readers would probably associate the coming of TV with assimilation to nonnative norms and the decline of aboriginal cultures. We have long considered programs like The Edge of Night, the centerpiece of this book’s powerful opening anecdote, to be nothing short of twilight for the local cultures that Roth encountered in communities like Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit). We have been content, Roth suggests, to think about cultural influence using a diffusionist model of cultural development in which those not producing cultural texts (like TV programmes) are doomed to be altered by them. In contrast, Roth finds that television can be – and has been – a point of resistance where, as viewers, aboriginal peoples learn or infer something about other cultures and, as producers, they represent themselves. Using a number of interviews with viewers and producers, and building upon her own travels in the North, Roth has produced a theoretically-informed account, aided at times by her own recollections, of how television became and remains a highstakes enterprise for aboriginal people. She argues that aboriginal involvement in television has allowed for the preservation of language and culture, helped aboriginal people gain valuable experience debating policy and helped form coalitions through which political ends stood a much better chance of being achieved.

Early in Something New in the Air, Roth lays out the theoretical bases for evaluating the aboriginal television experience. She highlights three paradigms of cultural development here: the aforementioned diffusionism, dependency / underdependency (Western nations have kept developing regions dependent via new means of communication) and communitarianism (forces inside and outside the receiving community determine the outcome of development). Roth declares diffusionism naïve, argues that dependency theory does not take local factors into account to the extent it should, and sees the communitarian model as not “macro” enough. One answer, she suggests, lies in adapting the “internal colonial” concept and recognizing that First and Second World nations, because they communicate with and contain Third and Fourth World people, need to examine how power over television access and production affects the right to communicate using indigenous languages and to address issues and themes of greatest interest to indigenous people.

Non-native images of indigenous people have been revised throughout post-contact history, but the most important thing to remember about this process, according to Roth, is that such images profoundly affect policy and practice. Without input or control over how these images are created, aboriginal people could and did find themselves under-represented on a medium that was nonetheless quite available to them as viewers once the satellite age arrived in the early 1970s. During this same period, after the Trudeau government’s White Paper had become a lightning rod for aboriginal political resolve and the federal government backed down, aboriginal people sought to use television to counteract a long history of partial, insensitive or plainly erroneous depictions of their lives. Before wading into the richer 1970s, during which TV blossoms in the North, Roth discusses the lengthy buildup to the television age, citing Hollywood and documentary film practices as negligent, and noting the relative ease of aboriginal participation in radio as of the late 1950s. The limited television service offered as of the mid 1960s via the CBC’s Frontier Coverage Package did little to reflect the interests of those receiving it. Southern programming brought to the North on videotape and rebroadcast did not serve viewers nearly as well as the radio service they had come to rely on for news, weather, and information about family and friends in other isolated communities.

With the chapter entitled “Public Mediations and Northern Television,” Roth begins to relate more explicitly the intersection of the political and cultural aspects of an expanding TV service. During the medium’s Northern expansion, the questions of local impact, national development and access were among the most prominent. Would local cultures be overrun by modernity or able to produce their own programming? Some hoped that the “lateral channels” of communication which defined telephony and had been approximated in the Northern radio service could also be a part of whatever sort of TV system evolved in the North. Roth shows also that even after the satellite system was in place, the various interested parties still debated the wisdom of going with that system in place of a beefed-up radio network. Concern about the impact of TV on northern life was ever present as it became apparent during the 1970s that Northerners were ready to assume a greater role in TV broadcasting.

Federal policy makers proved reluctant to grant aboriginal broadcasters a kind of special status through the granting of special licenses, fearful of the precedent it would set in the eyes of other “ethnic” groups. Academics, Roth included, raised their voices in favour of aboriginal broadcasting rights, and were part of a process that, by 1991, had succeeded in codifying the practices of aboriginal broadcasting in law. It took over twenty years for a basic sympathy at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to be transformed into policy backed by legislation. The most interesting part of this long struggle, which Roth might have foregrounded or presented earlier in her fifth chapter, was the contentious issue of what constitutes aboriginal programming when many aboriginal people enjoy watching southern fare.

The possibility of showing northern programming in the south, of opening up a multilateral TV system to allow northern communities to connect with one another and with communities outside Canada in the circumpolar north, was an ambitious dream. Its articulation in the late 1970s coincided with a time in which the dream could not be realized. As Roth notes, however, this vision would be kept alive among those who created informal partnerships with broadcasters in the south. The Native Communication Societies worked through the 1980s to produce programming about the North, but using some of the more familiar techniques of southern TV and experimenting with their own modes of presentation. Despite these limited successes, northern broadcasters’ work was often bumped from the schedule, necessitating a separate programme distribution service that did not involve the CBC’s national system. Roth’s discussion of Television Northern Canada (TVNC) and its successor, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) bring us through the 1990s and past the turn of the century. Though the latter network reaches aboriginal people living further south to a greater degree than the earlier material, we see how profoundly the northern broadcasting experience has shaped TV for all aboriginal peoples. Given Roth’s expertise and focus, this book probably should have been billed as the story of aboriginal television in the North, as opposed to Aboriginal Peoples television writ large. Other than the material on APTN, there is comparatively little on how southern offreserve and urban aboriginal people encounter TV.

The book remains, however, an important resource for media and cultural historians because, by showing how cultural considerations affected policy and thereby the output of the aboriginal broadcasters, Roth enlivens and complicates what would otherwise be just another story of broadcasting policy.

Page revised: 16 June 2012