Wawatay Native Communication Society says it was denied the Toronto and Ottawa licenses because of its government funding.

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By K.D. Sawatzky

A contentious decision made by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in June has put airwaves in urban Ontario out of reach for a regional Indigenous broadcaster.

On June 14, the CRTC granted radio licenses to three Indigenous broadcasters for frequencies in five major cities across Canada: Northern Native Broadcasting, based in Terrace, B.C., will broadcast in Vancouver; Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta will broadcast in Edmonton and Calgary; and  First Peoples Radio Inc., a branch of Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, will be heard in Toronto and Ottawa.

The newly granted licenses were previously held by Toronto-based Aboriginal Voices Radio, whose network dissolved after CRTC revoked its licenses in 2015 due to non-compliance with regulations. A month later the Commission issued a call for applications for programming reflecting the needs of the local Indigenous population with a sound business plan to back it up.

The decision to grant the Toronto and Ottawa licenses to APTN’s First Peoples Radio, which originally applied for all five licenses in hopes of establishing a national network, generated a strong reaction from the local competitor.

Wawatay Native Communication Society, whose radio network broadcasts out of Sioux Lookout and Timmins in northeastern Ontario, was the only competitor with FPR for the Ontario licenses. The reason it was denied, according to the Commission, is because its proposed revenue relied too heavily on government grants and subsidies, some of which were unconfirmed by Wawatay in its proposal.

“With the systemic underfunding of our programs and communities to begin with, you know, it’s funny that money would be the card that they would play,” said John Gagnon, CEO of Wawatay Native Communication Society.

The criteria in the CRTC’s call for applications asked applicants to demonstrate how the proposed business plan, whether commercial or non-commercial, would sustain the programming. Proposals also needed to show “how the applicant’s commitments will reflect the interests and needs of the Aboriginal population to be served, foster the development of Aboriginal cultures and help preserve Aboriginal languages.”

In its decision, the CRTC said Wawatay’s business plan was speculative because there was no evidence the organization could function without government funding.

Shannon Avison, assistant professor of Indian Communication Arts at the First Nations University of Canada, said economic viability was probably top of mind for the CRTC when considering applications given the financial instability of AVR, the previous license holder. She said that the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, which won the licenses in Edmonton and Calgary and also receives government funding, has already done very well in the Alberta market.

“It may be that (Wawatay’s) lack of experience in the highly competitive Ottawa and Toronto markets made the CRTC question their ability to succeed. However, Wawatay has been amazing in its delivery of Oji-Cree programming, even with crippling cuts in federal funding,” she said.

“It must be heartbreaking that this option has been taken away from Wawatay, which really needs to find ways to generate revenue so they can deliver the programming their communities want, in their languages,” said Avison.

Government funding isn’t new to organizations like Wawatay. The Northern Native Broadcasting Access Program funds Indigenous media organizations that broadcast in Canada’s North and produce a high level (70 hours for Wawatay) of Indigenous language programming each week.

“When they put out the call for licenses they wanted the best program that was going to be socially beneficial to our communities, to our people in Ontario,” Gagnon said.

Wawatay proposed to broadcast 43 hours of language programming a week, the highest amount of any applicant. Wawatay, which has been around for over 40 years, also received letters of support from First Nations and Métis leadership, including the NIshnawbe Aski Nation, Chiefs of Ontario, Métis Settlements General Council and Grand Council Treaty #3.

Decision flouts reconciliation

For Gagnon, the CRTC’s decision to give the licenses to Winnipeg-based First Peoples Radio flew in the face of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 14, which states Indigenous revitalization of Indigenous languages is best managed by Indigenous people and their communities. He argued that FPR won’t adequately serve the needs of the local Indigenous population. FPR’s proposed language programming was four hours a week.

When asked why Wawatay’s use of government funding was problematic, Patricia Valladao, manager of media relations at the CRTC, wrote in an email that there wasn’t anything she could say at this point since Wawatay was appealing the decision.

Reforming Native Broadcasting Policy

Gretchen King, a Montreal journalist and cofounder the Community Media Advocacy Centre, attended every day of the public hearing the CRTC held as part of its decision process. She intervened to oppose FPR’s applications and support Wawatay.

King said the fact that there were no Indigenous CRTC representatives at the hearing for the decision, and that the decision itself didn’t address Indigenous nationhood sovereignty were red flags.

“The biggest conclusion for me is there is something wrong at the CRTC,” she said. “There’s an obvious need for protocol training and … to revisit these decisions from a more informed and more respectful perspective.”

King also said the CRTC’s decision is symptomatic of a larger issue: the exclusion of airwaves from the duty to consult, which is constitutionally mandated. She argued that since electromagnetic waves used for radio are part of the environment, Indigenous leadership must be part of the consultation for their use, especially since Canada has a history of policing Indigenous communication with policies like the pass system.

“Communication being a source of power and colonial power being a reality in Canada and media being one of the tools of that system, then definitely we need to consider the constitutional duty to consult,” she said.

When the CRTC decision was made, King was in midst of wrapping up a broadcasting conference in Ottawa titled The Future of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Broadcasting: Conversation and Convergence Indigenous broadcasting conference. As a co-organizer of the conference with Wawatay and researchers from the University of Ottawa, she attended meetings with broadcasters across the country to discuss the CRTC policy regarding Indigenous media.

A total of 111 participants attended the regional events in Winnipeg, Iqaluit, Edmonton, Homalco First Nation and Halifax. Summaries of the conversations highlight the need for the increased Indigenous language content quotas, sustainable funding and meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities before and after  any policy review.

The need to train young broadcasters and update the 27-year-old Native Broadcasting Policy was also important to participants. The CRTC plans to review the policy sometime between 2017 and 2020.

The urban context

The importance of Wawatay’s programming in northern Ontario is recognized by Jean La Rose, CEO of APTN. But he disagrees with Wawatay on one critical issue: the audience the frequencies would serve in Toronto and Ottawa.

“Certainly up north there’s a stronger language presence, there’s a lot more speakers, and in the urban (areas) there are some speakers, but it’s not sufficient to become a driving force to allow the network to grow. There are not enough speakers here that would generate the support of advertisers and others to make the network operate,” said La Rose.

To meet its language quota, FPR will share programming with Saskatchewan’s Missinipi Broadcasting Corporation and Manitoba’s Native Communications Inc. Even though the some of the vocabulary is different, La Rose “believe(s) there is enough of an audience to have some programming in language, like Elder stories.”

La Rose said FPR didn’t consult with the local First Nations leadership because APTN operates on a national level and because of its news coverage, doesn’t want to be too closely associated with political organizations. As for the duty to consult over airwave use, La Rose said that’s an issue for the policymakers to decide.

Wawatay is currently appealing the decision made by the CRTC, a case that goes before the Federal Court of Appeal.

Katie Doke Sawatzky is a journalism student at the University of Regina. She will begin master’s studies in fall 2017, focusing her research on grasslands conservation in southern Saskatchewan.