The television station’s call letters were APTN – Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this was the world’s first television station dedicated to native people and one of only four officially licensed TV networks in Canada. Its broadcasts reached across the country and into our hotel room on a recent visit to Quebec. Curious about the First Nation people’s issues in Canada, we tuned in every evening.
Canada has over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands and approximately 1,200,000 Native Canadians, about 3% of the population. First Nation People, Amerindians, Native Americans, and Aboriginal people are all terms used to refer to those who first occupied Canada. Although First Nation tribes were not conquered as they were in the United States, Canada has struggled with how to integrate federal and provincial laws with the treaties and land claim agreements negotiated over the last 250 years. The first proclamation in 1765 was meant to protect territories reserved to the tribes for their hunting grounds. The Indian Act of 1876 determined how reserves would operate, who qualifies as a First Nation descendant and how to enfranchise their inhabitants.
The 1927 Indian Act forbade First Nation people from forming political organizations and speaking their language in schools. 150,000 children were removed from their homes and placed in government supported boarding schools to assimilate them. On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the schools and the abuse many children received.
The Indian Act has been amended over the years. But it wasn’t until 1983 that the heads of the government sat down with the leaders of the Aboriginal groups. The issues were not a surprise – land claims, natural resources ownership, education and self determination rights. Those concerns continue today as evidenced by the news stories at APTN.
During our viewing, we learned there was an election for a regional chief to the Assembly of First Nations. The candidates talked about the problems of poverty, advancing human rights, and remembering their ancestors. A second story featured members of a tribe in the far north who were blocking the trucks of an oil company until claims of ownership of the natural resources could be determined. A feature advised of the growing number of native teachers in the First Nation schools, a process started in the 1970’s.
I was particularly interested in the discussion of the Sharon McIvor case, a sex discrimination suit that had just been settled the summer before. In 1985, the Indian Act was amended to correct a discrimination against Aboriginal women. Previously, an Aboriginal woman who married a non-status Indian lost her own status. The amendment corrected this problem but did not extend the protection to the woman’s children. An Aboriginal man’s children were protected even if he married a non-status woman – classic sex discrimination. It took ten years but Ms. McIvor won her case and now Aboriginal women’s children’s status are protected regardless of who their mother married.
Reading newspapers and watching local television in foreign countries helps with perspective. I realize the United States in not alone in its complexity. Canada, with ten provinces and three territories, must deal with the same federal and states rights issues we do and blend in past treaties. The most basic question of what nationality are the First Nation people is even a concern. I read that a tribal chief in Canada had recently developed a passport for his aboriginal nation which was accepted by several European countries.
Our English/Spanish debate is multiplied in Canada. At the APTN station, 56% of their broadcasts are in English, 16% in French, and 28% in Aboriginal languages. And the question of what children are taught in school is magnified in Canada as the First Nation people ask that their descendants and fellow Canadians learn of their traditions and history. Amerindians continue to protect their way of life by being politically active and by promoting tourism on their lands and in their crafts and arts. APTN helps keep them and us informed of this important goal.