Aboriginal news anchor shares insights
By Trevor Pritchard
Rick Harp, anchorman for Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), paid a visit to St. Thomas More College and the U of S March 15 and 16, to share lessons from his highly visible media position, with an Aboriginal public administration class and a public lecture.
In front of a crowd of about 40 students and faculty for his public lecture at STM, Harp spoke at length about his experiences at APTN, where he has co-anchored the APTN National News and conducted the call-in current affairs program Contact since February 2000.
Modestly beginning with the admission that he wouldn’t “be solving the problems of the world in one hour,” Harp nevertheless explored a number issues concerning the representation of Aboriginal culture in mainstream media.
Originally from Winnipeg, Harp studied political science at Carleton University in Ottawa before joining APTN. He said his background in history and politics made him keenly aware that presenting the context of the story is just as important as giving his audience the facts.
He believes that APTN’s coverage of recent events in Kanesatake, a Mohawk community west of Montreal, reflects this emphasis. On Jan. 11 the home of James Gabriel, Grand Chief of the Kanesatake community, was set on fire by people upset with Gabriel’s dismissal of the local police force.
Harp said while other news media focused on sensational parts of the story – the “made-for-TV” aspects, as he put it – APTN addressed the community’s past relationship with the Quebec government and explored the causes behind such an angry, violent act.
“I don’t know very many communities that would come out in such force,” says Harp. “Where does this all start? How do we put this in context?”
Moreover, appealing to an audience that includes 60 distinct cultures – including Métis and Inuit – isn’t easy, says Harp. Beyond that, APTN tries to provide a substantial selection of Aboriginal language programming, which means that remaining accessible to a wide audience becomes an even more daunting task.
“We have a certain percentage [of our schedule], around 15 per cent, dedicated to Aboriginal language programs. And when there’s over 60 languages, eventually someone gets annoyed,” said Harp.
“We’re trying to both have integrity with our own peoples, [and] to be accessible to a non-Aboriginal audience as well.”
One of the more controversial programs on APTN, the fictional drama Moccasin Flats, inspired a passionate question-and-answer session following Harp’s presentation. Set in Regina, Moccasin Flats takes an unsentimental look at the violence and marginalization faced by urban Aboriginal communities.
While admitting that the program has polarized viewers, some of whom see it as reinforcing negative stereotypes about Aboriginal culture, Harp stands behind the artistic vision of the show’s producers.
“Is the responsibility of the artist to deliver a happy ending?” asks Harp. “Or even a happy beginning or middle? Or is it to shine a light on [those aspects] people don’t want to see?”
“I’m always happy when a show sparks discussion,” he continues. “I think there’s a lot of promise in the show, and hopefully the debate that this show has sparked will, at the end of the day, be responded to constructively.”
APTN has been broadcasting nationwide since September 1999. It is available on basic cable to more than nine million homes across Canada.