The Persistence and Creativity of Canadian Aboriginal Newspapers

Joël Demay (University of Ottawa)


More than two years have elapsed since the federal government decided to cancel the Native Communications Program (NCP), the main funding source for Canada's Aboriginal newspapers. The NCP had been started in 1974 to provide support to Native Communication Societies so that they could in turn provide media services (mainly newspapers, some community radio as well) to the Native people of their region. In a radical departure from its long, though wavering, commitment to the development of Native communication, the federal government cancelled its $3.45 million NCP in its 1990 budget. That decision sent waves of shock and anger across Canadian Native communities. Non-Native Canadians have also denounced the shortsightedness of the federal decision.

At the time of the cuts, the imminent death of this country's Native press was predicted. Although two newspapers have indeed stopped publishing as a direct consequence of the cuts (Kainai News died in Alberta and Micmac News went "dormant" in Nova Scotia), the rest of the Aboriginal press still reports and publishes, albeit material somewhat different from the NCP time and in conditions which are far from ideal. A surprising number of editors are looking beyond the financial strain and frailty of today at the growth and possible prosperity of tomorrow.

Nevertheless, the newspapers are all in fragile situations. Often the sheer determination of the men and women putting those papers out is what allows them to survive. To assess the situation, the author talked with many of those dedicated individuals in a telephone survey of Aboriginal newspapers this past summer. This article is based on those interviews. After analyzing why Kanai News and Micmac News finally stopped publishing, a review of the newspapers by region will be presented. Lessons in survival are then drawn from the newspapers' experiences and prospects for the future proposed.

What Happened to Kainai News and Micmac News

The first element which strikes any observer of the Aboriginal press is the precariousness of its financial situation. While talking with the editors across the country, the word "desperate" comes back again and again like a death chant. The metaphor fits particularly well the fate of Nova Scotia's Micmac News. After the cuts, the paper stopped publishing to reorganize its operations. Going aggressively after advertising dollars, Micmac News resumed publishing as a weekly from February to August 1991 but failed to get more advertising. The state of the surrounding economy obviously was not helping. In June 1992, the editor Clifford Paul could no longer see any hope for his paper: "We are in a desperate situation. We are sinking slowly. We are not making money and have been living off the capital we had when the cuts happened....[I]f we do not get some government funding, we will have to shut down by the end of the summer of 1992." Paul was right: the last issue of Micmac News was published August 2, the editorial staff (two persons) was laid off on August 21, and the clerical staff (two persons) on August 28. Will the title be revived? Teresa Moore, chairperson of the Native communications society of Nova Scotia, the parent group which published the paper, insists that they just "moth-balled" Micmac News.

In Standoff, Alberta, Kainai News also tried to make it as a commercial venture after the federal government pulled its support in 1990. In spite of cutting down on the more expensive coverage of national issues and embracing with resolve the commercial approach to publishing, Kainai News died a very quiet death in October 1991. That paper's parent company and publisher, the Indian News Media Society, has not been formally dissolved but since it has not been audited for more than a year and a half, it could very well lose its special status as an association. The assets are still in the newspaper's offices as it seems that the board has not yet decided whether to liquidate. In the fall, five former employees were still trying to be paid.

What triggered the death of the 23-year-old paper? For some, too quick a withdrawal of funding and the terrible impact of the depression in the region have combined their effects and killed the paper. The economically underdeveloped rural area in which Kainai News was located could not support the newspaper through advertising, especially with unemployment figures reaching 85% in some communities in that region.

For others, the board of directors had not planned for the long term. The board was composed of people who did not understand newspapers; who were not communication people and did not have the vision of Kainai News's ultimate financial self-sufficiency. The various problems which the paper had to face were not resolved as they appeared. They were left to escalate. The former editor of the paper, Jackie Red Crow, also suggests that the board had a vision of the newspaper as a dependent, non-critical medium, which emphasized the positive but did not cover the issues. This vision was for a long time a nagging problem at Kainai News where the editorial staff had problems agreeing with that vision. The problems created by this difference of opinion festered for some time at Kainai News. Actually, Red Crow suggests, over the years the paper had to support the more service-oriented, less critical radio-station which was also under the board's responsibility.

Kainai News's employees tried valiantly to save the paper but could not. As willing and enthusiastic as they were, they could not compensate for outdated typesetting equipment and computers. Publishing was more time- consuming and problematic than it should have been. Unpaid advertisements going back to 1987 were left uncollected. When the staff was not paid for two months and there was no hope of improving the situation, morale fell, and the newspaper died.

Most observers agree that the paper seems to be missed very much. It left a void and the people are the losers in this matter. Kainai News had been influential in the progress made by the reserve in education, economic development, and cultural growth over the past two decades. Red Crow also insists that the paper had created a political awareness, a debate which had been beneficial to the reserve's growth. Kainai News had also helped the non-Native press, especially the Calgary Herald, realize that there was interesting news to cover in the Native world.

A Precarious Financial State of Affairs

From region to region, the Aboriginal newspapers struggle against all odds to make ends meet and keep serving the people they were created to serve. Often, the sheer size of the task is discouraging.

In Labrador, even a positive attitude cannot hide the reality of the bank account: "It is still too early to tell if the paper is going to be able to pay its own bills or for that matter turn a profit. The society will do a formal assessment of the paper by the end of 1992 to evaluate whether it is worth the time and the effort we put into it," says Heather Lévesque, the Executive Director of Okalakatiget Society, which publishes Kinatuinamot Ilengajuk.

Here the cuts meant that to keep publishing with advertising and no government support, they would have to change their publication from top to bottom. They had to give up some of their bilingual (Inuktitut and English) mandate to allow for ad space. The paper also had to change its frequency. Thus, a publication which was monthly and did not carry any advertisement became a quarterly magazine partially financed through advertising. Four issues have been printed (Winter 1991, Spring 1992, Summer 1992, and Fall 1992). There is hope in Nain that, little by little, Kinatuinamot Ilengajuk will go back to being totally bilingual.

About 5,000 copies are distributed on the north coast of Labrador, 2,000 copies in the more populated areas of Southern Labrador, and another 200 copies around the country. An agreement with Labrador Airways was reached to carry the magazine for passengers in their planes. This had a positive impact on the quantity of advertisements which the magazine was asked to carry. The evaluation will probably tell if this is a trend in which some trust can be placed. The advertising base is fragile and "advertisers need to be convinced that they should advertise more than once a year . . . ," says Lévesque. She submits that the paper "may be a better paper than before the cuts." In her opinion, depending on advertising may have made the newspaper more "professional" as it now has a responsibility not only to its readers but also to its advertisers.

In Sioux Lookout, Ontario, the editor of Wawatay News is not very hopeful: "Our financial situation is not good. We are barely keeping our heads above water.... Our situation is desperate." Covering the treaty Nine (now Nishnawbe Aski) area of northwestern Ontario, Wawatay News prints 3,000 copies every two weeks for a total readership of roughly 9,000 persons, about the same figure as three years ago. The editor, Lois Mombourquette, worries about the poor advertising situation in northern Ontario and the impact it is having on the sort of coverage the paper is able to give its readers. "The situation is difficult in Sioux Lookout," she says. The competition for shrinking advertising dollars is now coming from two other local papers, both free, The North West Explorer and the very recent The Bulletin run by the local retailers and entirely supported by advertising. This situation forced Wawatay News to become a free publication too in September 1992 to respond to that competition. To make matters worse, Ottawa's advertising dollars are also shrinking. In 1991-92, "the various departments of the federal government have spent $2,500 less than in the previous year in this paper," Mombourquette says.

She regrets the limits which have been placed on her work as a journalist by economics.

The news-related issues facing us today are very serious. We do not have money for travel and therefore can no longer cover the coastal Cree communities which we used to cover. Our Cree coverage has been the most seriously hit by our precarious financial situation. We try to find stringers or correspondents, even to only identify stories, but it is difficult as we do not have a large supply of high school graduates from which to draw. An average of 10% of the children graduate from high school. Even less get to higher education.

In Inuvik, Tusaayaksat faces a unique situation in which the strengths and weaknesses are strangely mixed. The editor, Barry Zellen, reflects--"The paper has changed. It is hard to say if it has become better or not, but it has changed. Since January 1992, the paper has become fully bilingual (English and Inuvialuktun). It publishes less often (every three weeks) but carries bilingual advertising which is a big assistance and possibly the only chance for Tusaayaksat."

In a very difficult economic zone of the country, Tusaayaksat is supposed to make it as a profit-making venture but can the market support the growth of a paper? There is no possible growth in advertising in the area as it is not very populated. In fact, the paper survived these last two years through indirect government involvement. In 1991, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, interested in making sure the Inuvialuit families receive the paper, granted $28,000 to the paper to guarantee its distribution to about 1,200 families. Then, early in 1992, the government of the NWT lent its support to a three-month program which made the paper consider bilingualism as its only chance of survival. There is a translator still on staff (there were three during the special program) and the paper has the advantage of offering translation to advertisers to reach the 1,500 to 1,800 people that do not speak English in the area. Tusaayaksat is searching new outside funds to continue in this direction. Zellen is convinced: "Our best chance to survive is in the area of aboriginal language promotion."

Not only did the cuts make the paper go more deeply into the area of Aboriginal language promotion, but it seems that they also resulted in increased community coverag. The paper now relies more on a whole network of community freelance correspondents as opposed to the reporters of the NCP time. As there is only one reporter left on staff, the news coming directly from the communities represents from one-quarter to one-third of the paper. The editor is cautious and keeps his fingers crossed when asked about the future--

the paper is still alive but just makes ends meet. It does not generate enough revenue to pay for more than the production costs and the salaries. It does not yield enough revenue to update the equipment. We have no hard drives, no laser printer. We work on obsolete clones.... Right now everything works, but if any machine breaks down (like the typesetter or the PMT machine), there is no money to repair or replace it.

Also, the paper may have lost some of the leadership role it could assume before the cuts. With no training, no recruitment possible, it may not be an institution for the community any longer.

At Daanzha' in Whitehorse, Yukon, "the bleak picture and the incredible lack of resources" are striking. The editor laments the lack of resources--"no reliable machinery, no free-lance material, no trips and no long-distance telephone calls allowed because of no money to pay for it all...." The paper publishes on a very irregular schedule. It was able to survive at all because the Council for Yukon Indians, the territorial government, and the federal government have all wanted to inform people of their point of view on the big land claims issue and have used the newspaper as a medium for their advertisements. The 13 first nations of the Yukon had also assisted in coming forward with information and the CYI with some travel money. For sure, the paper did feel the pressure of no funding whatsoever for the first year (1989-90: $151,000; 1990-91: $45,000--a co-operative effort between the territorial and federal governments; 1991-92: $0).

For Eileen Vance-Duchesne, the executive director of Ye Sa To Communications Society, the publisher, it is possible to see a few rays of hope in spite of the bleak picture and the lack of resources. For her, the paper has become more newsy than it had ever been, even breaking some stories that other media picked up. The staff remains dedicated, hopeful and determined. "It is up to the Native community at large and the business community of Whitehorse to decide whether it wants to keep this paper going or not," she concluded. A reassessment of the paper and the whole Ye Sa To Communications Society operation was supposed to take place this fall. A proposal to amalgamate radio, TV, and print media under one structure, Communication Consulting Services (proposed title), and thus save on administrative costs, was going to be presented to the representatives of the 7,000 Native people of the Yukon.

Strong Business Orientation

AMMSA's Windspeaker in Edmonton seems to be one of the most financially promising of the ailing Aboriginal family of newspapers. How did Windspeaker's staff manage the transition from a government-funded free publication to no government support and a profit-making publication? Publisher Bert Crowfoot is adamant that the five-year self-sufficiency plan in which they were engaged at the time of the NCP cancellation saved them. As did the high degree of competence of the staff. Secretary of State's NCP was, however, cancelled two years before that self-sufficiency mutation was over. This meant a hectic two years during which the complete switch had to be implemented in spite of the withdrawal of government funding.

The contingency fund of $250,000 in 1990, which the paper had accumulated over the years, obviously helped them through as well. This fund is now at $109,000. The newspaper has relied on advertising revenue for some time now. The trend had already been established to raise advertising dollars a few years before the cancellation of the NCP (ad revenue--1989: $260,000; 1990: $360,000). Windspeaker has been sold at newsstands since early 1992 and it has 3,000 to 4,000 paying subscribers. The paper runs 7,000 copies twice a month.

Crowfoot is very optimistic about the future of his newspaper. If you ask, he even has plans (dreams?) about Windspeaker becoming the main Western Canadian Native news source. His biggest threat is the high number of other print media in Alberta which are competing for the very same small number of Native community advertising dollars. The paper is presently switching its advertising focus away from stores or small companies toward corporate advertising, thereby trying to position itself away from the competition's reach. An extensive reorganization of Windspeaker's sales side has been done to accommodate this switch.

Lee Zelleck, General Manager, DM Communications Ltd., publisher of The Press (formerly The Press Independent) in Yellowknife, is audibly shaking on the telephone: "It has been tough, very tough, very stressful, in a very competitive market. We made gains last year in a very difficult year but final success is not yet achieved; we cannot rejoice yet." At The Press, the difficult financial situation has meant trying to get other revenue as a print broker, from advertising sales, poster design, photography, etc. In turn, this has meant added stress and a negative impact on the content of the paper. Zelleck elaborates on this vicious circle. "We can't do it all. Other productions in addition to the production of the newspaper has meant overloaded staff and some compromises in the paper content. Eight people here produce here a weekly paper and a yearly $175,000 worth of other products!" Here too, the difficult financial situation translated into a different news content. As there is no money for travel, there is little community news, an essential part of the mandate of Dene-Metis Communications Ltd., the publisher. More coverage of Yellowknife has therefore been printed. "This is a very serious issue as we do not want to become a Yellowknife-only paper," states Zelleck. "The population at large is 50% Native, so the switch would not be as much from Native to Non-Native rather the possibly dangerous switch, from a rural community-orientation to a city-orientation."

Likewise, New Breed and the Saskatchewan Indian in Saskatoon are still going through their transition from being government-supported newspapers to being self-supported, profit-oriented newspapers. Some hard decisions had to be made in 1992 for the sheer survival of the papers. Their common editor at the time, Garry Laplante, ceased publishing for two months to go after every unpaid account through a collection agency. Then publication was resumed, the format was brought down from 30 pages to 16 pages, and both papers were running at 10,000 copies each every month (10 issues per year) this summer. The evolution of advertising is promising as, in 1989-90, both papers were essentially running on the NCP funds and were bringing in less than $10,000 a year. In 1991-92, however, the Saskatchewan Indian brought in close to $100,000, reports Laplante proudly. At the end of the summer, the papers had gone their separate routes again with Laplante editing the Saskatchewan Indian for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and Ray Libel editing New Breed for the Native Communications Society. In fact, this was a return to an alignment which Saskatchewan Aboriginal politics had known for most than two decades at the time of the NCP--Saskatchewan Indian covering Treaty Indian news and New Breed covering Metis and Non-status Indian news. Observers of the Aboriginal press will remember that the Saskatchewan Indian Media Corporation published Saskatchewan Indian and received funding from Secretary of State only during the last three years of the NCP. It had developed during that time an arm's-length relationship with the Indian governments of Saskatchewan while defending treaty rights alongside of them. A careful analysis of the evolution of both newspapers content over time should be made to allow a meaningful appreciation of their evolution during that 1990-92 transition.

Finally, at the western edge of the country, an Indian entrepreneur bought all the assets of the Native Communication Society of BC after it was dissolved on May 12, 1992. NCS of BC used to publish Kahtou. The assets included Kahtou's mailing list. The new Kahtou News '92 published its first edition (vol. 1, no. 1) in June 1992. It is published by K'watamus Publications (1992) Inc. The president of that company, Stan Dixon, is in effect the sole owner of the newspaper. Dixon is a former board member of the NCS of BC and a former Chief of the Sechelt nation, coastal BC.

Kahtou News '92 is monthly for now but planned to become bimonthly by the fall of 1992. This is a straight capitalistic venture (the newsstand price is $2). The paper is still trying to target itself to the Native peoples of BC (and eventually of everywhere else), but will be more focused than the old Kahtou on "bridging the gap between Native and non-Native people," says the editor, Anita Olsen. She says also that there will be an emphasis on "constructive news." The first "From the editor" column states clearly that "In our editorials, we will criticize only when we feel such criticism is required and offer praise and encouragement where it is due." It relies mainly on freelance writers across the province.

Assistance from Aboriginal Communicators and Other Sources

This description of the Aboriginal press in Canada would not be complete and fair if no mention was made of the structures which have been working to help the Aboriginal papers get through this long and difficult transition. Several Aboriginal communication structures stand out as the "good guys" that have tried to help the Aboriginal papers along. This is especially true for the northern communication societies that have continued to receive funding through the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP). That program was created in 1983 to build a broadcasting infrastructure north of the Hamelin line and "enhance and protect Aboriginal languages and cultures." It yielded a world first, a co-operative Aboriginal TV network, TVNC (Television Northern Canada), which started broadcasting across the country in January 1992. The indirect and non-official link that exists between some papers and the NNBAP is so strong that it is tempting to propose a timid survival theory based on the existence of that link. Wawatay News, Tusaayaksat, and Daanzha' would tend to support such a theory while KI and Windspeaker would reject it. Here again, it is best to address the situation on a paper-by-paper basis to be fair in the analysis.

Thus, the editor of Wawatay News (Sioux Lookout, Ontario) states plainly that in some ways "the paper is partially subsidized by Wawatay Native Communications Society," which in turn receives funding through NNBAP. The paper is not paying its share of administrative costs, nor is it paying its translation bills. "It should be paying for one full-time translator, but is not. The Wawatay Communications Corporation has been very supportive," she says. At Wawatay, assistance has also come from the provincial government (two one-year grants from Alcohol and Drug Abuse as well as the Ministry of Health were used to pay for two staff).

Likewise, Tusaayaksat's (Inuvik, NWT) managing editor states plainly that the paper is "helped somewhat by the broadcast side of the Inuvialuit Communications Society (ICS). They help with the administration of the paper, the mortgage." This situation is not going to last forever, however. The communications society is asking the newspaper, with more and more insistence, to pay its own way. "The ICS is desperate for funds in spite of NNBAP and is looking at every possible possible source of additional revenue," comments the editor.

Not all northern papers, however, recognize the assistance from their sister organizations as the main reason for survival. At Kinatuinamot Ilengajuk (Nain, Labrador), although some indirect help has come from the radio-TV side of Okalakatiget Soc., especially translating and administrative costs, the executive director of the society thinks that the help is not an important factor in determining the survival of the paper. "People here make do with very little and have no problem thinking small whereas the South has difficulty doing so," Lévesque says. Likewise, Crowfoot's paper Windspeaker (Edmonton, Alberta) recognizes the links with the radio arm of the society, but is not willing to credit the paper's success to that connection.

Questions and Lessons

The national Aboriginal political organizations have been conspicuously absent over the past two years when newspapers have been struggling for survival. Their absence has been particularly noticeable at a time when there is a great need to get information to the people on national issues. Several Aboriginal communicators have expressed dismay at the double talk they keep hearing from both Native and non-Native officials about information that must be passed on to people (especially about the debate over the constitution) and what that means in "real" day-to-day terms. In an economic context which is more and more difficult and which has direct impact on the news producing and editing capacities of the Aboriginal newspapers, it is indeed difficult to assume that these newspapers are in any condition to cover such difficult issues as the constitutional debate or the debate over self-government. When one cannot even phone long-distance, let alone travel, how can one be covering meetings from Ottawa to Charlottetown or Vancouver?

Editors wonder what happened to the funds given to national Aboriginal organizations for the purpose of communicating information on the constitution. A good summary was given by Lois Mombourquette at Wawatay News.

Out of the large amounts of dollars that went to the four big Native organizations in the country (presumably for communicating the news to their people), none of it has come to Wawatay News. In this critical time, the news on the constitution is not getting to the people of the North. Our lack of money means that we cannot cover adequately the federal issues.

At any rate, newspapers are fighting hard to survive and possibly blossom in the post-NCP era. A fund-raising and profit-making orientation has become the standard for Aboriginal press ventures. The same editors, who not so long ago worried about the government's commitment to next year's funding, now worry about advertising base and competition. The economics of the Aboriginal press of Canada are by necessity turning more toward creative ways of raising funds for their survival. Located in areas which do not have large advertising bases, the Aboriginal newspapers cannot just adopt the economic strategies of the rest of the Canadian newspapers. The attempts at finding funds for publishing will often tackle advertising and other sources of revenue from community bingo to government-sponsored economic development programs. Likewise, a uniform evolution of news content cannot be spotted in the newspapers across the land. The same adaptation which the newspapers showed in the economic realm they show in the editorial sector. Publishing frequency, languages, community news, reporters, and freelance correspondents are elements which will be varying from paper to paper to allow the individual titles to survive as best as they can. Thus the Aboriginal press has shown in the last two years that it was made of very different, unique press organs which had only the sponsoring agency in common until 1990. As a matter of fact, it is a belated compliment paid by the Aboriginal press to the Native Communication Program as the funding program certainly protected regional originalities and characteristics to some extent. The Aboriginal press has also shown how well it knew its public, its news coverage area and its inner resources. Each newspaper has applied inventiveness, ingenuity, and commitment to its specific characteristics and come up with different ways of generating revenues, making ends meet, and in some cases even growing.

The combined experiences of the Maritimes and Alberta show well that the decision to be a commercial venture cannot be improvised. It is planned carefully and expertly, it is supported by the community (at least explained to it and endorsed by it) and it is a commitment if it is to be at all successful. Experience shows also that it takes different sorts of skills to get annual funding from a huge administration and to raise money from advertising and creative fund-raising out of the regional environment. Those skills may not be present among the newspapers' staff and may have to be imported.

Finally, one wonders if a trend may not be spotted in the recent evolution of the Aboriginal press in that it is becoming more of a cultural bridge than it was before the cuts. Forced to rely on advertising revenues for its survival, it is naturally attracted to serve more intensely than ever before the more vibrant economic zones of the regions they serve. Consequently, more contacts between the Aboriginal press and the non-Aboriginal public may be developing through the Aboriginal press. This is happening at a moment when the Aboriginal issues are quickly becoming daily central issues in Canada. The moment may be right for the Aboriginal press survivors to formally recognize intercultural communication as another central features of their mission, in addition to their more traditional and fundamental coverage of Aboriginal life.

List of Aboriginal Newspapers Cited:
By Location, Editor, and Publisher

Dannzha' - Whitehorse (YK) - Ye Sa To Communications Society.

Kahtou News '92 - Vancouver (BC) - Anita Olsen, editor - K'watamus Publications (1992) Inc. (Stan Dixon, president).

Kainai News - Standoff (AB) - Indian News Media.

Kinatuinamot Ilengajuk - Nain (Labrador) - Okalakatiget Society (Heather Lévesque, executive director).

Micmac News - Sydney (NS) - Clifford Paul, editor - Native Communications Society of Nova Scotia (Teresa Moore, chair).

New Breed - Saskatoon (SK) - Ray Libel, editor - Saskatchewan Native Communications Corporation.

Saskatchewan Indian - Saskatoon (SK) - Gary Laplante, editor - Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

The Press - Yellowknife (NWT) - D.M. Communications Ltd. (Lee Zelleck, general manager).

Tusaayaksat - Inuvik (NWT) - Barry Zellen, editor - Inuvialuit Communications Society.

Wawatay News - Sioux Lookout (ON) - Lois Mombourquette, editor - Wawatay Communications Society (Lawrence Martin, executive director).

Windspeaker - Edmonton (AB) - Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (Bert Crowfoot).

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