Investigative journalism with an aboriginal twist

Cecil RosnerThe Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) has unveiled its first foray into investigative journalism with the premiere of APTN Investigates on Sept. 18. Cecil Rosner spoke to the program’s executive producer.

It has been more than two years in the making, but the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network unveiled its first foray into investigative journalism with the premiere of APTN Investigates on Sept. 18.

Executive producer Paul Barnsley said the Winnipeg-based program is something the network’s chief executive officer, Jean LaRose, has wanted to do for a long time. Barnsley arrived at the aboriginal network two years ago from Windspeaker, an Edmonton-based newspaper, with the mandate to create an investigative show. He has assembled a team that will create 11 half-hour shows this season.

“There are many stories in the aboriginal community people don’t like to talk about. We’re hoping to shine a light in those places,” he said. The primary focus of the program will be on aboriginal social, political and legal issues, but Barnsley said it won’t necessarily be limited to those areas.

While the program can’t afford to be seen as an advocate or crusader for a point of view, Barnsley said it will still challenge conventional media stereotypes of aboriginal people. At the same time, he said it won’t be afraid to hold aboriginal chiefs accountable in an aggressive way for their actions.

One of the half-hour investigations aims to follow a dollar from Treasury Board as it goes to Indian Affairs, through the system and ultimately to a First Nations citizen. The program will attempt to show how much of that dollar ends up in the citizen’s hands. In the first episode, the show takes a second look at the case in Thunder Bay where an aboriginal boy’s hair was cut involuntarily at his school, and the consequences that followed.

A team of seven works on the show, including host Cheryl McKenzie and a number of interesting newcomers to the world of investigative journalism. One of them is Darrell Doxtdator, a lawyer who has seen the world of First Nations politics from the inside. Doxtdator, a graduate of Osgoode Hall, refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen when he was originally admitted to the bar in Ontario. More recently he acted as a senior political advisor to the elected Six Nations chief.

In creating the program, Barnsley researched investigative reporting methodology and spent some time at W-FIVE examining the work process. He concedes that the task of doing in-depth investigative work is daunting and will improve as the program’s team develops more contacts. But by starting modestly, the program is making a statement that the network is committed to telling stories that might otherwise not be told.

Barnsley says the mainstream media has a limited understanding of the complexity of issues in First Nations affairs. But until now, he says there hasn’t been a significant amount of hard-hitting investigation into many of those issues. He promises the program will not respect any sacred cows. One of the stories it will tackle, for instance, is the perception of widespread corruption at certain levels of First Nations communities. It will also routinely hold government and other powerful institutions accountable for their questionable practices with respect to aboriginal people.

“We have the opportunity to perform a really important function here,” he says.

APTN Investigates begins Sept. 18 at 6:30 pm ET and runs every second Friday.