Indigenous Peoples in Canadian Cities Want Their Own Radio Stations
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Indigenous Peoples in Canadian Cities Want Their Own Radio Stations

Radio is a technology that connects people to their culture.

Radio, as a technology, is dull—sending a voice recording to a speaker many kilometres away isn't as mind-blowing today as it once was. It's easy to forget how radio was once held up as being a sort of grand connector, a way to spread and create "culture" across a gigantic land without a whole lot of people to fill it. It's why Canada's national public broadcaster, the CBC, exists. It's also why a number of Indigenous media organizations are vying for radio licenses to broadcast news and entertainment in their ancestral languages in major urban centres like Toronto and Calgary. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is in the midst of holding a series of consultations in Gatineau, Quebec that will decide which organizations receive licenses.

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Having FM radio stations in major cities providing Indigenous perspectives in their native language, and serving youth through internship programs, would be huge. According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs data from 2011, more than 50 percent of Canada's Indigenous population lives in cities. But as Indigenous writers have noted, Toronto, Canada's most populous city, has precious few imprints of their culture in its streets.

"This is a reversing of the reservation policy, which was to hide all of us on a reservation back in the bush somewhere," said John Gagnon, CEO of Wawatay News, which applied for licenses in Toronto and Ottawa, in an interview. "It's also a reversal of the residential school policy, which was used to remove our language and our culture."

Read More: Bandwidth: How First Nations Kids Built Their Own Internet Infrastructure

The six applicants, which include small organizations and the larger APTN, are vying for a small number of highly-prized FM frequencies. These frequencies were left open after the CRTC shuttered the once-massive Aboriginal Voices Radio, a nonprofit network, essentially abandoned some of its stations. At the time, the organization argued that the CRTC had not done enough to support it.

The competitive application process is causing division instead of building solidarity between Indigenous organizations, Gagnon said. "The process is very adversarial, and it pits First Nations agencies against each other instead of creating unity."

Adding insult to this injury is that the CRTC panel reportedly has no Indigenous members, which chair Jean-Pierre Blais said he "profoundly regrets."

Still, it's potentially exciting news for anybody who has missed Indigenous voices on the radio in major Canadian cities, and it's clear from the submissions that the interested organizations are up to the challenge of providing incisive, relevant content. Even more, they're coming to it with a clear-eyed sense of purpose for their community.

And really, that's what radio was always for.

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