A Consideration of Alternative, Ethnic, and Aboriginal Media in Canada
Dr. Austin Mardon, Benjamin Turner
Canada has a unique media environment representing numerous different interests and is shaped by the political discourse found in all Western liberal democracies, Canada’s established multiculturalism stemming from aggressive immigration policy, and its legacy of colonialism and oppression of Indigenous populations. These various interests and communities have dramatically shaped the media landscape in Canada to include alternative media which prior to the internet was localized but is finding new reach through digital communications, ethnic media that has evolved to represent the voices of ethnic minority communities with some outlets growing to emulate their more mainstream counterparts, and Aboriginal media that is sharing experiences and knowledge that honours the perspective of Canada’s Indigenous population. All three of these genres in the Canadian context include some but not all of the traditional elements of alternative media, and have undergone incredible transformations in the internet age to find new ways of reaching larger and larger audiences.
The structure mass media in Canada is a unique blend of public and private broadcast organizations. The private segment of the media is owned primarily by a small handful of powerful corporate interests (Shade & Lithgow, 2014). It can be argued that this concentration of ownership limits discourse and prevents certain perspectives and ideas from being allowed to circulate in mainstream media, because it is made up of organizations with a vested interest in promoting stories and voices that work in the best interests of the dominant cultural groups. Kozolanka et al (2012) argue that even the CBC is not immune to limiting discourse and failing to represent non-dominant local communities. Due to this underrepresentation, small media organizations have emerged with the aim of promoting a wide range of perspectives and interests. These groups are the alternative media (Kozolanka et al, 2012), with two important subgroups that can be categorized as ethnic media (Karim, 2012), and Indigenous media (Bredin, 2012). While ethnic and Indigenous media are both often considered forms of alternative media, there are some important distinctions that make them unique subcategories in the alternative media landscape.
Alternative media can be understood to be a media organization representing a minority group or perspective, but it is also far more complicated than that. So how do we classify a media organization as alternative? If simply being a media organization that represents a non-dominant cultural group in Canada were the only criterion, then any national French language organization could be classified as alternative because francophone Canadians are a minority to anglophones. Clearly, French language content on the CBC is not alternative media, so the definition must be deeper. Kozolanka et al (2012) enlist the work of Michael Albert in helping to define alternative media, specifically his focus on providing a lens through which to examine a media organization that includes three elements. While not all alternative media possesses all three elements, that does not necessarily disqualify a media organization from being considered alternative.
The first of these three characteristics is structure. Mainstream media increasingly is owned by large, integrated, privately-owned corporate conglomerates (Shade & Lithgow, 2014). Small, independently owned, locally operated media organizations are very distinct from national or multinational media organizations. Providing a voice to a local community without the standardized editorial practices (Kozolanka et al, 2012) and potential corporate interference is an important element of being classified as alternative media.
The next characteristic identified is participation. Information in large media organizations typically flows one way, with little opportunity for public engagement and participation (Kozolanka et al, 2012). This top-down model creates an environment where mainstream media sets the agenda for public discourse, so media organizations that democratize communication and offer opportunities for public engagement are distinct. Kozolanka et al (2012) quote a work that highlights how alternative media is structured horizontally instead of vertically to enable the maximum amount of public participation; this means the public has the ability to participate in the process of creating and distributing media content without the interference of editors and managers wherever possible.
Finally, alternative media can be defined by the concept of activism (Kozolanka et al, 2012). Some media organizations are started with a stated political goal or perspective they are looking to promote. These can be either progressive or regressive ideas, such as Marxist or anti-abortion groups, but what is similar is that they aim to take a non-dominant political perspective and move the needle of public opinion to force their way into the mainstream discourse. Their desire is to actively promote change and alter the landscape of the established media environment (Kozolanka et al, 2012). Social and political change can be a goal of alternative media, but it is not necessarily essential.
Indigenous media is alternative by virtue of structure, participation, and activism. It is a broad category of alternative media which includes publicly funded organizations and commercially funded groups, all of which have a complicated history. A wave of Indigenous media organizations formed in the 1970’s to serve isolated and northern communities that were not being reached by either the private or public broadcasters (Bredin, 2012). Some Indigenous media was carried by satellite links, creating a complicated scenario where Indigenous perspectives and values that were opposed to resource development by outside interests were being carried by infrastructure that had been constructed to support mining and other economic development projects (Bredin, 2012).
Indigenous media organizations tend to be locally owned and operated, with a high degree of participation and limited editorial interference, but perhaps the most important aspect of Indigenous media is that of activism. Given the colonial legacy of Canada, in combination with neo-colonial policies and practices still in existence, much of what Indigenous media aims to do is impact policy and expand political discourse to include Indigenous voices (Bredin, 2012). Changing the national discourse and providing accessibility to Indigenous perspectives is at the heart of the activist goals of Indigenous media.
The relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous communities proves a complicated one. While the government continues to violate Indigenous rights, it has also provided funding that makes much of Indigenous media possible, including the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (Bredin, 2012), and significant Indigenous created programming on CBC. There is also a significant number of local radio and television outlets that are funded by government grants, or by commercial interests, and the internet also provides a great deal of exposure to Indigenous culture and ideas in Canada. Issues of import to these communities have been gaining public attention even in the mainstream media in recent years, which could be a sign that Indigenous media is working its way into the mainstream of Canadian discourse.
Another subcategory of alternative media is ethnic media, serving the interests of minority and racialized communities across Canada. Karim (2012) opens his paper with the statement that “If participation is considered to be a key criterion of alternative media, ethnic media can be viewed as intrinsically alternative” (pp 165). Participation is key, as highlighted by Kozolanka et al (2012) and discussed earlier in this paper. For minority communities to be represented, their values and culture showcased, and their issues discussed in the mediascape is an essential component of participation. Where Karim (2012) strays is his note that not all ethnic media promotes progressive causes. While this is an important element of much alternative media, it is not a mandatory requirement (Kozolanka et al, 2012). Regressive causes can also be promoted by alternative media, or no causes at all. In the case of ethnic media, some outlets like OMNI TV are structured very much like mainstream media outlets. They are devoted to neither horizontal orientation of content nor activism, so it is understandable for some to question whether ethnic media is truly alternative. The important element that qualifies organizations like OMNI as alternative media is the fact they showcase minority and immigrant culture and values in a thorough and intentional way that simply is not present in mainstream media. Authenticity is key, because the makeup of newsrooms and managers at outlets like CTV or Postmedia are overwhelmingly the dominant cultural groups in Canadian society. Their coverage of immigrant issues may miss the nuance or a genuine voice for those communities. Here we see what Kozolanka et al (2012) would define as a structural departure of major ethnic media from the mainstream outlets in Canada.
Karim (2012) elaborates on the importance of participation with his reference to postmodernist Kalantzis’s concept of civic pluralism. Stemming from the idea that civil discourse in Europe in early liberalism was dominated by property owning upper and middle-class white men, the mediascape was monolithic. But as liberal democracy matured into mass democracy and more people gained franchise, civil discourse became more varied (Karim, 2012). It is an important element of inclusion and community cohesiveness that individual social demographics have exposure to media that is relevant to them. Through this sort of media they can share values and build a sense of belonging, but also pass along ideas and build political power by forming more organized constituencies. With media directed toward specific individual religious and ethnic minority communities, these groups can find that they have a degree of political agency, even if activism is not the primary goal of their media organizations.
Ethnic media differs from Indigenous media because the latter are concerned with the historic and contemporary oppression inflicted upon them in the form of colonialism and neo-colonialism (Bedin, 2012). Indigenous media to promoting their culture and perspective is itself an act of political and social activism. Ethnic media shares a similar interest in promoting minority culture and views, but absent the oppression this advocacy does not have the same broad social or political implications. But this similar interest in promoting minority culture and perspective is participation in the mediascape, as Karim (2012) puts it. These unique markers are why Indigenous and ethnic media are considered to be alternative media outlets, while simultaneously being distinct subgroups of alternative media.
Bredin, M. (2012). Indigenous Media as Alternative Media. In Alternative Media in Canada (pp. 184-204). ProQuest Ebook Central.
C-11 Broadcasting Act, Library of Parliament, Research Branch (1991) (enacted).
C-93 The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, Library of Parliament, Research Branch (1988) (enacted).
Karim, K. (2012). Chapter 8: Are Ethnic Media Alternative? In Kozolanka, K., Mazepa, P., & Skinner, D., (Eds), Alternative Media in Canada (pp. 165-183). ProQuest Ebook Central.
Kozolanka, K., Mazepa, P., & Skinner, D. (Eds.). (2012). Alternative media in canada. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Shade, L. R., & Lithgow, M. (2014). Media Ownership, Public Participation, and Democracy in the Canadian Mediascape. In Mediascapes: New Patterns in Canadian Communication (4th ed., pp. 174-203). Toronto: Nelson.