by Afreina Noor
Thaioronióhte Dan David is probably the humblest person I have ever met. I interviewed him shortly after he was awarded the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF), and I found myself trying to convince him he deserved the award. Dan doesn’t think he is modest; he just feels that in the world of broadcasting, just as a great story may not necessarily get any recognition, a person’s work may not get acknowledged, “you are always knee-deep in work trying to get things done.”
In 1999 Dan was hired to launch the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s (APTN) news service, the world’s first national Indigenous news network. This wasn’t an idea formed over a month or a year. It took three decades of conversations and thought before becoming a reality. When it finally happened, Dan says, “it felt like the stars had aligned. We had no people. We started from scratch—you got a crazy idea to start a national news network, and there was nobody there to call you crazy!” The CRTC gave them a licence. They had some money in the bank and could hire people. “It was really hard work,” Dan recalls. ”We knew if we failed, we would fail for the next couple of generations; they wouldn’t give us another licence. So, we just knuckled down, and it was not just my work; everybody understood this, and everybody worked hard.”
Dan started at CBC Radio and TV, becoming the first national Native Affairs broadcaster. He also worked as a producer at TVOntario and VisionTV. While he was teaching at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism (where he later went on to serve as the chair of diversity), a friend invited him to Toronto to meet a few South African journalists in exile. They were a real mixed bag of people whom he felt he could relate to. After this, the second group of South African journalists visited and asked him to train them at the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). In between jobs at CBC and Ryerson, from 1993-1999, Dan taught at Ryerson during the Canadian winters, then spent his summer breaks teaching in South Africa… where it was winter. People soon started calling him the “man of endless winters.”
Eventually, Dan moved to Johannesburg as the head of television journalism at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. It was while he was in Durban giving a workshop on writing to newspaper editors that it struck him how little had changed in journalism. It had been almost six years since the first post-apartheid election, and the colours of the people at the table and in senior roles had changed, but the journalism was the same.
“There should have been a change in the focus, a change in their target audiences. Instead of serving the needs of the majority Black and Brown populations, or in the parlance “the previously disadvantaged” by apartheid, they continued to cater to the top 10% of society, people with political power and money who could support advertising.
“There should have been a change in the focus instead of [catering to] the top 10% paying advertisers,” according to Dan. “If they had looked at that, they would have been able to broaden their horizon and extend it to people living in the ghettos, and they would have looked at telling stories from their perspective.
It just struck me that after all this time, they hadn’t changed their focus, fundamentally, how they covered the news.”
When he returned to Canada, Dan brought back this experience, among other lessons he had learned. He realized that there had to be a change in the way the conversation about Indigenous peoples took place here in Canada. “You have to question some of these things,” he says. “If you don’t, then nothing ever changes.”
Dan goes on to say that “in the mainstream media, Indigenous peoples were viewed as a tragedy, a problem that had to be solved. There is no solution to a relationship. It has to grow, evolve, and [it has to do] with getting to know who you are.” Dan wanted to change the narrative in Canadian journalism. But how do you do that? The answer was to start a different kind of journalism by changing the lens and perspectives, by telling stories through the eyes of Indigenous peoples.
What set APTN apart was that instead of reproducing what the mainstream media was doing, they looked within. They started by having genuine conversations among themselves—Inuit, Métis, First Nations people from across the country—about things that mattered to them. After a while, they found that the larger Canadian audience was getting interested in what they had to say. The goal was to become a springboard for change in journalism by encouraging those in the mainstream media to follow their lead.
According to Dan, Native stories used to be viewed as one-offs; they would get media attention once a month or so. “But these stories are so much more than that. They are fundamental to the Canadian character. With APTN constantly lighting the fire, journalists came back to the stories and realized that they had to follow them.” The hope was to flip the script—and not just about Indigenous people, but also other marginalized groups—and make people realize that there is a wider world out there. “I think it has benefited Canadian journalism as a whole and broadened the horizon,” says Dan.
After launching APTN news, Dan continued to train journalists in Indonesia and Azerbaijan. He most recently worked with Journalists for Human Rights on a training program in Kenya sponsored by APTN.
When asked if he would change any part of his story if he could go back in time, Dan simply asked, “How do you change magic?”