APTN’s Jean LaRose: Balancing business and social conscience

Jean LaRose, CEO of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, says the hardest part of his job is balancing the expectations of over 600 First Nations communities, hundreds of Métis settlements, and northern Inuit, each with their own language and experiences.

LaRose, who hails from the Abenakis First Nation of Odanak in Quebec, knows he can’t make everyone happy, but he has found a simple guiding principle. And he feels this is what has brought the Winnipeg-based broadcaster loyalty and respect among the diverse communities it represents.

‘If the better good of the broader community is served by what we’re doing, then we need to do it,’ he says. ‘It’s a business philosophy with a social conscience. I have to temper the bottom line with the needs and expectations of the community.’

Case in point, APTN makes history this February with its first-ever Olympic Games broadcast. The network (one of 11 partners in Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium) will air 14 to 16 hours a day of programming in English, French and eight aboriginal languages from the Games in Vancouver.

‘Indigenous broadcasters around the world are looking to APTN and watching what we are doing,’ explains LaRose. ‘It’s history in the making.’

The Olympics are contentious among Aboriginal Peoples – many say the Games shouldn’t be supported because they take place on their stolen land.

‘I don’t dispute the issues that are being raised as they are important to the community,’ says LaRose. But he believes a larger good is served.

‘The only reason I agreed to this is because it has allowed us to create something specific to who we are and portray us in a different way – a right way,’ he explains.

Challenge: There are no aboriginal-language sportscasters in Canada. So APTN is developing Canada’s first aboriginal sports team, to offer play-by-play and color commentary in eight indigenous languages and produce a half-hour show before and after every event it airs.

Many sports terms – like ‘luge’ – have no aboriginal-language equivalents. So APTN’s sportscasters worked with elders to create a new vocabulary in traditional languages.

‘This is the most amazing element of it all – because if language doesn’t evolve it becomes a dead language like Latin,’ explains LaRose. ‘And by hearing these languages in our sportscast we hope it will instill pride in young people to learn the languages instead of turning away from them.’

The Games also offer a great chance to bring new viewers to APTN’s three regional feeds and HD channel.

‘A lot of Canadians don’t know APTN or realize we are a full-fledged Canada-wide network,’ says LaRose. ‘Some of the Olympic events we are broadcasting will be exclusive to APTN, so if people want to see a certain game they will have to watch our network. And the consortium’s promotion will give us exposure we could never do on our own.’

LaRose, 55, has spent most of his career in Ottawa. Communications director for the Assembly of First Nations for eight years, he also spent 16 years with the federal government, doing communications for the Secretary of State, Treasury Board, Health Canada and Foreign Affairs. Before that, LaRose ran a chain of Ottawa pet stores.

He became APTN’s CEO in 2002, two years after its launch, but was integral to the start-up of the network. In 1997, he was on an advisory committee that defined its mandate.

‘When we launched there were many critics within the industry and the media,’ says LaRose. ‘They called APTN a CRTC social engineering experiment that had gone wrong; a guilt tax on Canadians.’

LaRose says the network – which just celebrated its tenth anniversary – has proved naysayers wrong. Since joining APTN, LaRose has moved it from a deficit of over $5.5 million to a surplus. APTN has also moved to a digital high-definition platform and now employs over 130 people.

LaRose is proud that APTN has built strong relationships with other broadcasters to get dramatic series made. Examples include Moccasin Flats (with Showcase), Rabbit Fall (Space) and renegadepress.com (Canwest). Recently, APTN teamed with Canwest on the comedy-drama Cashing In, set in a First Nations casino.

Quality dramas are key to the network’s future, says LaRose. APTN is working with Whitehorse and Inuvik producers to develop a drama featuring First Nations, Inuit and non-aboriginal protagonists working in a Whitehorse hospital.

‘We want to portray aboriginal people in a way that we feel is the best reflection of who we are and show a northern setting that people aren’t used to seeing on TV,’ explains LaRose. ‘We want to create programming that is unique to us, reflective of us, and at the same time is interesting, engaging and stimulating.’

The broadcast industry has faced tough times over the last year, but LaRose says the recession has not impacted the network’s bottom line. In fact, in 2008 APTN’s ad sales increased, as did its subscribers. (APTN is mandatory carriage and gets 25 cents per subscriber from cable and satellite companies.)

‘The big challenge will be how do we keep building on what we started, in an industry that is fracturing right now,’ says LaRose.

He admits his job is all-consuming. The Winter Olympics are mere months away and a huge revamp of APTN’s website is in the works, to add more interactive and streaming capabilities. Looking ahead, in 2012, APTN goes before the CRTC for licence renewal, at the same time as it will be airing the Summer Olympics from London.

‘It’s very hard to detach myself from work,’ says LaRose, though he has one escape: rebuilding a ’68 Volkswagen convertible Bug for his wife.

‘I focus on the parts and figuring out how the hell does this work,’ he says. ‘It frees my mind for a few hours.’

Et Cetera

• Studied journalism at Algonquin College and obtained his B.A. in social communication from the University of Ottawa
• Hobbies include woodworking, reading, gardening and fishing
• Olympic sport he’s most excited about: hockey
• Book on his night table: 1491 by Charles C. Mann. ‘The title refers to the year before first contact with Europe. It’s a huge eye-opener in terms of the size of the North American societies at the time and the range of their culture.’
• Favorite movie: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. ‘I watch it with my granddaughter every Christmas.’