Tania Koenig-Gauchier and Shirley McLean have spent the past 20 years promulgating necessary but all-too-familiar narratives about Indigenous Canadians: residential schools, the 60s Scoop, the modern-day child welfare system, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. As current affairs producers in Vancouver and Whitehorse, for CTV, CBC, Northern Native Broadcasting and Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), “we told a lot of heart-wrenching stories,” McLean said in a joint Zoom interview last week.
“We’re touched by those stories,” continues McLean, who is of Tlingit and Tagish descent from the Dakl’aweidi Killer Whale clan, and is a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (“in the real Yukon,” she says, laughing). Koenig-Gauchier is of northern Alberta Métis (Cree) heritage. “We have lived experiences with those stories. But we’re not all wrapped up in trauma. We also have beautiful stories to tell.”
Such as the story of Dr. Savannah Howse-Smith, a Métis veterinarian who looks after rural Alberta’s animal population while learning about her Métis bloodline. Or the story of Anthony Johnson and James Makokis, who in 2019 became the first Indigenous, two-spirit couple to compete on – and win – The Amazing Race Canada. Or home renovation stories, survival stories, stories about the paranormal.
So recently, they launched their own B.C.-based production company, Wapanatahk Media, in partnership with Great Pacific Media (which makes the APTN docuseries Queen of the Oil Patch). Wapanatahk (pronounced Wa-PA-na-tuk) is Plains Cree for “morning star,” Koenig-Gauchier says. “The morning star is the first light in the sky. It signals the dawn of a new day. This is what we see right now, a positive new dawn for our communities and our people.” (That first series I referred to, Dr. Savannah: Wild Rose Vet, will go to camera in April. Wapanatahk has signed Johnson and Makokis to a project, but they can’t talk about that one yet.)
I mentioned that Koenig-Gauchier and McLean “recently” founded their company, but they would say “finally.” The friends have been nurturing this dream for two decades, ever since they met in the Native Communications program at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton (now MacEwan University). They would become producers, they promised each other; they’d make television that told Indigenous stories from an Indigenous perspective. (“Nothing about us, without us,” Koenig-Gauchier says.) Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And they’d hire, train and nurture Indigenous talent in all aspects of production, from writers and directors to crews, story editors and business-affairs experts.
After graduation, though, their careers pulled them apart and back together like a Slinky. They worked as production assistants and story producers, on independent fare and for networks. They each started families. But when they found themselves working together again in Vancouver at Great Pacific Media, they knew it was now or never.
“There’s more of a push for gender inclusion and diversity within the industry as a whole now,” Koenig-Gauchier says. “The CRTC has its first First Nations commissioner, Claire Anderson. She’s of the Taku River Tlingit, just south of where Shirley is from.” There have been missteps, such as the recent cancellation of the CBC series Trickster, after a controversy over the heritage of its showrunner, Michelle Latimer. “But things are changing for the better.”
“As a kid, the only Indigenous person I saw on TV was Jesse on The Beachcombers,” McLean says, giggling. That mattered to her; that’s why her goal is mainstream hits, but with an authentic voice. The duo’s children are First Nations. They go to powwows. McLean travels the world with her Tlingit dance troupe, who tell stories and sing songs that are 10,000 years old.
“We’re not on the outside looking in,” Koenig-Gauchier says. “We’re living it every single day, and that’s important.” But they also want to reach “Canadians who haven’t met Indigenous people in their everyday lives,” who only know the kinds of hard-news stories the producers cut their teeth on.
“We want to bring all kinds of Indigenous people to the forefront of Canadian television. Métis, First Nations, Inuit, on reserve, off reserve. People who can tell a good story, a good joke, because for us, that’s currency.”
Of course, they won’t give up on social-justice stories entirely. There are still too many that need to be told, McLean says: “We’re working on a doc series on sex trafficking in Canada. Half of all sex-trafficking victims are of Indigenous heritage, and we want to explore why that matters for all Canadians. We want our leaders to take notice, and we want things to change.”
Many people made space for them to learn their business, the pair take care to mention. They talk over each other to add to the list of names: Lisa Meeches, the Ojibway producer. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, the Kainai writer/director. Tracey Deer, the Mohawk director. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, the Inuk filmmaker. Marie Clements, the Métis playwright. Carol Geddes, the Tlingit director who broke ground with her film Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. Jeff Barnaby, the Mi’kmaq director. Georgina Lightning, the Cree filmmaker. Loretta Todd, the Métis Cree director and activist. Alanis Obomsawin, the Abenaki documentary maker. Brenda Chambers, a fellow MacEwan alum, who lobbied for the creation of APTN.
“And the chiefs who went to Ottawa to negotiate a land-claim agreement for the Yukon in 1973,” McLean adds, “who said, ‘There are three pillars of oppression against Indigenous people: the Canadian government, the RCMP and the media.’”
Now that these two are the media, they’re determined to pay that assistance forward. They know their steady upward rise is an anomaly in their business. They rattle off by heart dismal statistics from a 2019 report prepared by the non-profit Women in View: Of the 1,637 publicly funded film contracts issued in Canada between 2015 and 2017, only 12 were given to Indigenous women; of the 24 television series created in 2017, none had an Indigenous woman on staff.
“I have this desire in my heart,” Koenig-Gauchier sums up. “We all want our little lives on this Earth to matter, to affect another person in a positive way. I can see myself walking into networks and pitching ideas that feature Indigenous characters and narratives. And selling them. And having audiences all over the world loving them. I can see it. I can visualize it. And we want to take all our people along with us.”
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