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Dan David’s award-worthy life in journalism

                                                               COURTESY THAIORONIÓHTE DAN DAVID

It’s with a playful sense of humour and a certain humbleness, that Thaioronióhte Dan David has been named the recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s (CJF) 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kanien’kehá:ka, raised in Kanehsatake, David’s contribution in launching the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s (APTN) news service is among the many accomplishments that has earned him this prestigious title.

When graduating high school, David’s heart was already set on telling stories. Despite his determination to pursue journalism school, his dreams were stalled by a system that sought to put Indigenous people in a box. “I was discouraged by Indian Affairs who said I should become a brick-layer, a carpenter, or an auto mechanic,” explained the distinguished journalist. “That’s what they did; they steered people: women into house-making and men into construction or vocational trades.”

With journalism still in mind, the awardee was determined to further his life experience in more ways than one. David began to do the type of physical laborious work that those sitting behind a desk with a tape-recorder in hand rarely undertake. Digging ditches, riding on a garbage truck and painting houses are just a few of the jobs he tried before eventually enrolling in an intensive journalism course at the University of Western Ontario.

As a student, he was already becoming a force for Canadian media to reckon with. “We wanted to change the way that journalism across the country was being done,” he said about himself and his peers. “We wanted to start a discussion about the quality of journalism in Canada.”

The lifetime career that led to him winning this year’s esteemed CJF award began the day he graduated from the “Program in Journalism for Native Peoples,” and was hired as radio reporter for CBC Yukon.

Among the selection jury who diligently picked this year’s recipient is veteran broadcast journalist, president and current principal consultant of DiversiPro, Hamlin Grange. In a crowd of praiseworthy candidates, the juror expressed how it was David’s commitment to journalism that immediately stood out to him. “Because of his own personal journey and the sacrifice that he’s personally made to do what he’s done, I found it outweighed everything else (other nominees presented),” said Grange.

Beyond the list of criteria considered by the selection committee, the diversity consultant expressed that he looks for the ways in which each nominee affected their surroundings. “It’s about the wider impact of an individual’s work, not just their small circle,” Grange explained. “It’s about how much influence their lifetime of work has had on the society widely.”

Although not directly involved in the nomination, president and executive director of the CJF, Natalie Turvey, expressed how significant David’s win is. “At a time when journalism is under pressure, it has never been more important to celebrate those who have devoted their lives to reflecting the best of journalistic standards and ideals,” said Turvey.

The CJF president emphasized that the prize aims not only to recognize the talent of nominees, but also to serve as inspiration for new generations to reach for the excellence that journalism demands.

According to David, the influence the award seeks to foster in young journalists is, in many respects, akin to the intention of the news service he helped set in motion. “The plan at APTN was not just to create a news network and train journalists to do television stories, but also to act as a training group for people to gain experience,” he explained.

Unlike his own experience when starting out in the field in the 80s, David expressed that his vision had always been to create a news organization with equal opportunities. “Back when I started, I could count the number of Indigenous peoples who were working in the mainstream media right across the country on one hand,” he exclaimed. “We were subjects to be covered and to be pitied almost. We were not to be understood or have our stories explained to the Canadian population.”

As a diversity and inclusion strategist, Grange said that recognizing David for his lifetime work speaks to a need for the Canadian media sector to acknowledge that it has been collectively complicit in maintaining structures that have kept some people silent. “As a Black man and as a journalist who worked for many years in the media, I am very much aware and attuned to the fact that the media in this country have not always been receptive to stories of ‘the others,’” he said.

David’s win represents both his personal achievements in his field, while also fostering an inclusive and hopeful landscape for budding journalists.

Throughout his 40 year contribution to Canada’s journalism industry, David worked a multitude of roles in organizations spread across the country. This eventually led him to become the first chair of Diversity at Toronto’s Ryerson University’s School of Journalism where he also taught radio.

Already an experienced broadcast journalism trainer, David was hand-picked to be part of a team of CBC trainers who helped transform the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The 10-year adventure ended with him taking on the role of head of TV training at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg. It was upon his return that he helped launch APTN.

Over the years that followed, David continued to act as a reporter and journalism trainer both here and abroad. Bringing a wealth of insight and lived experience, David joined the organization of Journalists for Human Rights in January 2021, as a trainer responsible for supporting the capacity-building of local journalists in Kenya.

Needless to say, the CJF award he just earned is far from being the first recognition the accomplished journalist has received.

In the end, “the father of APTN news” still reminds others that this job should never be about the awards; but always about the story.

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