Vancouver’s Wapanatahk Media aims to bring Indigenous stories to the forefront of TV

New TV production company begins filming first series in April

TV producers and Wapanatahk Media founders Shirley Mclean, left, and Tania Koenig-Gauchier | submitted

Tania Koenig-Gauchier chuckles when thinking about how long it’s been since she met long-time friend Shirley Mclean at what is now Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

The post-secondary institution has gone through a few name changes over the past two decades but Koenig-Gauchier distinctly recalls the name of the course in which she met her future business partner: Native Communications.

“We were just two Indigenous young people sitting there going, ‘We want to be producers, we want to be storytellers,’” she recalled about the time spent learning about radio, editing and writing from an Indigenous perspective.

Koenig-Gauchier began landing work as a producer for APTN, CBC and CTV before making her way into programming at APTN, and Mclean’s professional aspirations steered her towards journalism at APTN.

While the pair’s at-times-diverging career paths took them to different parts the country, their respective orbits are drawing tighter once again with the launch of a TV production shingle of their own: Wapanatahk Media Inc.

Wapanatahk is Cree for “morning star.”

“It signifies a new dawn. A new dawn for a new day. And that is sort of our hope for our people,” Koenig-Gauchier said.

“We absolutely want to bring Indigenous characters and narratives to mainstream media … Do we sit around and wait for opportunities to come to us, or do we just take what we know with our experience and go make something happen?”

The new TV production company, launched in partnership with Great Pacific Media, the factual TV division of Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment Group Inc. (TSXV:TBRD), aims to begin shooting its first series in April.

The reality show, Dr. Savannah: Wild Rose Vet, follows a pair of Metis veterinarians as they care for animals in rural Alberta.

“There's only probably a handful of Indigenous veterinarians in the country. And for this show we found not one, but two Metis veterinarians that are both going to be working in the same clinic,” Koenig-Gauchier said.

The show is set to air on APTN and Cottage Life next year and the producers are facilitating a behind-the-scenes training program to help Indigenous individuals get a start in the TV industry.

“We want those emerging talents to have somewhere to go, somewhere to level up their skills,” Koenig-Gauchier said.

More shows are under development and Wapanatahk will be hiring Indigenous staff in both B.C. and Alberta throughout the year.

“There's a lot of Indigenous people that come here to get trained, who want to be storytellers who want to be either on the technical or creative end of this industry. And we're positioned really well to have a very successful company and to create opportunities for the other Indigenous talents that we know that exist in this city,” said Koenig-Gauchier.

And while the West Coast film and TV sector has been humming since reopening in earnest last summer following the pandemic production pause, Koenig-Gauchier said that doesn’t mean there aren’t still challenges getting one’s foot in the door. 

“It's been tough for indigenous people to break into this industry, for sure, but it's getting better. And because we've been through all of this, we definitely want to be part of that solution,” she said.

“The ultimate goal is not just to be that Indigenous company but to be that [production company] that does excellent work.”