Darrell Stranger brings Indigenous perspective to the nightly news

Grad noted for having "the heart of a storyteller"

On the evening of Nov. 19, 2018, as Darrell Stranger sat in the network studio in Winnipeg, waiting for the cameras to turn on for his first night filling in as co-host of the national evening news on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, he was sweaty. Very sweaty.

“I was so nervous,” Stranger (Radio and Television – TV ’19) remembers. “I’m a nervous person in general with things I’ve never done. I’m always thinking worst-case scenario. ‘What if I forget something? What if our teleprompter shuts off?’”

On the one hand, perhaps some nerves are to be expected for a then-22-year-old intern who never saw himself as a TV anchor in the first place.

On the other hand, for a media newbie, Stranger had as much drive as he did ability.

Given where he is now, at 26 years old, the nerves might come as a surprise. Stranger is a permanent co-host of APTN’s National News and is establishing himself in the industry by embracing his role telling Indigenous stories and advocating for Indigenous issues.

They put me out there for a reason,” Stranger remembers telling himself as that first show went live. “I can do this.”

A camera-shy athlete and stats nerd

darrell stranger with earl wood for hockey night in Cree on aptn

Stranger grew up in the city of Portage La Prairie, an hour west of Winnipeg. He is a member of the Peguis First Nation, which is the largest First Nations community in Manitoba, with a population of more than 10,000.

Like most of Peguis’s members, Stranger and his family lived off-reserve, and as a result he grew up somewhat sheltered from the systemic issues Indigenous peoples face across Canada.

Instead, Stranger was focused on sports, playing every game he could think of, from hockey to baseball to football to track. His breaking point came one day when, after school, his three-hour football practice made him late to his baseball game, which in turn didn’t leave much time until his hockey practice at the end of the night.

“OK,” Stranger remembers thinking, “maybe this is a little too much.”

At 14, he moved with his family to St. Paul, Alberta, where Stranger completed high school. He kept up with football and hockey, even playing a couple of seasons of junior as a defenseman for the St. Paul Canadiens, but eventually decided that covering the game might be easier than being on the ice himself.

Stranger had already spent years watching Jay and Dan on SportsCentre, consuming endless highlight packs and memorizing player stats for his own amusement. So he looked into broadcasting programs, and found NAIT’s two-year diploma in Radio and Television – with an emphasis on the first part.

“To be honest, I never liked [being in front of] the camera,” Stranger says. “Growing up, I was always the shy kid. I hated being onstage for any kind of school performance. Add in a camera and it’s even worse.”

nait radio and television - tv class of 2019

His sights may have been set on radio, but Stranger quickly fell in love with the television side of his studies and the opportunities offered by visual storytelling, especially when it came to sports. He worked hard to start filling in the gaps of both his knowledge of the industry and how he could fit in as a performer within it.

That work ethic was not lost on his teachers.

“Darrell was always open to feedback and wanted to improve his storytelling,” says Jeanette Dube (Radio and Television – TV ’97), an instructor in the Radio and Television program. Far from working against him, she thinks Stranger’s nerves being in front of the camera may have given him an advantage.

“Sometimes nerves are a good thing,” Dube says. “They can cause us to want to become better. Darrell was a student who came to the office, and in a sincere, authentic way wanted to reflect on the work he did and find areas for improvement.”

Dube is who first told Stranger about the internship at APTN, in 2018, and encouraged him to apply. She’s heartened, but not surprised, by his success since.

“I believe Darrell has the heart of a storyteller,” she says.

‘Thrown into the fire’

darrell stranger as an intern with aptn

Once he arrived at APTN, Stranger was, in his words, “thrown into the fire.”

On any given shift he might be assigned to cover a night-time protest march or attend a contentious conference about who qualifies as Métis, or even, on occasion, fill in as co-host of the nightly news – the first intern, Stranger notes, ever to be given the responsibility.

When the internship came to an end, APTN didn’t have any full-time positions available, so Stranger had to cast around for other work.

He took a job at a TV station in Prince George, B.C., but found it difficult to be so far away from his friends and family. He returned to the Edmonton area, and for a while was a security guard at the River Cree Casino in Enoch, before enrolling at a new post-secondary institution in courses he wasn’t that interested in.

Then, in early 2020, APTN came calling: a full-time position had finally opened. Stranger dropped his classes immediately and flew back east, now eager to get back in front of the camera.

“He’s a bit of a unicorn,” says Holly Moore, executive producer of National News. “He’s a writer, he’s a producer, he’s a storyteller. He has really strong on-camera presence, and an incredible way of connecting with audiences.”

Moore is the one who recruited Stranger for that job and has been his direct supervisor ever since. She says she noticed Stranger’s drive and curiosity right away.

“That kind of initiative is what I look for in our talent pool: people who want to make the news better by bringing their own unique perspective to it,” she says.

As part of his co-anchor duties, Stranger took over “InFocus,” the program’s weekly deep-dive segment into issues of the day.

But he also pitched a brand-new segment that would focus on Indigenous sports and athletes, from Zach Whitecloud (who recently won his first Stanley Cup as a defenceman with the Vegas Golden Knights) to compelling prospects at the community level.

“I’ve always badgered APTN over the years to do more sports stories, and they started calling me ‘the sports guy’ in the office,” Stranger says.

“I think they got sick and tired of me nagging them, so they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you a little sports segment.’”

His pitch included an understanding that sports and recreation are key components of Indigenous life emphasized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and pointed out the value of promoting physical health as a marker of overall well-being.

The resulting segment “Sports with Stranger” debuted in early 2022 and has since become one of the newscast’s most popular elements among viewers.

“He gets a lot of fan mail,” Moore says with a laugh. She says one of those letters even included a necktie as a gift, in the hopes that Stranger might wear it on a future broadcast.

“He’s very, very popular with our audience.”

The role model he never had

Darrell Stranger with Bryan Trottier and John Chabot for a Sports with Stranger segment

During his internship Stranger also received a crash course in why a network like APTN – which was established regionally in 1992 as the first television network by and for North American Indigenous peoples – is so important for Canadian politics and culture.

“Looking back on it,” Stranger says, “I was naïve to some of the problems that Indigenous people face,” from missing and murdered Indigenous women to systemic funding issues on reserves.

“At a place like APTN, they brought those issues to light, whereas other networks didn’t at that time. Everybody has gotten better [in the years since], but APTN has always been the leader.”

As Stranger’s career has progressed, he’s left that naïvete behind. He now tries to place each story he works on within its proper historical context, in the hopes of eventually pushing towards solutions.

He has also begun to embrace his status as a role model. Stranger has started doing public speaking about his story and background, and he volunteers at his local Big Brothers Big Sisters. He understands that he can help inspire the next generation of Indigenous youth, not just in Manitoba but also in Alberta –including at his alma mater.

His position within the media, especially, has some excited about his ability to tell stories in a new way.

darrell stranger on set at aptn news

“If you look at the historical context of what’s happened to Aboriginal people in this country, there has been a mistrust of education, police and health care because of systemic practices that affect Aboriginal people,” says Derek Thunder, manager of the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre, where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students can gather to network, study and socialize.

“The media has been often biased in how they’ve told these stories. Darrell has an opportunity to tell the side that he can see, and that he knows, and that he’s a part of. It’s wonderful to see.”

As a veteran of the news industry, meanwhile, Moore knows just how valuable Stranger’s skills are. Even if he ends up, as she puts it, as “the next Ron MacLean,” anchoring wildly popular sports shows for a major broadcaster, she is proud of all that APTN has done for Stranger – and vice versa.

“In the media landscape, everyone is looking to hire Indigenous talent,” she says. “We were so lucky to have him start with us, and then to make his career here.”

As for Stranger himself, he has come to understand the privilege and the responsibility that comes with appearing on people’s TV screens every night. He never had an Indigenous role model as a kid, but he’s excited to help play that role for the next generation.

“Growing up, it wasn’t on my mind to ask whether people in the media were Indigenous,” Stranger says.

“As I got older, it became more important to me to find those people to look up to – and, eventually, to become one of them.”

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