She’s the director of community relations at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), and a proud member of Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation.
But there was a time when Vera Houle kept her indigenous identity to herself.
Before graduating in 1991 from Red River College’s Aboriginal Journalism program, a Creative Communications spinoff funded by the province and Winnipeg Core Area Initiative, Houle faced discrimination from employers because of her background. She recalls traveling to Winnipeg for a job interview at a library.
“I thought (the interview) was really good but of course I put down my address as being on the reserve and during my interview I was informed I wouldn’t be competent due to drinking,” says Houle, 51.
Completely new to the city, Houle says she took “drinking” to mean water, pop or tea, inferring that there was some sort of danger of those liquids getting on the library books. That was until she returned to Sandy Bay and her grandfather set her straight.
“When he told me that I was really upset,” Houle says. “When I came back for another interview I did not admit I was Native. I did not say I was on the reserve, and when they asked me my nationality, I didn’t say anything. They said ‘Oh, Portuguese?’ and I’m like ‘yeah.’ I wound up getting a very good job at the Health Sciences Centre in payroll.”
“For many years I didn’t admit who I was. Then when I started working with ACFS (Anishinaabe Child and Family Services) and when this program (Aboriginal Journalism) came around, it was really easy to come forward and say, ‘Yes I am this, but here’s why I had to hide it – because society had labeled me before I had even opened my mouth.’”
While still in the Aboriginal Journalism program, Houle landed a television news job at CKY-TV (now CTV). Happy behind the scenes, Houle initially worked as a shooter/editor, but Vivien Merkeley, CKY’s then-news director, had bigger plans for her.
“Vivien had me working in the newsroom doing research, and the next thing I knew I was writing some copy. She was slowly, unbeknownst to me, pulling me out of the edit area and putting me in the news area,” Houle says. “One day she said, ‘I want you to go do this story’ and I was like, ‘What?’ I went out and did my first report and one thing led to another and all of a sudden I was doing full reports.”
After nearly a decade at CTV, Houle joined APTN as a reporter in April 2001, before landing a job as communications advisor for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in October 2002. In January 2005, Houle returned to APTN as executive producer of APTN National News and was named director of news and current affairs in June 2005. In January 2012 she was appointed director of community relations.
Houle’s road to success seems fairly smooth, but there were some big bumps early on, and not just the discrimination she faced prior to her career. A single mother of four daughters (one of whom has cerebral palsy), Houle was the victim of a house fire in 1990, losing everything in the blaze. Still, she managed to pull through, even when balancing her studies at RRC with her work at CKY.
“When things got really tough 25 years ago, I had my grandparents and I’d go home they’d say, ‘You need to have a sweat and reconnect with the creator, ’” Houle says.
“I had to ask for the strength and the courage and the patience and the wisdom. Never try and carry anything by yourself because you’re never by yourself.”
As director of community relations, Houle works with communities, educational institutes, political leaders and business associates to understand “what our community likes, dislikes and wants of APTN, and becoming a known presence in the community.”
Houle says she brings a wealth of career and life experience to the position, and especially enjoys bringing that experience to schools and youth.
“I’m able to understand what they’re feeling and I’m able to relate to them, ” she says. “And I’m able to share my experiences, coming from where I’ve come from and what I’ve done — just being a hands-on role model.”
Profile by Jared Story (Creative Communications, 2005)