Mending the broken relationship between the Indigenous community and Canadian journalism
By Mandy Moon and Taesa Hodel
One weekend about 50 years ago, in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, a charity event was held where attendees were expected to show up in costume. On the following Monday, the front page of the Alberni paper ran a photo of a white woman in what local writer Wawmeesh Hamilton calls a “Pocahontas outfit.” She had a pillow under her dress in place of a baby, was holding a wine bottle, and smallpox marks were painted on her face.
Hamilton—now a reporter on urban Indigenous affairs at The Discourse, based in Vancouver—recounts the anger he felt looking at that image as a young Nuu-chah-nulth boy. He says the insult sticks with him to this day—as do repeated instances of dismissive and belittling cruelty, often much more violent, that have affected the greater Indigenous population.
While that front-page photo likely wouldn’t run today, there remains a skewed representation of Indigenous people in our news. The stories told by mainstream media concern those in our court system and on the streets, those in foster homes, or those plagued by substance abuse and mental-health issues. While Indigenous Canadians make up less than five per cent of the country’s population, they account for 28 per cent of all adult admissions to provincial and territorial correctional services, according to a 2018 report from Statistics Canada; suicide rates amongst the Indigenous is twice as high as the non-Indigenous population.
Part of the issue of representation relates to a lack of Indigenous reporters. It’s a problem that the federal government identified in its 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, where it called upon “Canadian Journalism programs and media schools to require education on the history of Aboriginal peoples.” While UBC’s Reporting in Indigenous Communities course, launched in 2012, was the first of its kind in Canada, it still is not mandatory for journalism students, and few other schools have followed suit.
Hamilton hopes that one day Indigenous reporting will be taught as a mandatory course everywhere to help promote tolerance and communication, as well as to fill the gaps in knowledge that currently exist in the industry. As a journalist, says Hamilton, it’s crucial to understand what’s important to the people you serve, and how they are affected by your reporting. That includes the country’s nearly 1.7 million Indigenous Canadians.
Hamilton also believes that encouraging Indigenous journalists in newsrooms and editorial meetings is important in this education process, whether they choose to report on Indigenous issues or not.
According to a June 2018 study released by B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, Indigenous students transition from high-school to post-secondary education 10 per cent less often than non-Indigenous students do. The majority of Indigenous graduates go on to careers in “trades, human and social services, business and management, and engineering and applied science.” While there are more Indigenous post-secondary graduates now than ever before, Hamilton says he still sees a shortage of Indigenous students seeking journalism careers.
Storytelling is an important part of all Indigenous cultures, and Hamilton believes that can translate into a strong journalistic voice. If it weren’t for the historic and enduring distrust between Indigenous people and the media, he says, fostering this growth would be easier: “Something needs to change in that respect, to get Indigenous people who are storytellers and want to be storytellers into journalism schools to learn the craft.”
Hamilton adds that journalism schools need to do a better job at identifying potential candidates, making space for them, and giving them “incentive to be there while they are in that space—and even afterward.”
While storytelling in news coverage is critical, representation of Indigenous culture in all media forms is equally important.
Alan Greyeyes of the Peguis First Nation is a producer of the sākihiwē music festival and a longtime music adviser. He says that there is no shortage of Indigenous musicians of every genre, but their stories aren’t being told by mainstream media.
That’s why he got involved with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network’s (APTN) new study on the impact of Indigenous musicians and the systemic barriers that they face.
With this data, Greyeyes says, they’ll be able to “make those stronger arguments to funding agencies to put additional support behind Indigenous music creators and entrepreneurs.” Greater funding would help Indigenous work be more accessible to both the mainstream and marginalized communities.
Andrea Warner, a music journalist and associate producer with CBC Music, says that Indigenous artists have a different attitude toward issues of money and power, which complicates the coverage.
She points to Indigenous superstar Buffy Sainte-Marie as an example. “There’s this idea that whiteness places you in relation to those things [success measured in money and power], in that you can envision that is something you will get, that you will experience,” says Warner, whose official biography of the singer was published in 2018.
“I think Buffy just always knew that she did not have an approximation to those kinds of power structures.”
While Sainte-Marie may have been one of the first to establish an Indigenous voice in mainstream music, Warner says she sees great things coming from Indigenous hip-hop artists, and relates that to storytelling.
“I feel like, because there already is such a tradition of oral storytelling, if you are in any way a writer or interested in words, and interested in the active community of storytelling, hip-hop is a great place to start,” she says. “It’s a place that really does focus on lyrics first . . . there is so much power in the tradition of powwow and beats.”
As a non-Indigenous reporter herself, Warner is critical of the gatekeeping culture of journalism—and music journalism in particular. To make any kind of progress in decolonizing this industry, she says, white journalists must acknowledge their privilege, how they’ve benefited from it—and that it still exists.
“It’s still a lot of older, powerful white people who are still looking to their insular circles, in terms of who gets interviewed for articles, who gets written about, who gets the benefit of the doubt all the time,” she says, “versus who is punished, who is experiencing racism.”
Warner says that, as a white journalist, she is constantly weighing her own usefulness in certain situations. On Twitter, for example, she takes time to think of what she can add to the conversation, especially when it comes to discussions around race.
More often than not, she adds, the most useful thing she can do is retweet those involved. She doesn’t think of her work as helping people, but as amplifying the voices of others.
“You do things because they’re important, right? Not because you want to be rewarded,” she says. “It’s our responsibility.”
Warner believes the important thing for journalists on any beat to do is to identify an eliminate barriers that could be excluding their Indigenous readers.
For Warner, this can take the shape of watching her word choice, using preferred nouns or traditional names, and analyzing what factors into qualifying “important” or “meaningful” art.
“It’s about doing the work ourselves to critically examine society and culture and figure out how we contribute or how we negate progress,” she adds.
Better media representation is particularly important in communities where there is a higher concentration of Indigenous people. In Saskatchewan—with 10 per cent of its population Indigenous, compared to less than five nationwide—it’s crucial.
When Nelson Bird started working at CTV Saskatchewan in 1998, he says he felt pigeon-holed by his title: Indigenous Reporter.
Bird—a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation—graduated from the University of Regina / First Nations University with a degree in Journalism and Indigenous Studies in 1997. He entered the industry as an intern for CHEK News in Victoria before returning to his native Saskatchewan.
In those early days at CTV, he was often introduced as the “Indigenous” reporter—the only journalist, says Bird, whose title included his racial background and not his beat.
While he was proud to represent his community and culture, Bird felt he was a qualified journalist whose work spoke for itself. When this was brought to his manager’s attention, the problem was quickly acknowledged and rectified. Five years ago, he was promoted to his current position of assignment editor at CTV Regina News.
Bird—who also serves as senior adviser of the weekly CTV series Indigenous Circle—says that over two decades on the job, he’s experienced his share of racism. He has received hate mail from viewers and phone calls full of racial slurs. Many of these have been threats on his life.
He believes that social media, as a platform, has allowed this bigotry to flourish, with immigrants, LGBTQ+ people and other minorities feeling the brunt of this intolerance. “You almost become numb to it,” says Bird.
As far as tolerance within the newsroom itself, Bird says he’s pleased to have worked with journalists who are, for the most part, open-minded and intelligent people who want to learn from other cultures.
Bird says that a driving force behind his own desire to become a journalist was the slanted coverage he saw growing up. He had become accustomed to only seeing Indigenous people portrayed on the news as victims or criminals, with coverage limited to tragedies or rallies.
He became a reporter in his early 20s to bring more impartiality to the coverage of his community. Ultimately, he says, he wants to continue to show Indigenous people that the media can get it right—and coverage does not have to be biased: “The best way to ensure young people, especially Indigenous youth, take an interest in journalism is for me to just keep on doing what I do.”
As for Wawmeesh Hamilton, he believes that, while it’s important to foster the growth of more Indigenous journalists, all reporters—whatever their background—must do a better job of covering Indigenous stories.
“What are they [non-Indigenous journalists] learning about reconciliation or Indigenous people otherwise? If they’re not doing these stories, putting in the time, building these relationships, what are they learning?”
On the Outside Looking In
As a white journalist writing stories about Indigenous people and communities, The Discourse’s Brielle Morgan has struggled with imposter syndrome.
“It was very humbling, and scary at the beginning, and I questioned whether I was doing more good than harm,” she says.
Once, after Morgan accepted an invitation to speak to a room full of Indigenous leaders in Victoria, someone told her that they didn’t think it was her place. “One person said: ‘No offense, but I really feel like Indigenous journalists are the best journalists to come into my community, and I don’t know you. I don’t trust you,’” she recalls.
Many non-Indigenous journalists share the concern that Indigenous stories aren’t theirs to tell.
When faced with criticism that she’s not the right person to tell stories about Indigenous issues, Morgan shifts the language.
“Indigenous issues are not Indigenous people’s issues,” she says. “They’re colonial issues. They’re white people’s problems. As non-Indigenous journalists, we have a responsibility to take ownership of these issues. I like to say instead of ‘Indigenous issues,’ say it’s issues impacting Indigenous people or issues relevant to Indigenous people.”
The Discourse’s Wawmeesh Hamilton has heard non-Indigenous journalists question whether it’s appropriate for them to write about Indigenous people and communities.
“I’ve heard this from time to time: ‘I just don’t feel I have the right to be doing this story. Am I appropriating? Am I taking up space that should be taken by an Indigenous person? Do I have the right to tell this story? Can an Indigenous person only tell this story?’’’ But journalists can’t use these concerns as an excuse not to tell Indigenous stories, Hamilton says, because there aren’t enough Indigenous reporters to take the mantle.
“Until there is parity in the newsroom, it falls to them to do those stories,” he notes. Even if there was parity, he still thinks it’s important for non-Indigenous journalists to tell these stories. Hamilton illustrates the obvious irony of discussing this topic by imagining himself using the same logic to avoid writing certain stories: “I don’t know, boss. That’s a white issue. I’m not white. I can’t do that.”
When Morgan ultimately addressed that group of Indigenous leaders in Victoria, she questioned her right to take up space there. She stated her intentions, and she recognized aloud that the media has caused significant harm to Indigenous communities. After her 30 minutes were up, one person said to her: “This is the first time a journalist has reached out to say we want to build a relationship.”
For Morgan, building such meaningful relationships is her form of reconciliation.