Putting more resources into on-the-ground Indigenous reporting is key to getting the story right
By Missy Johnson
Photos by Liam Hill-Allan
The traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en people stretch across 22,000 square kilometres of central B.C., with the town of Houston near its heart.
Late last year, many Canadians became familiar with the Wet’suwet’en for the very first time when, on Dec. 31, 2019, the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction against hereditary chiefs.
The chiefs had been blocking construction of the company’s 670-kilometre pipeline, which was set to connect natural gas fields near Dawson Creek with LNG Canada’s export terminal in Kitimat, B.C.
One day later, on Jan. 1, 2020, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation served Coastal GasLink with an eviction notice—claiming that the company was trespassing on its unceded territory. By early February, the RCMP had moved in to enforce the injunction, and protests in sympathy with the Wet’suwet’en people rose up across the country.
The Wet’suwet’en conflict exposed a deep rift in how various Canadians—and, indeed, governments—feel about Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous people. Throughout the month-long protests in February, media played a significant role in how that story evolved.
While some reporters dove deep into the cultural and historical context of the conflict, others approached the issue without any firm understanding of the Wet’suwet’en people—ensuring a superficial treatment of a complex and nuanced story.
The lack of on-the-ground reporting in Indigenous communities is, according to many people who write regularly on the topic, a critical problem. So, too, is the media’s obsession with conflict.
“The media has a responsibility that, when we run to where there is an appetite [for a story], when we run to where people want to know what’s going on, that we do it well— that we don’t just cover the surface issue,” says Emilee Gilpin, a Métis reporter who led the recent National Observer’s series, “First Nations Forward.” “A lot of the time, media will go and chase the story that’s already happening without really knowing why it’s the story.”
To tell a story about conflict responsibly, argues Gilpin, it’s important to take the time to get to know the people of that Indigenous community, as well as their traditions. One way to do that, she suggests, is sending reporters to Indigenous communities more often, and to cover good news that’s happening there, too.
That means celebrations and innovations—not just social or economic strife.
“If we’re only showing up when Indigenous people are defending their lands and their lives, and we’re not showing up to ceremonies and cultural events and gatherings of different nations… then it paints a picture that Indigenous people are always protesting,” she says. “And that’s definitely not the case.”
Jesse Winter is a freelance visual journalist whose byline has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Winter, a Langara journalism grad, considers himself lucky to have been able to do a lot of reporting on Indigenous communities: “You have a lot more exposure to both the ability to report on the news and also the consequences of doing it badly.”
He thinks that if a reporter were to be assigned a story about the Wet’suwet’en conflict and told to file within a day, it would be an almost-impossible task. Reporters need time to immerse themselves in an Indigenous community—before the conflict emerges, he argues, and not just afterward, chasing some quotes.
“It’s challenging operating in communities where trust has been broken for very legitimate reasons, over decades,” he says.
As a visual journalist, Winter feels a particular responsibility to shoot photos and video in an ethical manner. “Visual representations of Indigenous communities is often a potentially problematic space,” he says. Photographing someone drumming or in regalia, for instance, can be critical for showing a cultural perspective—but it can also appear tokenistic, he adds.
Beyond how the story is told, a lot of attention is also focused on who is telling the story. Having better representation of Indigenous journalists within newsrooms across Canada is critical, say many observers.
But Stephanie Wood, a reporter for online magazine The Narwhal, says that there also needs to be better representation in the management ranks, too.
“There needs to be more Indigenous editors and people of colour doing the editorial jobs at magazines, newspapers, radio—people who make those final calls and overview all the stories,” says Wood, who is from the Squamish Nation.
For all the problems that have emerged in how Indigenous issues are covered in Canada, many younger reporters hold out hope for the future.
“I definitely see an increased interest in Indigenous reporting,” says Cara McKenna, an Indigenous reporter and editor for the Salish Sea Sentinel.
McKenna was a journalism student at Langara when Idle No More was taking place. Idle No More was, in many ways, the precursor to the Wet’suwet’en protests—a movement, founded in 2012 by four women (three Indigenous, one non-Native ally), in reaction to proposed legislative changes that were seen to erode Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections.
McKenna remembers the protests that took place in 2012, and sees a subsequent shift. After the end of the Wet’suwet’en protests this March—marked by a draft agreement on Wet’suwet’en rights and title, reached March 1, between the B.C. government, federal government and hereditary chiefs—she believes we will see more reporters writing and telling stories about Indigenous communities in different and, she hopes, more responsible ways.
“Publications are suddenly covering these stories in a way they haven’t before,” she says.
Still, to change the systemic problem of reporting that lacks context, a broader societal shift needs to occur. As Emilee Gilpin sees it, that means more comprehensive education for journalists—and all Canadians—on Indigenous issues and cultures.
While at Concordia University in Montreal, Gilpin taught a workshop called Decolonizing Media, with the aim of starting a conversation around the realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. She says that what she was being taught by her instructors wasn’t what she knew first-hand about her Metis culture and community. So she decided to do something about it.
“The media lacks [an understanding about Indigenous issues] because our education system is so lacking when it comes to Indigenous peoples and culture,”
she says. “Every time that we emphasize that Canadian narrative, that colonial narrative, we are ‘othering’ Indigenous narratives.”
Excerpt from Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadians Newspapers. By Mark Cronlund Anderson.
The establishment of treaties and residential schools was not accidental. They were created deliberately and for specific reasons. The language that aided and abetted and in turn reflected these colonial endeavors and thinking oozes from from the pores of Canadian mainstream culture. In other words, the reasoning that engendered the creation of the treaty system and residential schools, was for their duration, also the lingua franca of mainstream newspapers. In general it avers that Aboriginals, when compared to white Canadians, exemplify three essentialized sets of characteristics — depravity, innate inferiority, and a stubborn resistance to progress. These representations cross-pollinate and contain within them a wide variety of elements. Collectively, on the one hand, this imagery has served to informally yet persuasively teach countless Canadians about imagined Native inferiority (that is, the Other in its many guises); and, on the other hand, the portrayals have served to reinforce prevalent mainstream notions about Aboriginal peoples, all of which degrade, denigrate and marginalize. In this way, the press has both reflected naturally and regurgitated spontaneously, and necessarily the culture from which it emerged at the same time as reinforcing and teaching prevailing social norms to youth and newcomers. “Along with notions of common history and traditions and shared systems of cultural representation,” Bhodan Szuchewwycz writes, “a significant element in the discursive construction of nations and national identities involves the articulation of difference and contrast with respect to other nations and national identities.”
The idea that Canadians of Aboriginal ancestry epitomize moral depravity is as old as the press in Canada. The notion finds expression in a variety of ways, including identified sneakiness, poor parenting, thievery, whorishness, dishonesty, laziness, ungodliness, and a tendency for debased afflictions associated with the body (such as sexual debauchery, alcoholism, and capricious violence).
The second perception also dates in the press, to at least as early as Confederation. It asserts that Aboriginals exhibit inherent racial inferiority, though newspapers mostly remained mum on how they understood the flexible term of “race.” Early on, the press critically embraced then-common social Darwinist concepts. Such presumed inadequacy leads, for example, to alleged stupidity, poor decision making (with links to depravity), and childish, irresponsible frequently irrational behavior. It is often conflated with and used to explain espied archetypal savagery, the alleged Aboriginal proclivities for wanton violence, violent crime, viciousness, and a general tendency toward mayhem.
Third, the press throughout Canadian history has cast Aboriginals as mired in an unprogressive and non-evolving past, as if they exist outside of linear time. Behaviour associated with this theme includes excessive stubbornness, childishness, and maladaptive cultural characteristics that make it difficult for Aboriginal culture to progress in the ways understood and appreciated by the mainstream. Additionally, this theme reinforces cultural depravity and racial inferiority in ways that buttress all three colonial essentialisms. For example, note that childishness may be lumped in with alleged innate inferiority because adults (whites) are smarter and more advanced than children (Aboriginals). By the same token, childishness may be associated with racial inferiority insofar as the superior (white adults) stands above the inferior (childish Aboriginals). The point is simply that identifying three prominent varieties of treatment is useful for the purposes of analysis and discussion, yet the three tropes themselves behave as is their wont, following their own internal colonial logic, and frequently overlap. Variations on the three perceptions include popular archetypal packaging such as the moribund Native, the savage, the Indian princess, the stoic or noble Native, the childish Native, the intemperate Native (a.k.a., the drunkard) and so on. The list frequently decussates itself. What the archetypes share in common is that each is constructed by the characteristic three aforementioned essentialisms.