Overcoming mistrust and mis-representation: The challenge for Canadian journalists
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Overcoming mistrust and mis-representation: The challenge for Canadian journalists

Marites N. Sison

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released the findings of its six-year investigation into the history and impacts of the country’s residential school system for Indigenous children, which operated for nearly 165 years. The report included “94 Calls to Action” in order to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Canada. 

Included in the Calls to Action was a recommendation for Canadian journalists to become “well-informed about the history of Aboriginal Peoples and the issues that affect their lives.” It also asked journalism programs and media schools in Canada to require its students to learn about the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous Law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.1

In explaining the need to educate journalists, the TRC referenced the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ (RCAP), which examined a vast range of issues and called for a complete restructuring of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and governments in Canada. Among the RCAP’s conclusions was that racist public discourse towards Indigenous people persists, that Indigenous people are often excluded by the media, and they are portrayed in historical and damaging stereotypes, such as “angry warriors” and “pathetic victims.”2

The TRC noted that “this historical pattern persists,” and that “media coverage of Aboriginal issues remains problematic; social media and online commentary are often inflammatory and racist in nature.” It cited an analysis of print and online media coverage of Aboriginal issues in Ontario conducted by the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). The 2013 study found that Aboriginal-related stories “are barely on the radar of most media outlets,”3 even though, as the RCAP underscored, “They are unique political entities, whose place in Canada is unlike that of any other people… Because of their original occupancy of the country, the treaties that recognized their rights, the constitution that affirms those rights, and their continued cohesion as peoples, they are nations within Canada.”4

The JHR study found that when Aboriginal people “choose to protest or ‘make noise’ the number of stories about them increases.” It also concluded that “as coverage related to the protests and talks between Aboriginal people and government become more frequent, the proportion of stories with a negative tone correspondingly increased.” It noted that the largest share of negative stories were opinion columns and editorials “wherein Aboriginal people were criticized for their protests or direct-action initiatives.” 

Earlier studies conducted about the representation of Aboriginal people in Canadian news media have raised the same flags. In 2011, the University of Manitoba published Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson, which examined how Canadian English-language newspapers have portrayed Aboriginal peoples from 1869 to 2009. 

“What we found looking at newspaper coverage, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is that, even though there were newspapers that had different political perspectives, when it came to the way they talked about racial identity, it was very, very similar – and that created the way settler Canadians think about Indigenous people through this very homogenized and, sadly, problematic lens,”5 said Robertson, Canada Research Chair in North American Indigenous Visual and Material Culture at Carlton University, Ottawa.

New stereotypes

An earlier study conducted in 2005 by University of the Fraser Valley professor Robert Harding found something else: “While many older stereotypes, such as Aboriginal people as warriors, are still present in news discourse, a number of stereotypes are emerging.”6 Harding, a researcher on Indigenous issues for over 20 years, analyzed 90 news items that appeared in three Canadian newspapers (The Vancouver Sun, The Province, and The Globe and Mail) from June 1 to September 30, 2002. He found that “the most prevalent emergent stereotype…is one which casts into doubt the ability of Aboriginal people to successfully manage their own affairs.”

Harding noted that this new stereotype “appears at a critical juncture” in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. More and more Aboriginal people are “reclaiming control over their lives, and in so doing, contesting the subservient nature of their relationship, as embodied by the Indian Act, with non-Aboriginal Canadian society.” Across Canada, First Nations were assuming control over reserve finances, negotiating tripartite treaties between First Nations and provincial and federal governments, and reaping victories against provincial and federal governments with respect to land claims, hunting and fishing rights, and compensation for residential school abuse, he noted. “These issues have significant economic implications for the state, large corporations and other dominant interests in Canadian society.”

The 2013 JHR study echo Harding’s findings, noting that the “heightened coverage” generated by stories around that time about the Attawapiskat First Nation protests and hunger strike and the Idle No More protests, yielded twice as much negative as positive coverage, mostly editorials and opinion columns. “In other words, during periods of conflict and tension, what shapes the tone of media coverage is not necessarily journalists on the ground reporting facts, but senior writers based in urban newsrooms proffering opinion,”7 noted Indigenous journalist Duncan McCue, reporter, and radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), who offered expert analysis on the JHR study. This was nothing new, he wrote, since media coverage of previous flashpoints such as Oka (aka Kanesatake Resistance or the Mohawk Resistance), Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake has shown “similar trends, and suggests these opinions are often rooted in century-old stereotypes rather than reality.” 

McCue acknowledged that Indigenous protests meet the criteria of newsworthiness, and that Aboriginal activists also tailor their mass actions to grab media attention. However, he also asked, “does today’s front-page news of some traffic disruption in the name of Aboriginal land rights actually have its roots in a much older narrative – of violent and ‘uncivilized’ Indians who represent a threat to ‘progress’ in Canada?” 

Stories about Indigenous protests often lack context, added Jorge Barrera, a Caracas-born journalist who has worked with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) and is now with CBC’s Indigenous Unit. “The general public, and even editors and reporters, may have been unaware of the rising (and ongoing) tensions that led to the sudden explosion of protest activity,” he said in the JHR study. “To many, the sudden flash mob round dances and a chief hunger striking in a teepee on an island in the Ottawa River would seem to have materialized out of the blue. Without any reference points, or noticeable narrative arcs, the emergence of the Idle No More movement and protests led to predictable public reactions, which were highlighted in the tone of the media coverage, with most of it tilting to negative tones as the protest and hunger strikes continued.”

Instead of digging deeper into the roots of these protests, “public dialogue becomes mired in debates about whether protests are justified, or if the government has done enough, or not enough,” said Barrera. As a result, “Yesterday’s stand-off is soon forgotten and the next flare-up is covered as if nothing preceded it.” 

Negative media coverage has real-life consequences for Indigenous people and helps diminish public support for their self-governance initiatives, said Harding. “A lack of public support for these processes may make it easier for governments to justify procrastinating in negotiations with Aboriginal people and obstructing the attempts of Aboriginal communities to gain more autonomy over their lives.”

When news media depict Aboriginal protests and calls for self-governance in a negative light, it “serves to protect the status quo and perpetuate the existing social and material inequality between Aboriginal people and other Canadians” concluded Harding.

Years later, the Canadian news media’s coverage of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie again raised similar concerns about the stereotyping of Indigenous people. Fontaine was a 15-year-old girl from Sagkeeng First Nation, who went missing and was found murdered in 2014; Colten Boushie, was a 22-year-old Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, who was shot and killed in 2016 after he and four others drove onto a white farmer’s property.

Mistrust and misrepresentation

What about the dearth in mainstream news outlets of other stories about Indigenous people in general? The JHR study attributes it to the fact that “many journalists have never studied and do not understand Aboriginal people or the system governing Aboriginal people, so they avoid the topic entirely.” News editors and producers who decide the day’s news agenda also tend to avoid “archetypical ‘Aboriginal stories’ because they feel that news consumers are tired of hearing ‘the same old stories’ raising ‘the same old issues, said the study. Another reason could be the lack of easy access to Aboriginal communities, due to travel costs and lack of readily available Aboriginal sources for stories, it added. 

Limited contact with Indigenous voices also stems from mistrust toward mainstream media, according to CBC journalist Jessica Deer, who is Indigenous. “I can understand because there’s been years of misrepresentation in a lot of coverage when it comes to Indigenous people,” she told a 2019 CBC Montreal panel discussion in on how Indigenous stories are told.8

Indigenous storyteller Greg Horn, who spoke in the same forum, said it’s not uncommon for him to get calls from mainstream journalists seeking his opinions on Aboriginal issues, and he has to tell them to dig deeper and find local Indigenous people to interview. “If you’re looking to tell stories, talk to the people affected, don’t talk ‘at’ them,” said Horn, editor of Iorì:wase, a print and multimedia online newspaper based in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory.

Another panellist, Métis filmmaker Michelle Smith, said she wants mainstream media to feature more stories about the vibrancy and resilience of Indigenous communities, not just ones that focus on stereotypes around violence, homelessness, and addictions. 

Results of WACC’s 2020 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) in Canada confirm this observation. While Indigenous persons constituted 6.4% of news stories analysed by the GMMP (a much higher figure compared to Latin America’s 3%), they mostly appeared in stories about politics and government and in stories about social and legal issues. They were absent in stories about the economy, science and health, gender and related issues, arts, media, and sports.9

Panellists acknowledged that non-Indigenous journalists are capable of telling Indigenous stories in respectful and balanced ways, but that they must be knowledgeable about Indigenous issues. Having Indigenous voices and perspectives in the story is also critical, they said. And, ideally, there should be Indigenous journalists in every newsroom, not just in Indigenous led news media like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and the public national broadcaster CBC.

In 1994, only four out of 2,620 or 0.15% reporters, copy editors, photographers and supervisors were Aboriginal, according to a study conducted by the diversity committee of the Canadian Newspaper Association.10 Twenty years later, in 2021, a Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) diversity survey showed that Aboriginal journalists constituted 6% of the news media.11 However, 75% of them are employed either at APTN or CBC. “About nine in 10 [newsrooms] have no Black or Indigenous journalists.”12

The JHR study has urged journalists to also do more in fostering relationships with Indigenous Peoples and actually visiting communities they’re reporting on. McCue has created a ground-breaking online guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. The guide offers “useful ideas and practical methods for finding and developing news stories,” checklists, and a selection of background information, terminology, maps and other useful resources for non-Indigenous and Indigenous journalists.

Other Indigenous journalists are also taking it upon themselves to produce Indigenous content that address gaps in mainstream news media, where conglomeration continues, and ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies.

In December 2021, three veteran women journalists and storytellers produced Auntie Up!, a podcast described as “a celebration of Indigenous women talking about important stuff.” The show, the producers say, aims to features stories without the colonial lens. “We know what is missing, and we don’t need the permission of legacy media gatekeepers,” said Kim Wheeler, a host and producer of the show.13

Reflecting on the JHR study, Cindy Blackstock, Gitxsan activist for child welfare and executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society of Canada, underlined a free press’ responsibility “to report on matters the public needs to know, not just what the public wants to hear.” If the news media is to contribute to healing and reconciliation in the county, it must address the under-representation and mis-representation of Indigenous people in its coverage, she said. “Clearly, treating First Nations, Metis and Inuit Children equitably has to be a basis for any meaningful progress,” said Blackstock.

Journalists, she stressed, “have a historic opportunity to set the bedrock of truth telling from which reconciliation and the full realization of Canadian values can grow. Let’s hope they don’t miss it.” ν

Notes

1. Calls to Action on Reconciliation and The Media, from The Challenge of Reconciliation, pp. 348-353. 

2. The Media, Aboriginal People and Common Sense, by Robert Harding, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXV.

3. Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario, Media Monitoring Report 2010-2013, Journalists for Human Rights.

4. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996.

5. Rewriting journalism: How Canadian media reinforces Indigenous stereotypes, TVO.org, by Shelby Lisk, September 3, 2020.

6. The Media, Aboriginal People and Common Sense, by Robert Harding, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXV.

7. The Media, Aboriginal People and Common Sense, by Robert Harding, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXV.

8. What works and what doesn’t in the way media represent Indigenous people? CBC News Montreal, April 14, 2019.

9. 2020 Global Media Monitoring Project, Canada report, July 2021.

10. Minority Report: Taking a Closer Look at Newsroom Diversity, J-Source, 2012.

11. Canadian Newsroom Diversity Survey, 2021.

12. ‘Historic’ report slams Canadian newsrooms for overwhelming whiteness, Toronto Star, November 25, 2021.

13. Auntie Up! podcast gives Indigenous women a chance to have their say without boundaries, Globe and Mail, December 31, 2021.

 

Marites N. Sison is a freelance multi-media journalist and communications consultant for WACC Global. She has more than three decades of experience in journalism, and has reported on human rights, social justice, immigration, gender equality, politics, foreign affairs and religion.

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