Where is the next generation of Indigenous journalists coming from? by Paul Adams
Jun 22, 2017
There’s no doubt that the current interest and concern about Indigenous people among the wider public — their history, their culture, their art, and the social and economic challenges they face — has been fuelled in part by the emergence of a generation of Indigenous journalists.
The CBC in particular has played an important role in giving young Indigenous journalists the skills and a platform to tell stories that, in many cases, would otherwise not be told.
People like Wab Kinew (who has now left journalism for provincial politics), Duncan McCue and Connie Walker bring sensitivities to their reporting that others do not possess, and do so with an authority that non-Indigenous reporters can only rarely attain.
Most of us would not understand the effects of the residential school system or the missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as we do without their distinct voices. And the impact of their journalism is not just to raise consciousness among the rest of us. When Indigenous people hear their own stories told, or the stories of people similar to them, it can validate their experience. To a degree, that’s the “truth” part of “truth and reconciliation.”
All this represents at least the beginning of progress. But it does not really address another gap in the media system so far as Indigenous people are concerned. That’s the lack of an effective media presence within most Indigenous communities that can perform the routine civic functions of journalism — providing a sounding board and watchdog service on band councils, for example, or simply informing band members (many of whom live off reserve) of what’s happening back home.
Many Indigenous people live in a news desert.
A remarkable series of articles at Discourse Media, spearheaded by Wawmeesh Hamilton, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth people on Vancouver Island, catalogues the logistical, legal and cultural challenges Indigenous people face in trying to access and share basic information.
In one article, Hamilton tells the story of the Nisga’a legislature in northern B.C., the first such body to be established under a modern treaty, just 14 years ago. Most of its 7,000 citizens live off-reserve, though they may be affected by the legislature’s decisions.
The legislature meets in Gitlaxt’aamiks, a village that is an hour’s drive from Terrace, itself a remote community. Needless to say, the Terrace Standard almost never sends a reporter out to the meetings of the Nisga’a legislature, even though the First Nation presides over a $750 million trust fund arising from the treaty.
The information gap is only partially filled by a handful of micro-bloggers and Facebook pages, but they are maintained by people without any journalistic training or experience.
open quote 761b1bThe intersection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and First Nations’ inherent rights is not at all clear, which means press freedoms live in a legal twilight.
One of these bloggers, Noah Guno, tells Hamilton: “I know those meetings [of the legislature] are important, and that the decisions made affect our people … But I don’t know how to cover them. I wouldn’t know what to write if I went. I need to learn.” (Interestingly enough, Guno subsequently ran for the Nisga’a legislature successfully himself and handed the reins of his blog off to others.)
Hamilton is an experienced former community journalist who trained in his craft at Langara College and UBC. He attended one three-day session of the Nisga’a legislature and generated a list of 35 stories that went unreported — because there was no local media to do so.
Even when there is media interest, journalists covering Indigenous communities may labour under cultural and legal difficulties you won’t run into at City Hall or Queen’s Park.
Some readers may dimly remember that when Justin Trudeau visited the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border in the spring of last year, Treaty 3 police kept reporters out — all reporters, except a crew from VICE Canada with whom community leaders had a prior arrangement.
The intersection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and First Nations’ inherent rights is not at all clear, which means press freedoms live in a legal twilight. Even indigenous journalists — from the aboriginal television network APTN, for example — may be seen as outsiders with no rights of access. Nor is it certain that access-to-information laws apply to the routine business of band councils.
Whether your preference is for indigenous self-government or, as in the Harper years, “accountability”, this lack of transparency is a problem. As the Washington Post’s new slogan goes: Democracy Dies in Darkness.
From the indigenous perspective, press freedoms and the lack of institutionalized journalism may seem like “first world problems” when you’re worried about your tap water. And the suspicion of strangers wandering around their land is historically well-founded.
There are non-Indigenous reporters who have reported deeply and well on Indigenous communities. Here in Ontario, the CBC’s Jody Porter has done amazing work on communities around Thunder Bay. At the Toronto Star, Jayme Poisson (a former student of mine) and David Bruser have helped to re-open a debate at Queen’s Park about the mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows.
But a lot of mainstream journalism on indigenous communities is of the drive-in, drive-out variety. I’ve done my fair share of that myself (including on the issues in Grassy Narrows thirty years ago — which, it’s depressing to say, haven’t changed that much).
Hamilton points out that many Indigenous peoples have their own traditions of communication, storytelling and accountability. He frames the challenge like this: “… [H]ow can Indigenous communities take the best from the western concept of journalism while preventing further cultural harm associated with previous colonial practices?”
In the debate over the current disruption in the mainstream media, there’s a lot of talk about whether it would be wise simply to allow the market to take its course.
This is clearly an area where that is not a solution. It’s no coincidence that it’s the CBC, a public broadcaster, which has done the most among mainstream media outlets to train indigenous journalists and intensify the coverage of Indigenous communities in recent decades.
Governments, foundations, NGOs, indigenous organizations and communities, and journalism schools all have roles to play. And that means more than just training. It means building journalistic infrastructure and platforms, and helping to clarify the murky legal environment in which journalism now struggles to grow in these news deserts.