Source: Toronto Star
The Dalton Camp Award is given to the winners of an essay competition on the link between democratic values and the media in Canada. This year's winners are Rosalyn Yake and Ethan Georges Rabidoux.
The Norway House Cree nation is one of the largest and most prosperous reserves in Manitoba. Located north of Winnipeg, it sits beside the Eastern channel of the idyllic Nelson River. The reserve boasts a population of about 4,000, and an annual budget of approximately $90 million. Its history is replete with tales of Canada’s fur trade, and many of its cultural traditions still flourish within its borders.
But beneath this cultural prowess is a community some would describe as deeply troubled. The reserve made national headlines in December 2009 after a local couple stole more than $1 million from the council in a fraudulent payroll scheme. This incident, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The reserve has been plagued with election controversy. From a 2007 account of financial band documents destroyed in a fire to vandalism and violence directed at political leaders, Norway House is becoming a poster child for campaigns for increased transparency on Canadian reserves.
The incidents of March 2006 throw even more fuel on this fire. The band’s general elections took place that month, and led to a wave of allegations against the former council. Ron Evans, the previous chief, was accused of breaking band law months earlier when, after resigning, he appointed an acting chief (Fred Muskego) instead of holding an election. Allegations also arose that members of the Muskego-Evans administration even offered voters new homes and payouts from a special needs fund to maintain their stronghold in the March elections. The principal complainant was Muskego’s competitor, Marcel Balfour, who eventually won the election and served as chief until March 2010. He accused the incumbents of stripping him of his salary and councillor duties in an effort to silence his criticisms and lessen his influence in the election. In the end, Balfour succeeded in applications to the Federal Court for a judicial review of the matter. The judge ruled that the Evans administration engaged in usurpation of power, blackmail and influence peddling. Ultimately, the judge noted, “the [Norway House] band council have failed to respect the notion of representative democracy.”
The risk to democracy in the Norway House case doesn’t stem solely from an unethical band council. It stems from the absence of one vital democratic tool: local journalism. The absence of an independent newspaper on this reserve has created a vacuum where corruption and mismanagement can easily lurk. Although a few regional and national news sources covered the election controversy, the reporting was deficient in the public service elements that typify traditional local news. Without this reporting, many aboriginal communities do not have the tools they need to keep politicians accountable to the public, or citizens accountable for their democratic responsibilities. In short, they do not have the tools they need to make democracy work.
In the early 1700s, an Irish philosopher posed the question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, did the tree really make a sound? Almost four centuries later, one can apply this riddle to the media conditions in Norway House: if politicians make promises and the newspaper doesn’t report them, were the promises really made?
This musing, of course, ties in to the hypothesis that the lack of a local newspaper is detracting from the reserve’s quality of governance. The only news outlet that has a chance of getting close to the beat of this community is its local radio station, CJNC 97.9 FM. The station, however, is controlled by the band’s leadership — a practice that has been criticized in the past. “In terms of providing a place where the decisions and the role of the native governments are questioned or put into different perspectives, it won’t be there,” said Miles Morrisseau, a former president of the Native News Network.
Other than the local radio station, the regional newspapers that occasionally cover the reserve are the Winnipeg Free Press and the Thompson Citizen. Both, however, are far removed from Norway House, and seem to cast a spotlight on the reserve only when it comes to crime and sports coverage. In a 10-month period, for example, the Thompson Citizen published only three articles about band council affairs, while coverage of crime and accidents on the reserve generated seven. None mentioned information about the March 2010 band elections. The dearth of local on-reserve news is probably to blame. Without a local newspaper, reporters from larger news agencies have fewer resources to consult when digging for local stories. Police reports are always readily accessible, and seem to serve as a quick fix for news coverage of the reserve.
Without the watchdog role of a strong local newspaper, politicians do not have to contend with the fear that their words will be splashed across the front page of the morning paper. What is also disquieting, however, is that the Norway House public is not benefiting from the public service element of a local paper. Without this, citizens are missing out on the democracy-inspired education that philosopher John Dewey once argued is a function of journalism. “Those in charge of both the government and the press,” Dewey contended, have “a responsibility to figure out how to engage the entire public in the decisions that would affect them all in the long run. If the public was confused, alienated, pessimistic or hostile to government, that was only partly the public’s fault.” The Norway House case reinforces these convictions. It gives impetus to the idea of supporting a form of public journalism that will wake up sleeping democracies.
The deficiency of this vein of journalism is evident in the coverage of the court proceedings. The Winnipeg Free Press, for example, published two related articles and one opinion piece from an outside source over a 30-month period following the elections. The articles, however, failed to connect the case to the values of citizenship by not indicating how band members were implicated in the controversy: did any citizens, for example, accept payouts or new homes in exchange for votes? What negative consequences could have arisen for the community as a result? What about the opinion of those who failed to be swayed by the incumbents’ unethical tactics? Did they have something to say about politicians who adopted these measures, or their counterparts who supported them? On another note, one article indicates that the council was to hold a meeting, but did not say where or when or enlist reasons why the public should attend. Similarly, the article states that “there are differing opinions as to what is going to happen next,” but does not elaborate upon the various perspectives or solutions. This is not in line with the public journalism tenet that articles should reduce issues to clear alternatives and values to facilitate public participation. It does not encourage readers to take part in the solution, or frame them as active subjects with responsibilities to change what needs to be changed. While the information this coverage provides might succeed in holding politicians accountable, it fails to place responsibility in the hands of the citizens.
The other flaw in the Free Press coverage is that it does not speak to citizens in their role as cultivators of democracy. Instead, the coverage seems to cater to a more elite, well-informed readership, perhaps endorsing Walter Lippmann’s idea of journalism as an educational device primarily for community leaders. The use of terms such as “influence peddling,” “vote rigging,” “acrimonious court battle,” and “band’s Election Act,” are undefined in the article, and don’t bridge the public-expert gap the way civic journalism should.
Windspeaker, an aboriginal magazine, excelled in positioning the 2006 controversy as a departure from the values of Canadian democracy. It published two articles that drove home the severity of the transgressions by highlighting quotations from the judge’s ruling: “Such behaviour is deplorable and has no place in democratic institutions, which the [Norway House Band Council] purports to be,” and this “scenario is contrary to the notion of democracy and is in violation of the fiduciary obligation the chief holds toward his band members and the promotion of their interests.” Proponents of public service journalism would argue that this coverage educates its readership about the importance of democratic values, and the role leaders should play in upholding these virtues.
Even with this coverage, however, Windspeaker is not adequately equipped to cover local news on individual reserves. As a national monthly magazine, it simply does not have the resources to give local issues the attention they require. As a result, its coverage is unintentionally reactive as opposed to proactive. This means that the magazine tends to cover political controversies after they have happened. Smaller local events or meetings do not get covered because of competing national stories. Therefore, information that might counter ill practices in governance does not get published. This adds a twist to the adage that “no news is good news.” Contrarily, the lack of local news is bad news for many Canadian reserves; citizens are not getting a consistent flow of proactive, public journalism, and are therefore treated as victims or spectators when cases of corruption or mismanagement arise.
The Norway House case points to the need — and perhaps desire — for a local newspaper. Throughout the 2006 elections, it is interesting to observe that both competing politicians devised their own strategies of communicating with the public. Balfour, for example, published a newsletter in which he criticized the ruling council for its lack of transparency and accountability. Muskego, on the other hand, circulated a pamphlet that labelled Balfour as a “self-promoter” who “failed to conduct his duties as a councillor.” These details give birth to a new hypothesis — the idea that a local newspaper might have averted the entire debacle. Balfour, for example, would have had a venue to voice his grievances. The Evans administration, which stripped Balfour of his salary in hopes of silencing his newsletter criticisms, would have had an alternative way to rebut Balfour’s objections. Any citizens who might have collected handouts from the band office, or free furniture from the Northern store, might have thought twice before supporting political influence peddling. Had a local newspaper existed on the reserve to keep citizens informed and politicians accountable, the Norway House elections of 2006 would not be remembered as a slap in the face to Canadian democracy.
Of course, one could propose myriad solutions. It would be easy to wave a financial wand and campaign for local newspapers on all reserves. But aboriginal newspapers already have a precarious financial history. In 1990, the Mulroney government cancelled funding for nine of the 11 federally-supported aboriginal publications in Canada. While the media climate seems to have rebounded today, with about two national newspapers or magazines and five provincial ones, local or regional newspapers are close to non-existent.
The purpose of this debate, however, is not to unearth an all-encompassing solution. The objective is to put forth a clarion call for this conversation to at least begin. And for that to happen, it must come from within. It must come from within the grassroots movements that are spreading like wildfire in native communities, advocating a new age of accountable governance. As a Rabble columnist has pointed out: “It's worth keeping in mind that the most important journalism institution in Canada, the CBC, was born in the era of the Great Depression. In recounting his successful campaign to establish a national network of publicly owned, yet locally run radio stations (CBC Radio), Graham Spry declared, ‘our greatest ally was undoubtedly anxious, disturbed and alert Canadian public opinion.’ ”
The question is: are aboriginal Canadians on reserves anxious, disturbed or alert enough to governance problems to give a form of local journalism a fighting chance?
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