Aboriginal People in the News

Political and constitutional issues, forest fires, poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction appear to be the only topics relating to Aboriginal communities that are reported in the news. Coverage of cultural activities may be found now and again in local media, but you have to pay close attention to find this.

Even rarer is when Aboriginal people are positioned in mainstream media as experts or commentators on major issues of public interest. An exception to this was an initiative in 2010 when the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir published exchanges of letters and opinions between Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and Manon Barbeau, founder of Wapikoni Mobile. In this correspondence, the two authors engaged in a comparative analysis of the issues and challenges they face to establish a solid, sustainable reconciliation process between Aboriginals and the Quebec population.

Although this series of exchanges made it possible for Ghislain Picard to emphasize the Aboriginal point of view, she was motivated by a tragedy—a fire that ravaged the territory adjacent to the Wemotaci reserve (Haute-Mauricie, Quebec) and forced the evacuation of 1,300 residents. In other words, this debate became ‘newsworthy’ because of a larger sensational news event.

The fundamental nature of news and news reporting depends on bad news to garner ratings, which means that tragedies, conflicts and crises get reported and success stories rarely do. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why a non-Native audience might come to the conclusion that Aboriginal people are a troubled, plagued and contentious people. Rudy Platiel, who spent 27 years covering the Aboriginal beat for the Globe and Mail, notes that, “There are an awful lot of good things happening that are not going to get reported in the mainstream press unless somebody pushes to get them there.”

There are a number of reasons for poor reporting on Aboriginal issues. Journalists have tight deadlines and are rarely given adequate time to thoroughly investigate issues; the gatekeepers of newsrooms and newspapers are seldom well-versed in Aboriginal affairs; and there is a dearth of experienced Aboriginal journalists. Lack of representation amongst journalists is particularly troubling: a 1994 study by the Diversity Committee of the Canadian Newspaper Association, found that of the 41 mainstream papers surveyed (employing 2,620 reporters, copy editors, photographers and supervisors) only four people were Aboriginal. A Laval University study of journalists across all media conducted seven years later, found only 1.3 percent of news personnel classifying themselves as ‘Aboriginal’.

To compound this, there is often a lack of interest among non-Aboriginal journalists covering Aboriginal issues: Paul Barnsley, executive producer of investigative news for APTN, often tells a story about a fist fight that once broke out at a Southern Ontario newsroom: the reporter who had covered the Six Nations Council was leaving and whoever lost the fight would inherit his beat. Barnsley, who had a long career in mainstream journalism before joining APTN, concludes that “the mainstream media doesn’t really spend a lot of time on aboriginal issues in-depth and doesn’t necessarily understand them that well.”

All of these factors contribute to the perpetuation of incomplete and, in some cases, distorted information. Over the years, for example, much coverage has been given to the “tax-free” status of Canadian Aboriginals—leaving many Canadians to believe that all Native people share a lucrative tax-exempt status. What is less reported is the fact that only those working on reserves are eligible, and the unemployment rate in these communities is high since opportunities for work are quite limited.

A 2000 study by York University professors Frances Henry and Carol Tator documented journalistic bias against Aboriginals in coverage of the Jack Ramsay case. A former RCMP officer and Reform Party MP, Ramsay was accused and convicted of the attempted sexual assault in 1969 of a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl. Henry and Tator’s research revealed that media articles focused overwhelmingly on the girl’s alcoholic and abusive parents, her impoverished childhood, and her own bouts with alcohol and drugs. By contrast, facts reported about Ramsay were more sympathetic, with articles focusing on his career, his service to the community, and his supportive family. Henry and Tator concluded that such biased coverage served to enlist support for Ramsay and minimize the charges against him.

More recently in Quebec, Masters’ student Arianne Loranger-Saindon investigated representations of the Innu in the newspapers and media of Quebec’s North Shore. Against a backdrop of political tension stemming from territorial claims, the author shows how local media struggled to overcome the negative prejudices and misinformation they had inherited from their predecessors.

One of the most notorious examples of journalistic bias in reporting on Native issues remains the Oka Crisis. In the summer of 1990, Mohawks in the town of Oka formed a barricade to protest the expansion of a golf course onto Native lands and burial grounds. Over a period of 78 days, mainstream press coverage was dominated by images of fierce Native warriors, with stories focusing on the threat of present and future violence from angry, lawless young men. The media constructed what Aboriginal scholar Gail Guthrie Valaskakis called “exaggerated monolithic representations of Aboriginal activists” that mobilized 4,000 soldiers and police. At the end of the stalemate, Valaskakis writes, when “the “warriors” emerged from the blockaded building, it was seen that 27 were Aboriginal men, 16 were Aboriginal women, 6 were children, 1 was a non-White teenager and 10 were journalists—”all,” says Valaskakis, “yoked together under one dominant image—the Mohawk Warrior.”

The Oka standoff highlights another problem relating to reporting of Native issues. Non-Native journalists are often put in an untenable position: if they go into an Aboriginal story “cold,” they may encounter resistance and/or get the story wrong; but if they do their preliminary research and work to gain community trust, they may be accused of being “biased” or “too close” to the story. Likewise, Aboriginal journalists may be limited professionally to covering “Native beats” and then be criticized for their “pro-Native” bias. Nor do Aboriginal communities themselves always cooperate in telling their story. “We can’t use the quick-hit approach,” says CBC journalist Loreen Pindera. “It takes an awful lot more time to re-establish trust with a community after they’ve been so frequently misrepresented by the media.” These problems were at the heart of an October 2010 conference in Montreal that explored relationships between media and Aboriginals. What does the journalist research when building a report? How is information collected? What legal and moral obligations does the journalist have? How can we ensure complete and truthful information? How can we take into account both sides of the coin? How do we arrive at a truthful account?

With various media now concentrated in the hands of an increasingly small number of large communications companies, news from TV, radio, newspapers and even the Internet risks becoming more and more homogenized. However, in Canada, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network offers the public the chance to learn about different viewpoints and sources of information on a given topic. In 2011, APTN’s investigative journalism department – represented by the series APTN National News and APTN Investigates – was brought into the mainstream spotlight when it broke a national story about improper lobbying by a former staffer at the Prime Minister’s Office. Paul Barnsley hopes that stories like this will draw more mainstream attention to APTN and, subsequently, to Aboriginal issues: “There are incredibly important stories out there that aren’t being told right now, and now we’re being given the opportunity to do that.”

Despite the challenges, there is increasing awareness of the inequities in how Aboriginals – and other minority groups – are being depicted in news media. And despite the dearth of Native journalists, it is important to acknowledge the pioneering Aboriginal journalists who have been part of the Canadian media landscape and have worked hard to reverse this trend:

Myra Cree (Mohawk)

A pioneer radio and TV journalist, and the first woman to host a newscast on Radio-Canada television, Myra has won numerous awards, including the Judith Jasmin Prize for radio, the Francophone Public Radio’s Paul Gilson international Grand Prize, and the Order of Quebec. She has devoted her life to preserving the Mohawk language and culture.

Everett Soop (Blood Nation)

He liked that people called him “the pit bull of Aboriginal journalism”, but most will remember Everett for his extraordinary talent as a committed writer and caricaturist. Exceptionally outspoken, he fought against all forms of injustice. A gifted speaker, he was also known to be a classical music fan. The Galt Museum in Alberta possesses a collection of his work.

Bernelda Wheeler (Cree/Assiniboine/Saulteaux)

One of the first Aboriginal journalists in Canada, this media pioneer worked as a producer and investigative journalist for CBC Radio’s Our Native Land in Manitoba. Her efforts to ensure coverage of Aboriginal issues, at a time when few journalists were concerned about them, won her numerous honours from ACTRA and the Aboriginal community, as well as the Order of Canada. She has written several critically-acclaimed children’s books.

Emma Saganash (Cree Nation)

Now a manager, Emma distinguished herself as a radio host for CBC North and the Maamuitaau program. She has devoted 30 years of her life to promoting the Cree language and culture in Quebec, winning numerous awards, including the Grand Prix Ayllu on Aboriginal Presence and a Gabriel, as well as awards from the Canadian Nurses Association and the Columbus International Film Festival.

Joan Beatty (Cree Nation)

A media pioneer, Joan co-hosted the Keweetin Kountry radio show, in Cree and in English, before becoming an award-winning television journalist for the CBC in Regina and the Northwest Territories. She made headlines when she became the first First Nations person elected to the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan.

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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