150 years of failing Indigenous communities in Canadian media

9 Mins read

How the narrative of Indigenous peoples in Canadian media needs to change in the wake of #Resistance150


By 2017, Canada’s flaunted title of “Multiculturalism Success Story” should be a tired, played-out cliche.

It’s one that is overwhelmingly perpetuated by mainstream Canadian media, and without adequate coverage on Canada’s injustices against communities of colour, particularly Indigenous communities, is dishonest.

“In order for Canada to have become the wealthy G8 country it is today- treaties upholding Indigenous land rights were broken, Indigenous people were starved onto reservations, and Indigenous children were forced into residential schools,” writes Erica Commanda for Indigenous platform, Muskrat Magazine.

Time and again, this ‘inclusivity’ narrative is at the center of Canada Day celebrations, and it’s just one of many that Indigenous communities are rejecting.

In a video for Daily Vice, Sarain Fox illustrates the lens of cruelty through which the Indigenous stare down each Canada Day celebration:

“Am I suppose to celebrate the legacy of Residential Schools? Am I suppose to celebrate the suicide epidemic in this country, or the thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women?”

Instead, she marks Canada 150 as the beginning of Indigenous reoccupation:

“What I want people to know as we approach Canada 150, is our existence is the resistance, and the reoccupation of Canada is just one way that we are changing the narrative for the next 150 years.”

Resistance 150 is the Indigenous community’s counter narrative to Canada 150.

At the helm of this resurgence, alongside poster campaigns, published critiques and more, is accountability; accountability for 150 years of cultural genocide, racial profiling that marks Indigenous women in Edmonton ten times more likely to be stopped by police than white women, the policing crisis in Thunder Bay—the list is endless.

A big part of shifting the narrative for Indigenous peoples involves changing the way they are portrayed in mainstream Canadian media, as well as actively involved in it.

It’s important however, to first dispel the association between acknowledgement and applied accountability, as well as Canadian media’s role in upholding the latter.

Addressing the Assembly of First Nations at the annual meeting in Gatineau, Quebec, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples”.

Still, little has been done to address the plethora of crises plaguing Indigenous communities.

Recommendations meant to address the trauma and damage endured by Indigenous communities as a result of the the residential school system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes, have not been implemented.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will run through Indigenous-owned land (as per treaty agreements) was approved by the Trudeau government without Indigenous consent and in the wake of voiced disapproval.

Acknowledgement does not equate to accountability. Rather the opposite, it can create a facade of an honest Canada, striving to do all it can under a performative guise of action towards equality.

Canadian media, as a public service, carries an obligation to hold the Trudeau government accountable.

By examining the deep-seated history of Canada’s media coverage of Indigenous peoples and comparing it to the window of coverage during the week of Canada 150, we can see an absence of adequate improvement and thus determine an appropriate means towards accountability.

“What the Canadian Public is Being Told about the more than 1,200 Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and First Nations Issues,” was a report published in April 2016 that examined 30,000 articles on First Nations issues.

Although it showed improvements in the number of stories published on missing and murdered Indigenous women, mainstream Canadian media, in their portrayal of Indigenous peoples, has not improved nearly enough.

20 years prior in 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples examined the representation of Aboriginals in the media.

The study outlined ways in which Aboriginals are stereotyped by the media:

Aboriginal people are portrayed in a historical past reconstructed in present stereotypes: the noble Red Man roaming free in the forest; the bloodthirsty savage attacking the colony or the wagon train; the drunken Indian; the Aboriginal environmentalist; and, most recently, the warrior in para-military dress, wielding a gun…

As with all stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in the images, which assume a dramatic profile and become etched in the popular consciousness.

But stereotypes block out complexity of context and diversity of personality and perspective.

The report concluded, “many Canadians know Aboriginal people only as the Pathetic Victim, the Noble Environmentalist, or the Angry Warrior.”

Dating even further back to 1992 and signifying the extent to which Aboriginals have endured this prolonged and seemingly endless absence of change, Heald writes in ‘In Covering Native Issues: Traditional Reporting Just Won’t Do it’, that Canada’s news media has difficulty accepting the diversity and multifaceted nature of Aboriginal issues:

“[they are] too complex to be dealt with in the single issue context that reporters work in.”

Ten years later in 2002, Crystal Maslin in her Master’s thesis looked at how Saskatchewan newspapers constructed a reoccurring portraying of Aboriginal peoples.

Politically engaged Aboriginals were depicted as ‘troublemakers’, whereas Aboriginals who did not rely on welfare, paid income tax, and had mostly shown signs of assimilating to Canada’s ‘status quo’ were depicted as ‘Good Indians’.

Compare and contrast these past instances of stereotyping with today’s mainstream news, and not much has changed.

Arriving back at the present, we need only reduce our window of examination to the week of Canada 150 to observe how these dated habits remain very much alive in mainstream Canadian media.

Canada Day saw protesters holding a ceremony at the statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax. The protest was meant to acknowledge the suffering of Indigenous peoples.

The instance of suffering the protestors were drawing attention to was a past bounty that Cornwallis, founder of Halifax, issued in 1749 which offered “10 Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken, or killed, to be paid upon producing such savage taken or his scalp.”

Five off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces approached the demonstration carrying the old Red Ensign flag and singing “God Save the Queen”.

“A tense but non-violent confrontation lasted for about 10 minutes, as the men took issue with assertions from organizers that they were interrupting a sacred rite on Mi’kmaq territory,” reports the Globe and Mail.

On Wednesday, July 5th, following the events that took place on July 1st in Halifax, CBC News Network hosted Gavin McInnes, (and not a single Indigenous person) who defended the five males who disrupted the demonstration.

To put that in perspective, Gavin McInnes is the founder of ‘Proud Boys’, a group that believes in anti-racial guilt, pro-gun rights, venerating housewives, and “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.”

It was later discovered that one of the five men who disrupted the ceremony was a member of McInne’s ‘Proud Boys’ group.

During the interview, host Hannah Thibedeau asked McInnes, “Given Cornwallis issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq people, can you see why the Indigenous people were protesting?”

To which McInnes responded, “Can you see why Cornwallis issued a bounty on Mi’kmaqs?”

The interview came just a day after the death of Barbara Kentner, an Indigenous woman who died after a trailer hitch incident which was treated as ‘a horrific act of racism’.

McInnes history of racist public statements coupled with his comments supporting the murder of the Mi’kmaq during Cornwallis’s bounty are fascist in their implied beliefs.

There is absolutely no justification for providing an unopposed platform to such hateful, illegitimate ideologies.

CBC later admitted to having misjudged the appropriate nature of hosting McInnes.

Less than a week prior, the National Post published an article titled, “‘This is over’: Indigenous protesters shut down news conference after objecting to ‘white lady’s’ question” (the article now links to a different article titled, ‘Trudeau calls for understanding after tempers flare during indigenous ‘reoccopuation’ of Parliament Hill’).

There was, however, a crucial Indigenous perspective missing from the headline, resulting in immediate bias established in favour of the white reporter.

The inclusion of ‘white lady’ in quotation marks victimises the white reporter who was instead described by the Indigenous hosts of the press conference as ‘disrespectful’.

That the perspective of the white reporter as the victim in this scenario is that which is believed, embraced, and pushed by mainstream Canadian media is, quite frankly, racist, and an injustice to the Indigenous in Canada.

Worse still, the image included in the National Post’s tweet speaks for itself as a literal portrayal of an Indigenous woman as the ‘angry warrior’.

And finally, buying straight into the ‘pathetic victims’ trope, A CBC Comedy article titled, “First Nations declined invite to Canada 150 event, citing onerous task of washing hair during a Boil Water Advisory”, was re-shared on the platform’s twitter on July 1st, after having been originally published in January 2017.

I have trouble ignoring the thought that this messy and disgraceful week in Canada’s reporting on Indigenous issues leading up to Canada 150 was simply a coincidence.

We need to do better.

Daniel Drache, who co-authored the media analysis on how Canadian newspapers cover indigenous issues, suggests where we can start.

“Cover indigenous issues, people and communities more often, so that stories do not disappear from their pages after a major event is over or crisis has been resolved.

Devote resources to hiring indigenous journalists and developing a lot more expertise in covering this area by having reports cover the beat full-time.

Get better at addressing the systemic nature and root causes of issues facing indigenous people and communities, such as racism, colonialism and the ongoing impact of the Indian residential school system.”

“In order to be truly effective, Indigenous allies must not take up space meant for our own front-line voices” writes Clayton Thomas-Müller in an opinion piece for CBC Indigenous.

He continues by suggesting more ways in which Canadian media can improve: front-line voices, and accountability.

“Settler allies can do effective work when teaching others how to increase understanding toward reconciliation and reparations with Indigenous peoples. But these allies must not take up space meant for our own front-line voices.”

Thomas-Müller uses the example of Gord Downie who, at the final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ontario, last year, patted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the back, stating Trudeau was the man to lead the country to reconciliation on Indigenous issues.

Reacting, he wrote, “I reeled. The photo-op was completely disconnected from the reality of so many First Nations who feel betrayed by Trudeau’s charms.”

Downie, as a local white celebrity, has made a number of reconciliation efforts pertaining to Indigenous residential schools.

But instead of speaking on behalf of Indigenous peoples, particularly in going so far as to label Trudeau ‘the man to lead the country to reconciliation’, stars and big voices must hold themselves accountable by “pushing indigenous voices to the microphone instead of [themselves]”.

Moreover, speakers invited to appear on panels where there is not adequate representation should outright decline to be involved, setting a new and enforced standard in Canadian news media.

A missed opportunity for Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOCs) is a missed educational opportunity for everyone, and accomplishes little to shift oppressive white narratives—quite the opposite, rather.

“Here’s the bottom-line: as journalists, our first obligation is to the truth. We need to convey accurate facts in context. That means, when covering Aboriginal communities, we need to resist the shortcut of stereotypes,” Reporting in Indigenous Communities summarises.

Coupled with affirmative action in the media industries, we can ensure these stereotypes are broken for the long-haul and that the aims of Resistance 150 see an appropriate medium to public consciousness through Canada’s media.

Featured image by James Waters.

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