Toronto Star – Kathy English
‘The status quo is unacceptable.’ Canadian media must listen to Indigenous voices to help build truth and reconciliation
I am not without my own thoughts on the role of media in the critical work of building truth and reconciliation with and for Canada’s Indigenous people.
But, on this vitally important subject, I am learning that what matters is not what I have to say, but how willing I am to listen. To listen, in order to understand, is the first step in doing journalism that does a better job of telling the stories of Indigenous people and indeed, of all of the people of our country.
To that end, I am turning much of this column over to the voices that matter — Indigenous journalists who are standing up and speaking out about journalism’s role in building reconciliation.
“It is always worthwhile to listen,” the Star’s Tanya Talaga said at a recent Canadian Journalism Foundation “J-Talk” on covering Indigenous communities. The event, held in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights and Ryerson School of Journalism, featured a panel of Indigenous journalists who shared their experiences and insights on coverage of Indigenous issues.
“I have been covering Indigenous issues for quite a while and for a long time I couldn’t get that story on the front page,” said Talaga, who believes there is now much more interest in news about Indigenous people — both within the Star’s newsroom and among Canadian audiences.
Talaga, who is of mixed ancestry (her grandmother is Ojibway, a member of Fort William First Nation), was part of the Star’s team that won the National Newspaper Award’s Project of the Year last spring for “Gone,” an investigation into murdered and missing aboriginal women. The considerable resources devoted to that outstanding project underscores Talaga’s view that the Star now has deeper understanding of and more commitment to covering Indigenous issues.
The Star has taken some notable steps to greater understanding on this file. Last winter, we invited JHR to conduct a newsroom training session on covering Indigenous issues in the era of truth and reconciliation. The most important lesson: to fulfill the media’s responsibility in building reconciliation, we must understand the painful and shameful past and listen better to Indigenous people throughout the country. To that end the Star’s editorial board this week welcomed Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who spoke to a group of Star journalists about the importance of “closing the gap” in the quality of life for First Nations people living on and off reserve.
“The media landscape in Canada is finally changing,” says Lenny Carpenter, program manager of the groundbreaking Indigenous Reporters Program for JHR, Canada’s leading media development agency, in its recent report on media coverage of Indigenous issues in Ontario entitled Buried Voices: Changing Tones.
That report showed that while there was little improvement in the amount of media representation of Indigenous people since JHR’s 2013 inaugural study measuring the quantity and tone of media coverage, there was considerable improvement in the tone of coverage, with fewer negative stories.
“In a complete reversal, the three-year-average was 30-per-cent positive in tone, compared to 11-per-cent negative, wrote Carpenter, a member of Attawapiskat First Nation.
“But,” Carpenter continued, “as noted by most of the experts in this report, there is still a lot of work to do.”
Indeed, let’s listen further to those experts who contributed to the JHR report:
“Between 2013-2016, Indigenous coverage showed a small but significant increase, peaking at 0.5 per cent of content in 2016. That statistic remains shamefully low,” wrote Duncan McCue, an Anishinaabe, member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, and host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup.
“Yet again, this data demonstrates that media outlets are failing to increase Indigenous content despite knowing full well that Indigenous underrepresentation in the media is a longstanding problem.”
Connie Walker, lead reporter for CBC Indigenous, tells us that “the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous journalists are integral to newsrooms in pursuit of the truth about life for Indigenous people in Canada.
“In order to combat harmful stereotypes and misconceptions, we need to be accurately depicting Indigenous experiences in the media,” wrote Walker, who is Cree and was raised on the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan.
McCue, who created the online guide Reporting in Indigenous Communities, and has worked with journalism schools across Canada to launch new courses focusing on Indigenous issues, believes the amount of coverage will continue to improve because, “slowly but surely, mainstream media outlets are beginning to get the message – the status quo is unacceptable.”
McCue moderated the recent CJF-JHR session at Ryerson University on covering Indigenous issues that included Talaga, Carpenter, Walker and Karen Pugliese, APTN’s director of News and Current Affairs and a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Pikwakanagan. Summing up the evening, he offered some measure of hope to the more than 200 people who attended, who took time to listen to the voices of those that know:
“It is us, working together in this room who are part of reconciliation in Canada,” McCue said. “This is a moment of reconciliation.”