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Holding Media to a Higher Standard When It Comes to Telling Indigenous Stories

Holding Media to a Higher Standard When It Comes to Telling Indigenous Stories

Written by
Jolene Banning
January 15th, 2019

CBC Radio One columnist Jolene Banning believes that media and journalists need to be held to a higher standard when it comes to including Indigenous narratives in the stories told.

Holding Media to a Higher Standard When It Comes to Telling Indigenous Stories

Photo: Mark Bossingham, CC

When it comes to Indigenous stories in the media, an overwhelming number of them focus on negative issues: addiction and suicide, poverty, homelessness. These stories portray us as less than human and at fault for our demise. There are Indians and they have problems—that’s the narrative shared. And when positive stories are told, like the achievements and activism of Michif artist Christi Belcourt or award-winning author Tanya Talaga, they typically only highlight the successful assimilation stories that align with white values and culture.

Canada is Indigenous; we all live on Indigenous land. And our contributions need to be acknowledged; our stories deserve to be told.

One way for this to happen is for journalists to know our nation’s history and make the effort to weave it into the stories they’re reporting on. Major media, especially when funded by the Canadian government, should be held to a higher standard.

Most times when I read a news article or hear a broadcast related to Indigenous issues that ignore our contributions, I ignore that report or reporter too. I make a hard and fast decision about who I’ll pay attention to in order to protect my spirit and sanity. After years of colonialism, with our culture, land, and language taken away, I would rather spend my energy learning about my people and culture. I don’t have time for the stories that ignore us or erase us all together.

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A couple years ago I read a story on the CBC about a new maple syrup company about to enter the market in Thunder Bay. The owner of the company, Sean Murray, was quoted as saying “Wow, this is pretty rare for around here ... I wonder if these are the same maples that people in Quebec and St. Joseph’s Island make maple syrup out of,” and that Maple trees are “virtually unheard of” in the area.

I was angered by this. I wondered why the reporter hadn’t done their homework and acknowledged the Anishinaabek of the territory on which these maple trees reside: Anishinaabek of northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario have been making maple syrup from time immemorial.

Dr. Damien Lee of Fort William First Nation has found records of maple syrup harvesting at Fort William going back to at least 1827. And considering how mature a tree has to be before it can be tapped, it’s clear these maples had been around long before then. “Colonialism operates by forgetting the past, especially Indigenous people,” says Lee, who has fond memories of tapping maple trees on Mount McKay with his family as a boy. It’s as if Indigenous peoples “don’t exist or have knowledge. So the narrative becomes about whiteness, something new that they [non-Indigenous people] just discovered.”

There are Indigenous people across Turtle Island who are experts in sugaring, but also in language, ceremony, art, health, and science. We are making our voices loud, hoping to disrupt the unequal balance of power. The media should be paying attention.

Major media, especially when funded by the Canadian government, should be held to a higher standard.

This summer, I was listening to an episode of CBC’s Out in the Open about modern families, which focused on a “new twist” to the family model: moving back to the ’burbs, back home near mom and dad, living within a couple blocks of each other, having lots of support nearby. The reporter, Christine Birak, spoke about having a family to fall back on to share child caregiving with, about family suppers in the backyard, about the kids playing and growing up together. She spoke about it as going back to the idea of it taking a village to raise a child—the famous African proverb, the title of former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book.

Anishinaabek traditional ways of caretaking and parenting also include the village. I remember being a young child watching my grandpa and uncle go out to the bush, hauling out trees to build my uncle's first house. While this was happening, I had my own set of chores. My grandma would give me a bowl to fill up with blueberries and, once it was filled, she’d make blueberry pancakes and blueberry bannock. But that wasn’t my only job. I’d also haul water from the river, cut and stack wood, help out where I could. We worked from sun-up to sun-down, following Mother Nature’s cue, doing different chores according to the seasons. When hunts were successful, we’d share the bounty with the community, family, and friends. When times were hard, we could count on others.

Our traditional ways could have easily been woven into the CBC episode noted above, but they weren’t. And the editor didn’t hold the journalist accountable for knowing Indigenous practices—Canada’s history.

In 2016, media attention was focused on Gord Downie and his project, Secret Path, which told the story of Charlie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who ran away from residential school and died due to exposure. For Downie, this was his legacy project, one he’d be remembered for. Downie said he was introduced to Wenjack after hearing a 2012 CBC Documentary “Dying For An Education,” where the reporter cited a Maclean’s article from 1967.

Downie used the magazine article as his inspiration for his poetry, which he turned into an album and other media. He said in an interview this was the best thing he’s ever done and “it [helped] his heart.” All across the country, Downie is praised for bringing the Wenjack story to light and for exposing the truth that Canada has been “trained our entire lives to ignore.”

But what about Mi'kmaq artist Willie Dunn, who wrote a song about Charlie Wenjack in 1970? Dunn was a singer, songwriter, poet, and activist. He often created art that exposed the realities of Indigenous people, which earned him seven international awards and led to him being inducted into the Aboriginal Walk of Honour. Yet in the articles about Downie and the Secret Path, Dunn wasn’t acknowledged or credited for his contributions to voicing Wenjack’s story. The narrative is one of a white musician who brought forth the issues of residential schools.

How many other Indigenous voices have also been silenced or replaced with whiteness, both in Canada and around the world?

How many other Indigenous voices have also been silenced or replaced with whiteness?

There are three hundred and five distinct tribes in Brazil that were not even heard from in a recent editorial on newly elected President Bolsonaro. In the CBC editorial “What a far-right Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil means for Canadian business,” the reporter never once included their voices, their concerns, their point of view. In contrast, a story from the Guardian on the same topic—Bolsonaro’s election is catastrophic news for Brazil’s indigenous tribes—included the voices of the original people of Brazil.

To date, many tribes of Brazil are at risk of genocide; Bolsonaro has said that if he becomes president, there will not be one centimetre more of Indigenous land. The CBC report only talked about economic development and “opportunities” without ever addressing what this will mean to the Indigenous peoples of the country.

These stories and so many others like them erase Indigenous people from the narrative. We are missing yet not at all missed.

CBC is one of the most trusted media sources for many Canadians. If Indigenous peoples’ stories aren’t reflected in their coverage, it’s unlikely they will be reflected elsewhere.

What if reporters gave Indigenous people the credit they deserve for all we have done to shape Canada? What if reporters were held accountable by their editors to do that further step of research, to be educated on Canada’s full history, to connect the dots between how major issues and events affect Indigenous peoples, both in this country and elsewhere? What if the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action around media and reconciliation was acted on with due diligence, where journalists informed and educated the Canadian public on Indigenous people, the history and legacy of residential schools, the treaties, and the crown relationship?

Indigenous people would then have a place in the narratives told. Maybe Canadians would have a better understanding of us, of our culture, of our politics. Maybe we would finally be treated equally, with respect. Maybe we would be seen as humans and not just stereotypes, not just burdens to the tax system.

Reconciliation is not about fitting us into an existing framework but about fundamentally changing the framework itself. Including us in the stories told would change the framework from one that aims to erase us from the story, either all together or by replacing our contributions with a white narrative, to a framework that shows us as people with history, with a rich culture, with intelligence and value. We are deserving of that respect. Our contributions to shaping Canada’s narrative—historically and currently—must be acknowledged.

I’d like to thank Dr. Damien Lee, Fort William First Nation community member, for his comments and support of my work and first edits.

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