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Let’s unbias Canadian newsrooms and get refugee journalists working again

Let’s unbias Canadian newsrooms and get refugee journalists working again

Written by
Ray Mwareya
on
August 26th, 2019

Refugee journalists can provide valuable perspectives, but Canadian newsrooms don’t seem to be interested.

Let’s unbias Canadian newsrooms and get refugee journalists working again

Ray Mwareya was a journalist in Congo, but in Canada he's not considered expert enough to write about the country he comes from.

Pitch to Canada´s traditional newsrooms? In my experience, it’s best to pause and think first if you’ve got a voice that sounds black, African – and refugee.

In December 2018, I proposed an op-ed to a Canadian radio website, ahead of time, about the enormous electoral crisis in Congo and Canada´s possible diplomatic response. This piqued an assistant editor´s interest so much that they said: “Your piece is impressive and I forwarded your pitch to our deputy editor, who is in charge of the Opinion section and POV journalism.” I was optimistic about my first ever slot in a Canadian publication, until the deputy editor came to me and said, “You stated that you are a refugee – how do you possibly know of this topic?”

The deputy editor´s response was so blunt, despite the fact that I had lived through a nightmare when my country was bankrupted in 1999 after its army scrambled into Congo´s Great War out of sheer greed.

I was deflated that as a refugee journalist I am not considered expert enough to write an op ed about the region I come from. Of course I cannot force myself into newsrooms as an expert and override editors’ roles. However, I thought I was diminished as a journalist of colour when the editor signed off, saying, “Ray, we lined up another analyst who’s perhaps more knowledgeable. Keep in us in mind for future pitches.”

How can I keep Canada´s editors in mind with patronizing answers like this?

As a refugee journalist, I am not considered expert enough to write an op ed about the region I come from.

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I am a refugee journalist living in Ottawa, and this is the dilemma that is increasingly driving me (and other writers like me) to almost quit my number one passion, reporting. If other established minorities in Canada who are citizens complain of hitting a career brick wall in Canada´s newsrooms — seeing their voices heavily redacted by editors or being told that they cannot be a journalist and an activist at the same time, despite white reporters doing so — now bear a thought for us refugee journalists. We have travelled along dangerous paths to find safety here. We no longer have enough fight left in us to cajole editors to notice us.

Not commissioning refugee journalists to tell the stories of their lives and communities here in Canada is counterproductive. We all saw the Toronto Sun writing a scandalous and obviously false story about refugees slaughtering goats inside a Radisson Hotel.

At an Ottawa job fair last month (my first ever experience of a Canadian job fair) I was startled to hear an editor say that racial minorities don’t apply enough for newsroom positions. Really? We don’t pitch enough? I have an admission to make. Recently I wondered if my surname, not my journalism expertise, is what’s preventing Canada´s commissioning editors from engaging meaningfully with my pitches. If my African surname were whiter sounding, would editors be more agreeable to assign me pitches on finance, climate and education topics? Should I legally change my surname to the more European “Schneider” to improve my chances of beginning a career in Canada´s media? As a refugee journalist this is how rejection brews silly imaginations.

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I say so because in contrast, I have found it easy to write regularly for American magazines and news wires across the border. I agree that every freelance story, whether in Canada or Japan, falls on the quality of its pitch. Yes, it is true that American publications have richer funding and greater readership thanks to a population that dwarfs Canada’s. But the thing is: we don’t want to publish in America. Our audience and home are here.

In two years of living in Canada, I have had a piece accepted just once in a Canadian publication, Ricochet Media in Montreal, which I must hold as an example of progressive journalism that is liberalizing the pitching market for refugee freelance writers.

As refugee journalists we notice with admiration that Canada’s government has doled out millions to subsidize local Canadian journalism and small press publishers. This is a very noble initiative by the federal government and must be applauded. As refugee journalists in Canada, along with Canada´s legacy journalists we watch with trepidation as American behemoths Facebook, Twitter and Google spirit advertising dollars away from Canada´s local media producers, throwing copyright rules to utter ridicule and blurring the lines between proper journalistic publishing and social networks. And we remember how financially punitive it is for refugee journalists to register nonprofit media initiatives, access any of that support or set up a dedicated refugee journalists fund that helps refugee reporters get into newsrooms in Canada.

If my African surname were whiter sounding, would editors be more agreeable to assign me pitches on finance, climate and education topics?

This week I tidied up a 17,000-word novella which I composed over six months while juggling a job cutting fabrics for 40 hours per week in a Montreal factory. I was elated upon finishing it, and thought of submitting my story for the CBC Short Story Prize. Hold your breath: my script is a thrill to read, an editor told me, but the rules are firm: unless you are a citizen or a permanent resident of Canada, you can’t submit to this literary competition. We are caught in a dilemma as refugee writers. We cannot submit our short stories to contests back in Africa because we are now resident in Canada. Here in Canada our stories won´t qualify for the career changing CBC Short Story Prize because, being refugee writers, we are not citizen or permanent resident enough.

Today I broke up my 17,000-word story into snippets of 500 words each. I pitched them as disparate little paragraphs to editors far off in New Zealand, Italy or wherever. The big story is lost.

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