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Our media needs more Indigenous voices

Our media needs more Indigenous voices

Written by
Riley Yesno
on
January 7th, 2020

Media coverage of Indigenous issues increased in 2019, but for the most part its quality did not.

Our media needs more Indigenous voices

In 2019, coverage of the climate crisis started to highlight the perspectives of Indigenous people.

Undoubtedly, 2019 was a significant year in terms of the media’s coverage of Indigenous voices and cultures. Major media outlets, such as the Toronto Star, introduced “Indigenous Issues” columns, while many others recruited more Indigenous journalists to their newsrooms. The Globe and Mail opened a bureau in Thunder Bay to report on the large number of stories happening in Northern Ontario that focus on Indigenous people and communities. And news about climate action was starting to highlight the perspectives of Indigenous people, especially young Indigenous people, more frequently.

Still, the amount of Indigenous presence in the media is nowhere near where it should be. Indigenous voices have important, sometimes centuries-long-overlooked stories to tell—and a perspective to be critically considered on all major politically, socially, economically and environmentally newsworthy events taking place in this country. A handful of columnists and prominent journalists can’t possibly cover all of that.

That said, I would still maintain that while the quantity of Indigenous stories being told is increasing, the quality of most of these stories have yet to see the same progress.

When I think of major news stories from 2019 focused on Indigenous people, stories that most non-Indigenous Canadians might be able to recall, a few big ones come to mind: The Jody Wilson-Raybould/SNC Lavalin scandal, the Final Report of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry and the injustices in Grassy Narrows are three examples. These stories were definitely newsworthy, but they were largely handled poorly and in some cases downright irresponsibly.

Of the thousands of pages of testimonies and Calls for Justice, the media homed in on one word: genocide.

For example, the Jody Wilson-Raybould story, which dominated the news cycle for several weeks earlier in the year, was certainly controversial. Major media outlets ran dozens of stories, especially opinion pieces, covering the scandal, but only a handful of them were written by Indigenous authors. Looking back, the tone of the coverage of the SNC Lavalin scandal by Indigenous journalists compared to non-Indigenous journalists is clearly different. The Indigenous journalists largely focused on the empowering effect of Wilson-Raybould’s actions, her integrity and the community support she was receiving across the nation. On the other hand, non-Indigenous journalists, and innumerable commenters on their stories, scrutinized Wilson-Raybould heavily, deeming her traitorous, manipulative or scheming.

Whenever the latter type of coverage ran, I could not help but wonder about the message it was sending: that an Indigenous woman could be in one of the most powerful positions in the country, state that she is following the values instilled in her by her community, and still be painted so negatively.

The release of the MMIWG Final Report was perhaps this year’s greatest example of large amounts of media coverage of an Indigenous story, but unfortunately most of it was done badly. The Final Report of the Inquiry was a huge moment for Indigenous communities, which have waited decades for answers and justice for the ongoing violence Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ folks have faced. Of the thousands of pages of testimonies and Calls for Justice, the media honed in on one word: genocide.

This word appeared more often than any other after the release of the report. Ongoing genocide against Indigenous people is a proven fact, supported by expert analysis, as is the deliberate and sustained discrimination against our communities, and yet Canadian media felt that these facts were up for debate.

Op-eds were published that called the use of the word genocide insulting and erroneous; the testimonies of survivors and the work of the Inquiry were questioned; the Toronto Star even felt it appropriate to ask whether or not genocide against Indigenous people was true in a poll for its readers. Countless Indigenous writers and contributors spoke out against their employers in the face of this genocide denial.

In 2020, I want to see Indigenous media coverage that goes beyond scandals and traumatic events. I want every person to be able to recall a story that doesn’t include our suffering.

Overall, media coverage of Indigenous stories, in 2019 especially, has left us with many lessons and areas to improve upon as we move ahead into the next decade. We need more Indigenous contributors and journalists writing stories, always—but we also need more Indigenous editors who can ensure informed and appropriate stories are being published. Non-Indigenous Canadians can’t be allowed to dictate which of our stories are newsworthy, or we can be sure that very little will change in terms of the coverage about Indigenous lives and voices.


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In 2020, I want to see Indigenous media coverage that goes beyond scandals, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, residential schools and generally traumatic events. I want every person to be able to recall a story that doesn’t include our suffering.

Looking back from 2010 to the present, it is clear that we have progressed by leaps and bounds. But when your starting point is one so insufficient and far behind, leaps and bounds don’t mean nearly enough. It’s important that the media work to get coverage of Indigenous voices where it needs to be—not just for our benefit, but for all of Canada’s, too.

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