Our reporter's 53-day notebook of how journalists covered the biggest transnational Aboriginal movement this country has ever seen.
Waubgeshig Rice pulls his van over and darts onto the street, video camera hoisted on his shoulder. Dressed in a CBC/Radio-Canada coat and heavy-duty boots, he’s covering the second national day of action for Idle No More, an indigenous rights movement. It’s a miserable day for a protest: below zero, snow swirling in thick, fluffy flakes, downtown streets a slushy lagoon. The wind pelts exposed bits of skin. But the protesters march, drum, and dance toward Parliament Hill, and Rice, an Ojibwa video journalist at CBC Ottawa, is in his element—despite the elements. Since moving here two years ago, he’s immersed himself in the city’s Aboriginal community, attending powwows and other events. As Rice keeps ahead of the pack, there is a call. “Is that Waub?” Later, another, more personal: “Hey, cousin!” He is familiar with the people and the issue. That afternoon, during a live hit outside Parliament for CBC News Network, anchor Asha Tomlinson changes direction from the standard questions to ask Rice: Does he think Idle No More can sustain itself?
When we trudge back to the newsroom, my boots and socks sopping wet, Rice tells me her question was unusual. As a reporter, he doesn’t give opinions on the news. Today was different, he thinks, because of his essay about Idle No More, posted to CBC.ca this morning. “Modern history is largely defined by the faces of the people who make it,” he wrote. “When we think of the Oka crisis of 1990, we all think of that one shot of the warrior and the soldier, which instilled pride in so many First Nations people across the country. That same potential is here. This time, there are thousands more people from all First Nations willing to put their faces on history.”
But Rice’s understanding of the story is unusual, too. Most stories about Idle No More have lacked depth, context, and analysis. Though the grassroots movement is complex, with no appointed leader and various mandates, that doesn’t excuse vague and misinformed coverage. By offering only a play-by-play of protests and blockades, reporters missed the point. A few, including Rice, proved that analytical, thorough coverage is possible. Idle No More demands a change from the political norm, and for Canadian journalists, the norm has long been poor coverage of indigenous people. Sure, you could argue journalists don’t cover any minority as well as they should, but as Mary Agnes Welch, the public policy reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, told me, natives are the founding people of Canada, and they’re marginalized more than any other group. “I think you could make an argument that we have a treaty obligation to First Nations, and also we have a Canadian obligation because so much of what they’re experiencing is, it’s un-Canadian, frankly.”
I kept my thumb on the Idle No More hashtag from the first national day of protest in December. For more than a month, I lived in an INM media bubble, scouring news websites, newspapers, blogs, and videos, and consuming as much coverage as humanly possible. Idle No More’s trajectory is one worth charting, if for no other reason than the movement started as a Twitter hashtag and grew to be one of the top stories of the year. But it’s also an opportunity to check on the state of Aboriginal coverage.
This is the log of my media diet since the movement became national news.
DECEMBER 10 > Let’s start with the “official” first day, although the #IdleNoMore hashtag first appeared in November, when a Cree woman in Alberta used it to promote an information session on Bill C-45, the federal government’s second omnibus budget bill. First Nations activists are concerned about its contents: changes to the Indian Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Today, the hashtag became more than a call to action—it is action. We saw the first of dozens of protests in major Canadian cities and #IdleNoMore trended on Twitter as people shared photos and updates from rallies.
If this wasn’t enough of a hook, the next day, Theresa Spence, chief of the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, started a hunger strike to pressure Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General David Johnston, and First Nations leaders into meeting to discuss treaty rights. Neither the protests nor the hunger strike received national mainstream coverage, save for articles on The Globe and Mail website and The Huffington Post Canada. Even local coverage was patchy. Only Aboriginal Peoples Television Network covered the rallies all day, posting videos and stories to its Facebook and Twitter accounts and putting the events at the top of its nightly newscast.
Unimpressed, Aboriginal people took to Twitter to lament the void. “There is a media bias,” tweeted Wab Kinew, a former CBC journalist who’s now director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. “Any other group of people who brought out as many people in as many cities would have had wall-to-wall coverage.”
Instead, a monkey in a Toronto Ikea dominated headlines. “‘Tens of thousands of Native people turned out for a coordinated, national….Oh, look, a monkey’—the Media,” tweeted one person. Another wrote: “The media isn’t interested in well-behaved native peoples.”
Meanwhile, I had a job interview at a major daily newspaper. In the hours before, I kept an eye on its website for INM coverage. Nothing surfaced. When I pitched a story about the movement in the interview, one editor said it sounded like something they’d assign to a freelancer.
DECEMBER 18 > Idle No More finally made CBC’s The National tonight with a story on how Spence’s hunger strike is “part of a wider movement.” It’s thorough—Adrienne Arsenault also reported on the protests, the crucial social media component, and the controversial legislation. She concluded with a reference to the second wave of rallies planned for December 21: “If the turnout is what they suggest it will be and hope it will be, then it’s possible that this might just be the beginning of something.”
Back when I first talked to Rice, in October, before INM, he foreshadowed the movement by crediting social media as a way for Aboriginal people to unify. “A lot of younger people are a lot more aware, and they’re able to share their stories to a greater degree, and maybe influence other news organizations and bring some issues to light from a grassroots level,” Rice said. He recalls seeing tweets in INM’s early days about how the movement didn’t need the mainstream media to spread its message. “Well, you kind of do,” he said, adding that Twitter runs the risk of being an echo chamber.
If you want widespread attention, you need the mainstream media, and in the following week, Idle No More started earning more space in local newspapers and broadcasts, thanks to regional protests. Still, Duncan McCue, an Ojibwa reporter for The National and journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, said reporters mistook the groundswell for isolated gatherings. “That there was something national going on. Didn’t get it. Perhaps didn’t care. Perhaps were heading on holidays. All three of those things combined, and unfortunately, there wasn’t as much coverage as there could have been.”
DECEMBER 21 > Today, I travelled to Ottawa for the largest rally yet. Protesters met on Victoria Island—traditional Algonquin land and Spence’s home during her hunger strike—before marching to Parliament Hill. On the plane, I made the mistake of telling my seatmate, a pompous businessman, where I was headed. He hadn’t heard of Idle No More, and for the remainder of the flight—only an hour, phew—he ranted about “those corrupt Indian chiefs who steal money from the government.” That, he said, is what he sees in the media.
So far, there has been little reportage from First Nations communities. The problems on many reserves—poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, suicide, and violence—have been covered before, but with INM, everything is on the table (unlike, say, Attawapiskat, where housing and poverty were the issues, and Oka or Ipperwash, which were about land). Of course, coverage of squalor on reserves can perpetuate the stereotype of the poor, lazy native if journalists don’t balance those drastic, yet important, stories with more positive ones.
Over the Christmas break, Idle No More thrived with rallies, blockades, and solidarity hunger strikes, but so did the stereotypes. Journalists covered these events as they always had—with photos and videos of natives adorned with feathers and buckskin, dancing, chanting, and pounding drums. Though this is undeniably a facet of Aboriginal culture, most reporters didn’t dig below the surface of the image or sound bite. “Journalists just love this stuff,” theOttawa Citizen’s Terry Glavin later wrote. “It means you don’t actually have to do any work.”
JANUARY 7 > Early January was a whirlwind. A judge ordered the Ontario Provincial Police to remove protesters blocking railway tracks near Sarnia. Harper agreed to meet with First Nations leaders, including Spence. Just three days later, an audit commissioned by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada leaked to CBC. The Deloitte audit investigated Attawapiskat finances between 2005 and 2011, finding that 81 percent of examined transactions had inadequate documentation; 60 percent had none. The Globe headline—“Attawapiskat Audit Raises Questions About Millions in Spending”—was typical. But the audit also showed accounting practices had improved after Spence became chief in 2010, so APTN reporter Kenneth Jackson tweeted: “My lede would have been: Serious financial problems on Attawapiskat but improved under Chief Theresa Spence audit indicates.”
The story reinforced the stereotype of the fat-cat chief with money-lined pockets. On The Huffington Post Canada, journalist Yoni Goldstein argued that reserve “hellholes” are the fault of leaders such as Spence. “How is it possible that native leaders have managed to squander…millions of dollars federal and provincial governments keep handing over, year after year?” he wrote. These commentaries undermined the quality of discussion. In a letter to Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley Echo, John Logan wrote that Spence’s position as a symbol for Aboriginal people was a “sham.” Spence attended a residential school as a child, but the scathing critiques lacked this context. In fact, she is a credible symbol: she knows the history of Aboriginal people because she’s lived it. The Telegram in St. John’s was the only news outlet I found to mention this.
Never mind that Spence wasn’t even tied to Idle No More. Her fast just happened to coincide with INM’s kickoff—something many reporters confused. For instance, at the Assembly of First Nations presser in Ottawa on January 10, David Akin, Sun Media’s national bureau chief, asked AFN chief Shawn Atleo if it was acceptable that Attawapiskat police kicked out a reporter. “The Attawapiskat angle was so much more tabloid-friendly than history,” wrote Michael Harris on iPolitics. “It was character assassination by dull razor blade.”
In the days leading up to the meeting with Prime Minister Harper, journalists capitalized on so-called cracks in INM’s armour, as some provincial chiefs opted out of the meeting for fear it would amount to no more than a photo op. A Globe headline sounded ominous: “Idle No More Protests Beyond Control of Chiefs.”
The possibility of violence was a popular topic. In the National Post, Kent Roach and David Schneiderman, University of Toronto law professors, arguedthat police were right to be cautious about the protesters. Because, you know, those violent natives. And in the Globe, John Ibbitson patted the government on the back: “Thus far, the Conservatives have gotten the big things right, by ignoring peaceful demonstrations and engaging with the responsible leadership in order to marginalize extremists. But that is exactly the moment at which events can spiral out of control: Oka; the Dudley George shooting. Then no one can predict what will happen.”
In the same vein, John Ivison wrote in the Post: “Despite the posters proclaiming ‘zero tolerance to all forms of violence,’ the guys barring the gate did not look they’d [sic] be dogmatic about the principle. ‘Friend or foe?’ growled one to a native girl who was looking to gain access.” As if growling signals imminent bloodshed.
JANUARY 14 > Small-town Manitoba weekly the Morris Mirror caused an uproar with an editorial claiming Aboriginal people were acting like terrorists. “Indians/Natives want it all but corruption and laziness prevent some of them from working for it,” wrote editor Reed Turcotte beside an editorial cartoon of a native person making smoke signals, with this caption: “Before they were partially wiped out by white men’s diseases, the Canadian Indian had a highly evolved society built around the world’s first cell phone.” Media outlets across Canada ran this story. The Mirror later ran an apology, but maintained “we stand by the fact that the Natives must work to get out of their situation.”
And in a Cowichan News Leader op-ed, Patrick Hrushowy, president of the Cowichan Valley constituency association of the B.C. Liberal Party, wrote of provincial chiefs issuing “thundering calls for ‘warriors’ to prepare to take the fight to the streets. All of this scares me…I pass someone on the street and wonder if this is one of the ‘warriors’ who wants to put my livelihood at risk to achieve his or her demands.”
Meanwhile, APTN reported on a Sun News poll asking readers to describe Spence in one word to win a prize: “Some of the words used included: fat, oink, garbage, chief two-chins and hippo. Others couldn’t stick to just one word. One wrote, ‘Stop sucking Lysol.’” This type of discourse prompted Idle No More supporters to protest outside Sun offices in three cities. At a Toronto INM rally, I watched a man accost a Sun News cameraperson, throw his hand in front of the lens, and lecture him about the network’s “agenda.”
On social media, things were even more heated. Manitoba’s Thompson Citizen shut down its Facebook page due to an onslaught of anti-native comments. And a tweet from Ivison a few weeks earlier—“It seems there are certain native leaders intent on conflict; who want hapless Theresa Spence to become a martyr. God forbid that happens”—sicced the attack dogs. Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a professor at the University of Victoria, called Ivison a “racist prick” and threatened to kick his “immigrant ass” back to Scotland if he disrespected Spence again.
Several pundits seemed intent on discrediting INM and disparaging Aboriginal people. “While Chief Spence, and others, may long for ‘nation-to-nation discussions,’ there is I think a genuine question as to whether there’s enough of Aboriginal culture that has survived to even dream of that lofty status,” wrote Post columnist Christie Blatchford. “Smudging, drumming and the like do not a nation make.” The Globe’s Jeffrey Simpson ridiculed the desire for sovereignty: “But too many communities remain within the dream palace, hungering for a return to a more separate existence, even if the lands on which they sit are—and likely always will be-—of marginal economic value.” He didn’t mention that these communities were relegated to marginal land years ago so the government could harvest natural resources.
Barbara Kay, also of the Post, trivialized Spence’s fast, suggesting she was merely “detoxing” to lose weight (she was consuming fish broth, after all) and criticized her for a diet that probably includes “a lot of carbohydrates.” Spence’s hunger strike was media fodder for all its 44 days. First, it was just that—a “hunger strike.” Then, it became a “liquid diet” or “liquid fast,” though Spence was open about her consumption of water and fish broth early on. A story on Globalnews.ca before she ended her hunger strike read, “It is not known just how many calories Spence is ingesting, subsisting on fish broth and medicinal teas (a true hunger striker drinks only water).” The Post called her wise for drinking fish broth to preserve her strength, as though this were a sneaky tactic to fast without really fasting.
Fish broth actually has special significance. In a Huffington Post Canada editorial, Leanne Simpson wrote that her ancestors survived on fish broth during the winters because, once their land was colonized, it was their only sustenance. “It carries cultural meaning for Anishinaabeg,” she wrote. “It symbolizes hardship and sacrifice. It symbolizes the strength of our ancestors. It means survival.”
JANUARY 17 > Protests and blockades took over the roads today, and a Canadian Press and Postmedia story discussed these events: “Some groups spoke of their own land claims, others decried the federal government’s changes to environmental oversight. Still others spoke of the need to honour all First Nations treaties.” That the movement wasn’t monolithic was one of the major difficulties for journalists.
I can guess what you’re thinking: it’s easy for me, a 21-year-old student, to pick apart professionals. Really, though, I do see the abundant challenges. First of all, Idle No More is grassroots with no appointed leader, so reporters don’t know who has authority to speak about it. Second, although some complained journalists were slow to cover INM, the Post’s Tristin Hopper pointed out the wisdom of waiting to see if a movement has legs. “We can’t write about a hashtag. We’ll just look like clowns.” And journalists are often wary of covering hunger strikes for the same reason they are of suicides—fear of encouraging them.
INM also challenges the country’s colonial history and it’s impossible to provide that context in two minutes or 600 words, said McCue. Journalists attempted to cover this history with one line or a short paragraph, buried as the inverted pyramid model dictates. This perpetuated the idea that INM was disorganized and vague, even after organizers identified specifically what they were fighting for.
I also understand the news cycle and what Rice called the curse of daily news. “There’s not that much opportunity to really offer context,” he said. “You’re only skimming the surface.” I can see that all a tight deadline allows for is a recap of that day’s protest, and not a dissection of the issues. Also tricky: Canada is home to 50 or so First Nations and more than 600 native communities. As Peter Edwards, a Star reporter who covered Ipperwash in 1995, wrote in his book One Dead Indian, “It was all a confusing jumble for the media, who like things in tidy packages….” With millions of Aboriginal people across Canada, there are no “tidy packages,” which made it difficult for reporters to suss out the majority’s sentiments. But, as Hayden King, an Anishinaabe politics assistant professor at Ryerson University, wrote in the Globe, “Recent attempts to interpret the Idle No More movement has resulted in conclusions of sudden divisions, fracturing and ‘chiefs losing control.’” These divisions, though, are normal and have always existed, just as they do in Canadian politics.
INM was also tough because its message evolved. In the early days, supporters fought against Bill C-45, but gradually, their desires grew to include treaty rights, nation-to-nation discussion, and an improved relationship with the federal government. These issues aren’t easy to sum up in a couple of sentences.
Spence complicated things. When, throughout January, she waffled on her demands, it was undoubtedly confusing. Of course, reporting is difficult when you’re physically removed from the story: Spence supporters escorted Star reporter Joanna Smith from the Victoria Island enclosure and police kicked a Global News team out of Attawapiskat.
But journalists have long struggled with covering native issues. As the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples found in 1996: “Many Canadians know Aboriginal people only as noble environmentalists, angry warriors or pitiful victims. A full picture of their humanity is simply not available in the media.”
Thanks to this relationship, many indigenous people distrust reporters, which in turn can further discourage non-native journalists from wading into the deep waters of Aboriginal affairs. It’s a vicious cycle. As Susan Gamble, a reporter who covers the Six Nations reserve for The Expositor in Brantford, Ontario, said, “There’s a lot of reluctance among some people to switch over to something like that because they feel like it’s a delicate subject. They feel like it’s a tough subject.”
Some INM supporters decried criticism as “racism,” even if the issues raised were legitimate. Accusations of racism are nothing new, but when everyone has a smartphone, racist comments and angry tweets are even easier.
Gamble has experienced this. “If somebody doesn’t like what you write, the natural thing is to accuse you of not understanding the issue because you’re not native or that you’re trying deliberately to do something negative to the natives because you are non-native.”
JANUARY 19 > A revealing, magazine-length feature appeared in the Post today. Jonathan Kay visited four reserves along James Bay, and found most were financially stable. “As we drive through the Fort Albany reserve in Edmund Metatawabin’s pick-up truck, he asks me: ‘Do you see any drunk people. Are all the homes broken down?’ The answer is no — and he wants me to say it,” wrote Kay. “Based on the way the media reports stories from remote fly-in reserves such as Fort Albany, many Canadians have formed the impression that communities such as his are crumbling junkyards full of miserable alcoholics.”
Certain outlets and journalists demonstrated how INM coverage could be better. Both The National and TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin hosted round-table discussions featuring native and non-native experts leading up to the First Nations meeting with Harper. On the former show, Idle No More was the top story each night, with analysis of different angles and guests who included urban Aboriginals and young activists. Reporters venturing to nearby or far-off reserves gleaned context that, although removed from highway blockades and mall round dances, showed a fresh take on the movement.
A week ago, I highlighted a Star story in my notes. “To get lost in the diet particulars of one hunger-striking chief in Ottawa,” wrote Jim Coyle in a well-researched feature, “or the accounting idiosyncracies of one reserve’s band council, or a decision in Attawapiskat by a people grown wary of media to ban a TV crew, is to miss the larger and legitimate point of Idle No More and the opportunity it presents for essential change.”
At the height of the Spence-money-management frenzy, The Gazette in Montreal published a feature about the successful Mohawk community of Kahnawake—a reminder that some reserves are indeed financially stable. Late in January, the Free Press published an INM primer. When did it begin? What is a treaty? Where does the Indian Act fit in? It was an informative read.
APTN’s coverage was consistently good. Reporters Jorge Barrera and Kenneth Jackson—focusing on politics and the “streets,” respectively—committed to dig deep and tell the whole story. “Our job isn’t to defend Spence by any means. If I had that audit, I’d do a story,” said Jackson. “I just would add context. And I think that’s the main role as a reporter—add context wherever you can.”
The journalists I talked to agreed that hiring more Aboriginal people is crucial to improving coverage. “There’s a genuine lack of awareness about a lot of issues that are affecting First Nations people, and until you have more First Nations journalists in the mainstream, I think that that might always be the case,” said Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe-Polish reporter at the Star. During INM, some papers commissioned native freelancers to write analysis. But King said newspapers should regularly feature perspectives from native people, not just during crises.
The Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection (SABAR), a partnership of mainstream and Aboriginal outlets, encourages the media to hire more native reporters and change how they cover indigenous people. CBC has a stronger record of covering native affairs than most—its TV series 8th Fire, for instance, delves into Canada’s relationship with indigenous people—and it broadcasts in eight Aboriginal languages. But this diversity doesn’t carry over to hiring practices. From January 2003 to March 2012, the number of full-time, permanent Aboriginal employees rose from 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent of the broadcaster’s workforce. (As of 2006, Aboriginal people accounted for 3.8 percent of Canada’s population.)
That’s one of the ideas behind a Journalists for Human Rights program slated to launch later this year in several northern Ontario communities. An organization that usually works with reporters and editors in Third-World countries, JHR will train native journalists in print and radio reporting.
Improving how reporters interact with native people is the goal of McCue’s website, Reporting in Indigenous Communities. The toolkit includes a checklist for visiting a reserve and a terminology guide, compiled by SABAR. Journalism schools should also give students some grounding in Aboriginal issues, because with a growing native population in Canada, most reporters will cover native issues at some point. If media outlets want to get it right (and King believes they genuinely do), they must commit more time to understand history, and avoid centuries-old stereotypes.
On a more basic level, Aboriginal people have to become commonplace in the media. “So if there was just a story about a medical breakthrough and then they interviewed an Aboriginal doctor, and it wasn’t a big deal,” said Kinew. “It wasn’t like, okay, here’s a story about Aboriginal doctors.” Steve Bonspiel was more vocal about reporters resorting to stereotypes: “It’s bullshit,” said the Mohawk editor and publisher of The Eastern Door in Kahnawake, Quebec. “I think they can look at a native story not as a native story, but as a human story.”
Dan David, a Mohawk freelance journalist in nearby Kanehsatake, has a unique take. When I spoke with him last fall, he said the “mainstream media” can seem like such a big, unchangeable entity. “If you had one newspaper just devote its resources to improving its coverage of human rights issues—and that’s what indigenous issues are, they’re human rights issues—then that’s a step in the right direction.”
Yet Kay thinks the main reasons for poor Aboriginal coverage—the cost of travelling to remote communities and lack of reader interest—are out of journalists’ control. “Most Canadians just don’t care that much about First Nations stories, and so the market isn’t there,” he wrote in an email. “The media aren’t going to report on stories that most people don’t care about.”
After the evening newscast on December 21, Rice admitted he was worried about writing that INM analysis piece for CBC.ca. What if his editors saw it as a threat to his objectivity? “Much to my surprise,” he said, “they sort of fed into that and played off it in terms of the coverage, which is kind of cool. I mean, I wasn’t expecting that at all today.” When Rice was a kid, the only time he saw reporters in his Wasauksing, Ontario, community was when things went awry. “I developed a distrust for media very early on. Why are these guys only showing up when something bad here happens? There are so many good things happening in my community.”
Rice first considered a journalism career in high school. “There’s a bridge that really needs to be built there of understanding and awareness,” he said. “I thought, if I can get in there and try to do my part and just do one little story at a time, then I saw that as sort of a success.”
JANUARY 24 > Spence ended her hunger strike today. The media’s sentiment was clearly that INM will fade away as Occupy did—and the fast’s end is certainly the termination of something—but journalists who thought the movement was over clearly didn’t understand it in the first place.
Last week, a poll suggested only 38 percent of Canadians support INM, and 60 percent believe native people’s problems are brought on by themselves (up from 35 percent in 1989). “While most Canadians have likely heard of Idle No More, many Canadians apparently haven’t bothered to properly educate themselves about what exactly it is,” stated a Globalnews.ca article. But have journalists? It’s unrealistic to expect the average Canadian to understand INM, when it’s debatable reporters did.
Journalists missed another chance to cover Aboriginal affairs in a balanced and detailed way. In a guest column for the Cambridge Times, Atinuke Bankole compared INM to the 1950s civil rights movement. Both started out grassroots and protested social justice issues, and both were criticized for being disorganized. “Blaming the victim was rampant among polite, average white Americans back then. ‘Well, things wouldn’t be so bad for blacks if they weren’t so lazy. Black people are backwards and that is why they are underdeveloped. Slavery ended 100 years ago. Get over it.’ Sound familiar?”
Of course, INM differs because Aboriginal people lived on this land centuries before most of us did. Colonialism and the treaties stemming from it are complicated. Yet, I do see a parallel between the two movements. Mainstream media don’t portray any minority well—black, disabled, or queer. But colonial history sets the Aboriginal population apart. And what’s lacking in much of the coverage is an understanding of that history. Deadlines will always be tight and budgets will no doubt get tighter, but Canada’s indigenous population is growing and the issues INM raised won’t go away. It’s time for journalists to take a step, even a small one, towards consistent, thoughtful coverage of indigenous people instead of waiting for the next crisis or protest.