The media’s representation of Indigenous Peoples has been a long standing problem in Canada. As Anishinaabeg reporter Duncan McCue once pointed out, Aboriginals usually won’t even make the news unless they conform to what he called the “WD4 rule”: Be a warrior. Beat your drum. Start dancing. Get drunk. Be dead.
To make matters worse, editors in Canada have a habit of letting racially-charged material slip through in opinion columns for all the world to see. In some cases, editors will do it on purpose, because the ensuing controversy will increase their numbers.
It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that Canadians have almost no opportunities to develop an informed attitude towards Indigenous Peoples. Middle schools in Winnipeg aren’t in the habit of arranging field trips to Shoal Lake. And High Schools certainly don’t show Flooding Hope: The Lake St. Martin Story. No, Canadians take their queues from friends, family members, teachers and most importantly, the media.
Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke to this problem last month, telling the Globe and Mail,
Probably the world of media, the world of image portrayal, is the most significant area of potential public education because the way that we project images into peoples minds, whether through the written word or through the video or through pictures, has a dramatic impact upon how they see people in reality
Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin added some thoughts of her own, suggesting that we can start to address rampant prejudice in the media with new media.
Indigenous Peoples know this all too well. For us, new media is much more than an opportunity to do some good; it’s a cultural imperative. While many reserves in Canada now have their own–equally indispensable–radio stations, tv shows/stations, newspapers and magazines–the internet provides us with a means to inform and engage audiences on a local, regional and international level. It also ensures that we can control our own narratives, which is particularly important given how poorly the media represents indigenous perspectives and perceptions.
If you build it, they will still go to facebook
The problem is, Indigenous Peoples aren’t the only ones who want to control their own narratives. Everyone does, which is why there are now more than 100 million blogs in the world posting upwards of 1.5 million posts per day. Only a tiny fraction of these posts are by, for or about Indigenous Peoples; and most of those posts will be drowned out by the constant deluge of stories about guys in batman costumes getting smoked by reasonably annoyed bulls and articles in the Sun.
Truth be told, even before social media was a thing, it was very difficult to find indigenous news online. If you wanted to get a full picture of the indigenous world, you had to visit dozens if not hundreds of different blogs, forums, yahoo groups and listservs.
I know this from experience. Before starting IC, I spent about a year researching the contemporary realities of the world’s Indigenous Peoples. It wasn’t paid work or anything like that, I simply wanted to know what what happening out there. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get that knowledge. The words just didn’t exist.
To a great extent, this is still true today.
Canada’s alternative media circuit could help out immensely with this. As a matter of course, their unrestrained offerings contribute greatly to an informed and educated populace. However, for all their benefits, when it comes to Indigenous Peoples they often walk on the same road as big media by sticking to “popular” stories–the stuff that everybody covers–and stories that they hope will become popular. As a direct consequence of this, an inordinate number of stories fall through the cracks.
Thousands of major stories have past by us over the years that no one ever took the time to cover. Thousands more are on the way, unless the media commits, for example, to guarantee a certain percentage of indigenous content per month.
In the meantime, we continue to push forward with IC, a publication that has a long and proud history of filling up the cracks and crevices in the media landscape.
As much as we’ve been able to cover over the years, however, IC still isn’t the publication that we need it to be.
There are two reasons for this. The first is a lack of funding. Prior to December 2014, IC was a grassroots publication that simply couldn’t access the funds we would need to provide full spectrum coverage of the world’s Indigenous Peoples.
The second reason is a shortage of journalists willing to cover indigenous stories and, as Ricochet Media has pointed, a shortage of indigenous journalists who can pick up where everyone else disappears.
Thankfully, the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS) is helping us with the first problem. While we have not yet managed to find any socially-responsible foundations in Canada or the United States to help us create a strong international indigenous news platform, CWIS’ sponsorship of IC opens the door. In the meantime, we’re focusing on raising funds through crowdfunding to keep us afloat and to help us grow.
Right this moment, we’re trying to raise $23K so that we can pay our bills and start investing in journalists, to ensure that big stories–like the effort to bring eight Inuit home after dying in a human zoo in Europe 134 years ago–never again fall through the cracks. We’re also raising funds to launch an unprecedented investigative webdoc project that will allow us to educate the public on issues of local, regional, national and international importance.
In time, we also plan to develop free media training courses for Indigenous Peoples, and we intend to partner with at least one University journalism program in Canada to provide–in the spirit of the Reporting in Indigenous Communities project–cultural sensitivity training to help ensure that the next generation of journalists in Canada cover indigenous stories right.
The long road ahead
As important as it is to have at least one news platform in the world that covers the stories of 5000 Indigenous Peoples, such a platform can never bring an end to the media’s deeply ingrained culturally-derived shortcomings. Indeed, the solution is relative to scope of the problem. And what we have here is a multi-generational legacy of problems.
Education is key to replacing that legacy.
Teachers and school districts can do their part, for starters, by making indigenous studies mandatory, providing those studies aren’t limited to learning Ojibwa and figuring out how make gods eyes with yarn and Popsicle sticks.
Alternative media can do its part by upping their coverage and by supporting Indigenous media.
The Canadian government can do its part by dealing with every problem it has created since confederation, including by adhering to all recommendations in the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples.
And we can all pitch in by shunning irresponsible media and by challenging the racist attitudes they have nurtured in us for more generations that we can remember.
Only by developing a socially-responsible politics of dignity, reciprocity and common sense can we hope to deal with the media’s systemic marginalization of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.