If there’s anything we learned from the appropriation prize debacle this year, it’s that indigenous culture in Canada is still widely viewed as a dollar store trinket that we can afford to ridicule or discard—or commodify for our own proudly-Canadian agendas.
Indigenous media is no different. Many Canadians assume that it’s just a bunch of biased, archaic, poorly-produced garbage that has no bearing on their lives. This couldn’t be further from the truth: Indigenous media has a direct impact on the quality of democracy and the depth of press freedom in Canada.
I traveled to Ottawa last week to speak at The Future of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Broadcasting: Conversation & Convergence and help make sure the CRTC understands this point before they overhaul their native broadcasting policy.
As the founding editor of Intercontinental Cry I’ve spent over a decade navigating around Canada’s apartheid-driven media landscape. I’ve talked with hundreds of journalists, editors, columnists and publishers–and I’ve encountered just about every kind of pothole and speed bump you could imagine. But even so, it’s taken me years to come to a full understanding of indigenous media’s role in Canada and the challenges that all indigenous-run print, broadcast and digital media outlets face.
CBC’s Duncan McCue helped me come to terms with my own narrative through his analysis of Canadian newsroom media failings. And now, thanks to Marie Wilson and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many others are similarly discovering the value of indigenous media and the full scope of its suppression.
I did my best to contribute to this ongoing discussion for the CRTC and everyone else sitting in that packed room at the University of Ottawa.
I started things off by asking everyone if they knew the name of the First Nation that was displaced in 2011.
Only one person put their hand up… It was lake St. Martin First Nation, I explained.
You see, the Winnipeg government wanted a way to spare the city from having to deal with flooding each spring. The government ultimately decided that the best way to do that would be to turn Lake St. Martin’s reserve into a drainage basin. In order to create that drainage basin, the people had to go.
A few months after losing all their homes without compensation and being dispersed across the province of Manitoba, the community was confronted with a crisis from which they have never recovered.
According to the Southern Chiefs Organization, the stress of displacement resulted in “Attempted and actual suicides, family break-ups, increased family violence, drug use, alcoholism, and recruitment of community members by gangs in urban centres and host communities.” Health impacts, meanwhile, include “Miscarriages, depression, other mental health symptoms, and… premature deaths.
None of this would have happened, I warned, had the media intervened with the same enthusiasm that led them to swarm around Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during the height of Idle No More–or, if, in the very least, the First Nation had the capacity to reach the Canadian public in the same manner as the City of Winnipeg or Ottawa.
Had the media intervened, the government’s plan would have been publicly scrutinized; The First Nation would have been able to voice their concerns; and the public would have rallied behind the community, forcing the government to go back to the negotiating table and work things out amicably.
That is the role and power of media–specifically journalism. It ensures that we can respond to threats, challenges and even opportunities that arise. It provides us with the insight we need to make informed decisions. It allows us to engage the public, and it creates a space for conversations that help us overcome fears and prejudices, bridge cultural gaps and even work through traumas that collectively weigh us down.
But, Indigenous community media has its own role to play that is separate and distinct from non-indigenous media serving Canada’s urban centers.
Most importantly, and perhaps most obviously, it allows us to keep our own communities informed about the local threats and challenges that we face, whether it’s a raging forest fire, an oil spill, or a mining company’s illegal intrusion into a culturally sensitive area.
A national broadcasting corporation like APTN or CBC simply cannot serve 3100 reserves on that level. And nor should they.
However, research has also shown that community generated media promotes social cohesion and provides a venue that can lead to community-wide improvements in education and health. This is true regardless of the language it comes in.
Indigenous language use in community media has an even greater impact on community health–specifically mental health–because it helps to insulate our languages and maintain cultural continuity.
I stressed the importance of that particular point, considering the incredibly high rate of indigenous youth suicide in Canada and the fact that, according to UNESCO, 88 of the 90 indigenous languages still spoken in Canada are on the verge of extinction.
As noted In an academic paper on IC called “Colonialism is bad for your health but indigenous media can help”, there is a direct correlation between Native language proficiency rates and suicide rates. Researchers have found that youth suicide rates effectively drop to zero in communities that have high language proficiency rates. On the other hand, in bands where less than half of the population is conversationally fluent, suicide rates spiked up to six times the national average.
But indigenous media doesn’t just serve Indigenous Peoples. All indigenous-run print, broadcast and digital media outlets also provide Canadians with access to information and insight that they would never otherwise come across.
I think we can all agree how important it is to have that access, given the level of racism in Canada and the fact that Canadian newsrooms aren’t just missing a few stories here and there. Many Canadian journalists, columnists and editors push out stories that prey on public ignorance. They avidly stoke the flames of racial resentment and promote the erasure of indigenous rights as a “win” for all Canadians. And when it comes to issues like hydro dams or mining operations that threaten indigenous land rights, journalists will frame their stories in a way that favors whatever economic interests are on the table.
We even got newsrooms rallying support against Indigenous Peoples. Earlier I mentioned Chief Theresa Spence… The news cycle against Chief Spence was nothing more than a campaign to discredit Idle No More’s figurehead during a critical moment in Canada’s history. It was major contributing factor to the demise of the Idle More Movement.
Indigenous media has a key role to play in countering these kinds of harmful acts that go against the spirit and intent of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Even if an indigenous-run media outlet only offers English or French content, it is still contributing to the diversity of Canada’s media landscape by allowing us inform ourselves, educate Canadians and fully participate in public and policy discourse.
Indigenous Peoples need the capacity to produce media in their own communities just as much as the Canadian public needs new opportunities to hear our stories, learn from our experiences and maybe even meet us face to face.
If democracy matters, if journalism matters–if reconciliation means anything–we can’t settle for anything less.