Years ago, I was given a great opportunity to be the lead reporter and edit for a national Indigenous newspaper based in Winnipeg, the Drum/First Perspective. The paper no longer exists but the job changed my life in so many ways.
I learned much and encountered many Indigenous people across Canada. I profiled many leading Indigenous personalities and learned of the various endeavours Indigenous peoples pursued.
For instance, Indigenous people have a very lively professional music scene and produce the most beautiful art. Many play professional sports, especially hockey and lacrosse.
I came to realize that often mainstream media only portrayed Indigenous people when they were in conflict with the law or protesting something.
I covered a lot of political issues, too, but I learned that I needed to broaden my perspective and recognize the multi-faceted lives of Indigenous peoples.
I also learned of the breadth of opinion within and between Indigenous peoples, especially from different groups. Journalists are taught to always seek dissenting views on important issues and I discovered that definitely applied to Indigenous peoples.
But I often notice that mainstream reporters go to some of the same sources over and over. It’s frequently political leaders and ‘elite’ opinion holders, such as Indigenous scholars and political activists.
This kind of journalism distorts the discourse. Canadians are left with the impression that Indigenous people do nothing but protest and block highways, and that they all hold radical opinions.
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But when I worked at the Drum/First Perspective, I met so many average Indigenous people who had never protested. They often held very mainstream and conservative views on issues.
Our publisher had me intensely study the Indian Act so I could understand how political issues in Canada affected Indigenous communities. I had to learn of the legal and constitutional issues that affected this community. The publisher would say: “Okay, this is what’s happening, but how is this significant or new from an Indigenous perspective?”
Mainstream newspapers dealt superficially with these issues, and often didn’t understand the legal or historical contexts of issues. Often this is because of budget cutbacks in the media. But they may never have had a dedicated reporter on Indigenous issues who was well versed on these matters.
And reporters – who often make liberal assumptions – think there’s a single Indigenous perspective on issues. They don’t bother to seek out the two or three different views in the community.
At some point, CBC established an Indigenous news section. While it’s good to see the increased attention to these issues, I get concerned that they might repeat many of these errors.
The challenge for the media is to ensure they get dissenting views, like the pro-oil Indigenous voices and the voices that support certain legislation that may not be popular with the majority. They need to stop just asking a chief or the Assembly of First Nations about issues. They need to talk to different sides of the debate on reserves and not limit themselves to speaking to Indigenous scholars with leftist bias.
For instance, CBC News has a regular platform to Dr. Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq professor at Ryerson University. But Palmater has very confrontational views about government and her views aren’t representative of all Indigenous peoples.
She is also a failed candidate for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations. Yet I’ve never seen that mentioned in any of the many news programs where she’s interviewed. She’s often called upon to comment on issues where it might be useful to declare her politics or her history with the AFN.
Media need time and resources to understand the issues and seek a range of views within the Indigenous world, not just political protesters and armchair tenured warriors.
They don’t need to create a special sandbox for Indigenous reporting, they just need to significantly up their game.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.