Northern Revival

Wanted: Reporter determined to show the South the new North. Enter Paul Watson, the Toronto Star and the cash to get the job done

Marta Iwanek
Winter, 2012 | Comments (3) - Report an Error
Watson proposed a different way to cover the North—like a foreign bureau. It costs just as much as a overseas posting, but the Star approved the idea

 

Paul Watson wends his rented car along the picturesque Alaska Highway. Past Carcross, he keeps heading south on a road that hugs a towering mountain to the right with blue snow-capped mountains across a grey lake to the left. The rain gently pitter-patters and the windshield wipers do not change their slow, steady pace. Country music plays on the FM radio.

Watson is on his way to Faro, four-and-a-half hours north of Whitehorse. After spending four days in Yukon’s Peel River Watershed, working on a story for the Toronto Star, the Arctic-Aboriginal correspondent wants to make an extra trip to an old mining town where a reclamation project will cost taxpayers an estimated $700 million. He hopes the visit will give him a good ending to his piece about the battle to protect one of Canada’s last pristine wildernesses in the face of rampant mineral exploration.

When we pass a “Now Entering British Columbia” sign, he remains unfazed. But after another half hour, he realizes he’s going the wrong way. He turns the navy Kia Sorento around on a gravel shoulder used for taking pictures.

“Here’s Carcross and here’s Whitehorse and here’s Faro,” I say as I trace my finger on the glossy yellow tourist map. “So we could have just gone…Carmacks!”

“Oh, Carmacks! Carmacks.”

“That’s over here.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah.”

“So we’re not even close.”

“No, we just went the opposite way.”

“OK,” he says nonchalantly. “So where’s Carmacks?” The yellow-green lit clock on the dashboard says 10:30 a.m. We’ve been driving two-and-a-half hours the wrong way.

“Sorry,” he says. “See, I told ya, I always get lost. This is why I need a GPS.”

While no sense of direction may be a curse for others, some of Watson’s best stories come from getting lost. And it’s this wandering and losing his way that he wants to apply to his work in the North, a place where southern Canadian journalists face a lot of criticism. By wandering, Watson hopes to find stories that aren’t preconceived; to understand the place rather than sensationalize or trivialize it—even if those stories don’t always create the buzz that editors crave. Using Vancouver as a base, Watson heads north for about six weeks at a time to do a story or hang out.

That’s a luxury that makes him the envy of many southern journalists, who usually report on the North by phone. The Canadian Press, the Edmonton Journal and Global TV have all closed their Yellowknife bureaus. The Globe and Mail—which in 1984 killed its northern column that was predominantly about Yukon—recently ran an in-depth Nunavut series, but it doesn’t have a reporter stationed in the North full time.

Watson admits he has a long way to go, though. He started the Arctic-Aboriginal beat three years ago, but also covers Afghanistan, so he must divide his time between two corners of the world. Typically, southern coverage of the North, a place that is a big part of Canada’s national identity, falls into two extremes that sell: the quaint or the negative. But because this is a vast territory with many different, complex people and issues, many northerners feel that southern Canadians have a skewed perspective of their life and their land. And with the region on the rise politically and economically, understanding the North is more critical than ever.

Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are home to 111,200 people, just 0.32 percent of Canada’s population. But depending on who’s talking, the borders of the North sink below territorial boundaries to include the northern parts of many provinces, such as northern Quebec, or extend into the international circumpolar region. Indeed, some see it as a way of life more than a geographical designation. Martha Flaherty, former president of the national Inuit women’s association Pauktuutit, who now translates films into Inuktitut at the National Film Board of Canada, believes that while access to the North is greater than ever, there still isn’t enough media interest. She’s the granddaughter of Robert Flaherty, whose 1922 film Nanook of the North follows an Inuk man and his family as they hunt for seal and walrus and build igloos on the sea ice (see sidebar page 34). That movie continues to “represent and misrepresent Inuit” and “northerness” to southern audiences even today, wrote Valerie Alia in her 1999 book Un/Covering the North: News, Media and Aboriginal People.

But the mythologizing began even earlier. An 1899 National Geographic piece about explorer Robert Peary’s quest to conquer the North Pole reported: “The hand-to-hand battle against the opposing forces of darkness, frost and distance which Peary waged during the entire winter makes a chapter daring and effective as any recorded in Arctic history.” Much more has been written since, of course, but colonial attitudes are hard to shake. Journalists parachute in for a few days, usually for a special event. “People joke about it: if you go in for a day you get an article, if you go in for a week you get a book,” says Alia, adding many reporters “don’t pay as much serious attention to the humans there as to the landscape and the resources and a kind of romance with the North.”

In downtown Whitehorse, they joke about the way southern papers cover the North. “They don’t,” is the common line. Others aren’t amused. “I think that they make us sound too remote, almost like we’re so far North that we’re out of reach,” says Yukoner Greta Thorlakson as she walks down Main Street. “Just because we aren’t a province doesn’t mean that a lot of what goes on down south doesn’t happen here too.” A recent poll commissioned by Yellowknife-based magazine Up Here had editors concluding Canadians have a Grade 1 level knowledge of the North. Canadians roared with laughter at Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans,” which inspired the poll, but Up Here’s senior editor Katharine Sandiford says when the ignorance is about our own country, “it’s a lot less funny.”

Hoping to change that, Watson sent Toronto Star managing editor Joe Hall a proposal titled “The New Frontier: A Multimedia Arctic-Aboriginal Beat” in 2009. It outlined the veteran correspondent’s idea to cover the North as a foreign bureau, not just restricted to Canada, but including the circumpolar region because this would add more context to the issues the people there face. Watson wrote the proposal from Jakarta, Indonesia; he was working as Southeast Asia bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times but his editor wanted to turn him into a freelancer to save money, Watson emailed Hall about coming back to Canada. To Watson, a journalist who’d made his name at the Star as a foreign correspondent, the decision made sense. Within a few days, he sent his pitch, which came as a shock to Hall because it was so out of left field for a reporter who’d spent much of his career overseas. At the time, the Star’s northern coverage was, like other outlets’, usually done by telephone and occasional visits. But Hall was intrigued. It didn’t hurt that the proposal came from Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1993 photo of the dead body of a U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after the downing of his Black Hawk helicopter.

Today, he’s in downtown Whitehorse looking for a history book on the Peel watershed. He finds the Globe in the basement of Mac’s Fireweed Books and taps the newspaper on the counter twice. An article on the front page is about the assassination of the mayor of Kandahar. His Afghan fixer had emailed him about it while he was in the Peel, but he couldn’t write the story from Yukon. He can’t get Afghanistan off his mind; after all, he’s covered it since 1996 and, with Canadian troops and reporters leaving the country, he believes reporting on it is more important than ever. Still, Watson says the North is exactly where he wants to be, especially since he’s drawn to places where other journalists don’t usually go.

Darrell Greer, editor of the region’s Kivalliq News, was one of the few photographers who caught Governor General Michaëlle Jean eating raw seal heart when she visited Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, in 2009. Southern news outlets offered Greer as much money as he makes in a week for his photos, but he was pretty sure he knew how they would use them, so he turned down the cash and now says, “Go through all the stories of that period and try to find one that will tell you why the Governor General came to Nunavut to begin with.”

CP photographer Sean Kilpatrick was one of the other photographers in Rankin that day. His news wire’s lead read: “On the first day of her trip to the Arctic, Michaëlle Jean gutted a freshly slaughtered seal, pulled out its raw heart, and ate it.” Other articles quoted animal rights groups calling her actions “revolting” or “Neanderthal.” The narrow spotlight doesn’t do justice to a complex place with its own traditions and culture, though CP’s Alex Panetta did add that Jean made a forceful pitch for federal money to create a university in the North. Perhaps the headline on Up Here’s online article put it best: “Michaëlle Jean Eats Raw Seal Meat, World Goes Nuts.”

Coverage varies from reporter to reporter, but Kent Driscoll, Nunavut bureau reporter for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), says the most frustrating misunderstandings happen when journalists come in packs to cover big stories such as a prime minister’s visit. He’s seen Iqaluit’s name spelled with an extra “u,” which changes the meaning of the city from “the place of fish” to “unwiped buttocks.” In a pack, journalists tend to all pick up on the same story, without worrying about context. During the conference of G7 finance ministers in 2009, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a group that looks after Inuit land claims, offered workshops about Inuit culture and perspectives. Driscoll says no southern journalists showed up, and in order to see more than the backs of other reporters’ heads on the tour bus, southerners should come alone more often and when there isn’t a big story.

Researching ahead of time also helps. When Bob Weber headed up to the Northwest Territories to cover an election in 1997, he discovered there were no political parties, in the southern sense, with decision-making leaders at the helm. His whole plan fell apart because he didn’t know that the territorial government operates by majority consensus. The Edmonton-based reporter, who does most of CP’s Arctic coverage, has since built a formidable list of contacts and a knowledge of the North that impresses many of the people who live there.

Yet, he admits stories written from a desk tend to be more institutional because they rely on the government, police and land claims groups that have the resources to get their information to journalists. But when they travel, reporters can get the stories that nobody’s packaged and go beyond cute and fluffy or big issues such as poverty, addiction and crime. Weber is proudest of his stories that have come out of being there.

But that’s expensive. The Star devotes about $150,000, excluding salary, to post Watson there, a cost comparable to the Star’s foreign bureaus, which range from $100,000 to $150,000, without salary—but it’s four to five times more expensive than other national bureaus. Ed Struzik of the Edmonton Journal, who has been reporting on the North for over 30 years, says his newspaper sent him up at least once or twice a year, but now doesn’t have the budget to send him at all. Since the bureau closed, he pays his own way to the eastern Arctic to research and write books in and about the North. His editors give him time off and, in exchange, he usually files a few stories from each trip. Given the cost, he has some sympathy for his bosses. “I can understand the trepidation of editors when they look at a bill of, say, $5,000 or $10,000 to do a story and then wonder what the fallout will be when the story is just okay instead of spectacular.” 

In the fall of 2010, a spate of gun violence in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, prompted the entire RCMP detachment to take stress leave. The story caught the eye of the Globe’s Patrick White, who’d covered the territory when he was the paper’s Winnipeg bureau chief. It had the makings of an intriguing story: an artist’s colony unraveling was “symptomatic of a territory unhinged,” he later concluded. National editor Sinclair Stewart thought so too and, much to White’s surprise, sent the reporter and photographer Peter Power up North for two weeks. “I imagined just doing it from my desk in Toronto,” says White with a laugh. After all, that’s how southern journalists usually cover the region.

At more than 7,200 words, his April 2011 article looked at how Nunavut was doing 12 years after its launch. With a violent crime rate seven times the national average and a homicide rate 10 times that of the rest of the country, White concluded, “The bold experiment in domestic nation-building Canada launched in 1999 has gone deeply wrong.” Being there gave him stories such as the man who lived in one small house with 15 others. Remembering his conversation with the man, White explains, “He offered his own personal diagnosis for what was wrong, not only with his family being in such an overcrowded house, but for all of Nunavut.”

On the first Saturday of April, the Globe’s front page showed Leo Nangmalik looking off into the distance. In White’s piece, the man talked about the abuses he suffered in residential schools, his time in jail and his attempted suicide. But the story ends on a hopeful note with his words: “What I have told you…I have never been able to tell. I feel a peace right now. Maybe this is what we need, this talking.” Later the same day, though, White’s BlackBerry pinged: Nangmalik had committed suicide. The reporter alerted Stewart and Power and within an hour Stewart posted an editor’s note on the paper’s site. White soon learned that the source, who’d become more than that, was facing the prospect of going back to jail for a charge from his past drug dealings. He killed himself a few days before the article ran.

Even without the suicide, the piece was controversial. Greer dismisses it as a typical southern take on the North. He has no problem with White broaching uncomfortable topics, but says an outsider wouldn’t understand much of the context about territorial development. “It’d be nice once in a while to see a tip of the hat from southern media as to what we’re accomplishing and not always beating us down.” Meanwhile, Health Minister Tagak Curley delivered an angry speech in the Nunavut Legislature. He was outraged that the series had suggested “there is no hope” in his territory and that “the leaders have their face under the snow and they’re not willing to admit it.”

White, who is currently the Globe’s Toronto City Hall reporter, counters that Nunavut’s social issues were something that hadn’t been thoroughly covered by the media and “to just dismiss that outlet as being overly negative is a pretty easy way to ignore what that outlet has reported on.” And Jim Bell, editor of Nunatsiaq News, a paper based in Iqaluit, believes the story was accurate and says Canadians have a right to journalism that explores the reasons the territory is in trouble, considering the amount of money the federal government has invested in Nunavut. “You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know there’s a problem.”

Jimmy Johnny, a Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation elder, chats with Watson outside the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society office in downtown Whitehorse. As he puts a Player’s cigarette to his lips, he whips around and points to a tan-coloured chipmunk as it scurries across the fence. Watson smiles knowingly: their time together in the Peel provided plenty of evidence of Johnny’s ability to recognize wildlife that Watson couldn’t even identify with his telephoto lens. Days spent hiking and talking around the campfire helped Watson know more about Johnny’s life and how decisions on the Peel will ultimately affect him and others. Southern Canadians may romanticize the northern wilderness and believe it is unlimited, but it’s disappearing.

In his story on the Peel, Watson devoted just as much space to Johnny as to environmental scientist David Suzuki, who was also in Whitehorse. That’s uncommon; “I often hear up North: how come we never got to be part of these stories?” says Mary Simon, president of national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “We are the experts of the North.” The story appeared in the Saturday and Sunday editions of the Star in late August. The first part, “A Majestic Yukon Where Humans Are Still Outsiders,” ran on A1 with a photo. Watson began the story with a spiritual tone because he thought it was the best way to connect his audience to such a remote place. He ended Sunday’s story, which ran on A8, with his visit to Faro and gave the mining industry one paragraph. Faro is, he suggested, a cautionary tale for those making decisions about the Peel. Johnny liked the story: “His writing is a lot different from other people.”

Others are more critical. Valerie Alia notes how few aboriginal voices were actually in the series. About the first story, adds: “The headline implies that old-style portrayal of ‘unpeopled wilderness.’” Of course, Watson isn’t the first writer to have his best intentions ruined by a headline writer.

Although he has many ideas for his beat, Watson admits he hasn’t come close to what he wants to do with it. He is experimenting, trying to figure the place out, acquainting himself with people, which often means leaving the paper, pen and camera in the hotel. But the wandering pays off. When University of Guelph researcher Tristan Pearce met Watson in the coffee shop of the Arctic Char Inn in Ulukhaktok during white-out conditions, he was the first southern Canadian reporter Pearce can remember seeing in the hamlet on the west coast of Victoria Island, let alone one who stayed a while. And Watson found a story. But instead of focusing on Pearce, who has been studying the impact of climate change on the community since 2003, “Victoria Island: Where Warming Means Danger” looked at the issue from the perspective of Jerry Akoaksion and Jack Akhiatak, two local hunters who took the reporter on the ice with their sled dogs.

Watson wants to earn people’s trust, which takes time, before tackling hard-hitting stories, though he thinks his High Arctic exiles series in 2009 came close. The three pieces were about how the federal government moved Inuit 2,000 kilometres north from the southern Arctic to the High Arctic during the Cold War, essentially leaving them to fend for themselves. Although other reporters have covered the issue, this part of Canada’s history is not yet in the public consciousness. Watson envisioned a landing page for the Star site that teachers could use in classrooms, but that never materialized. Indeed, as of November, Watson had produced just nine videos and hadn’t taken advantage of the web nearly as much as he and his editors wanted.

It takes time to build a bureau, and progress on this one has been slowed because Watson splits his time between the North and Afghanistan. (And this fall, Watson’s title changed from Arctic-Aboriginal correspondent to foreign affairs columnist, which will mean a portion of his time will be spent in the circumpolar region—and, therefore, the Arctic—but he’ll also be dividing his time between even more countries across the globe.) Still, Flaherty, who was only five when her family relocated to Grise Fiord and who went back with Watson to tell her story, was impressed with him. “We go through a lot of pain. We go through a lot of problems, but we also have a lot of beauty and people don’t see that when they don’t go up there,” she says. “He’s seen the beauty of it.” 

“The Toronto Star Discovers the ‘Arctic’” was the sarcastic head Nunatsiaq editor Jim Bell wrote on his personal blog when Watson started his beat. He thought Watson did a good job on his first story about researchers aboard the Louis St. Laurent, a coast guard icebreaker, but it wasn’t really news since the project had been announced a couple of years earlier. And the display didn’t impress Bell. Phrases such as “the planet’s new frontier,” a place where “nations rush to stake their claims” and where “Ottawa aggressively fights back to protect our land,” had him laughing: “The Star’s dim-witted copy editors pack in more clichés per pixel than I ever thought possible.”

But Bell believes that southern media coverage has improved in recent years due to a core group of reporters who report on the North more frequently and have a better understanding of the region. In addition, APTN and CTV have an informal copy sharing agreement. And Nunatsiaq News entered into a similar arrangement with Postmedia, after the former Canwest papers wanted a story about a murder trial in Iqaluit. No money changes hands; the copy just gets credited to the organization and author. But the southern outlets save money and get better northern stories, while the northern outlets get access to more southern stories.

Although Bell says an Arctic beat is a good idea, he sees little evidence of the Star really having such a beat. After all, Watson lives in Vancouver for family reasons and says if he lived in the North, he would no longer be able to relate to what his southern audience would find new. “You have to have more than the idea,” says Bell, who argues that a reporter who splits his time between Afghanistan and Canada doesn’t do much to make the newspaper look serious about covering the region. And although Sandiford believes Watson has become the trusted voice for his reporting, she says the fact that no major southern newspaper has a correspondent in the North full time “baffles me.” From his hotel room in Kabul, Watson says, “Ideally, I should be there all the time. As a compromise position doing it as much as I can when I’m not here or somewhere else is better than where we were before.” And Alia says all reporters juggle different topics: “It’s how you go if you go and how seriously you take it.”

Former Star national editor Tim Harper hopes the paper continues to take it seriously, but admits, “We often jump on a hobby horse for a while and then tire of it and move on to some other area that is underreported.” And Watson’s beat took some explaining to a newsroom operating in a “southern” style. “Every so often one of my many masters in Toronto would say, ‘Where’s Paul? We haven’t seen Paul lately. What’s he got?’ There seemed to be a misunderstanding sometimes that he could hop on a plane and file something by three o’clock.”

Watson says he won’t give up on the Arctic-Aboriginal beat, in part because he realizes how easy it would be to not cover the region. “No one’s going to notice, no one’s going to wail and say, ‘How dare you not cover Canada’s North?’” But northerners would notice.

In 2010, he stands among a crowd of kids who play with faded yellow soccer balls in a school gym on a Friday night in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T. They wait for Ghanaian-born Isaac Ayiku, an economist and soccer player, to arrive and teach them the sport. The Vancouver Olympics are underway and Ayiku is coming to make sure this northern community of about 400 people isn’t left out of the Olympic fever transfixing the South. A plump boy with a round face notices the outsider and boldly walks up to him. He looks up at Watson, his chin no higher than the journalist’s waist and blurts, “What’s your name and when are you leaving?”

Watson bursts into laughter and the boy is gone before he can answer, but the kid’s simple view of the world was the most genuine thing anyone had said to the journalist since he had started the beat. That moment crystallized the attitude northerners have for southerners. “All they ever see is outsiders who pass through, get what they need, take it and leave.” 

 

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COMMENTS (3)
Doug
As a Canadian Photojournalist I list Mr Watson amongst my very select group of heroes..or more precisely people to look up to in my field.
Any photog brave/foolish enough to wade into a mob in Somalia or drive unescorted thru Afghanistan in pursuit of the truth deserves respect.
In a world of rush rush rush to report stories even top tier Journalist are made to look foolish with misreported facts on major stories like the Boston Marathon bombing.
It is truly sad to see so many friends in the business worried their jobs will disappear at CBC because they lost the right to cover hockey..truly sad.It's also sad that when Paul tries to bring exposure to an area people still sit on the sidelines or behind their computer screens with petty sniping.
Well done Mr Paul Watson, you make me proud to be in this profession
Posted on 03/16/2014
Rebecca
Why? Wends works.
Posted on 02/19/2013
Sarah
I think you mean "winds" instead of "wends". Great story, though.
Posted on 02/14/2012
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