Putting First Nations Last

There are 75,000 native Canadians living in Alberta—and not a single full-time reporter who covers their lives. Yet when they do make the papers, it's no news but bad news

Rennay Craats
June , 1998 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

After the federal government made headlines this past January by apologizing to native people for past abuses inflicted on them in residential schools and pledging $350 million to the cause of native healing, an editorial cartoon appeared in the Calgary Herald with the word "sorry" spelled out in $20 bills. Native people in Alberta could be forgiven for concluding that the cartoon, by reducing a painful and complicated issue to one of money, demonstrated the hostility, or at least ambivalence, of the province's non-native population toward natives.

If there are any doubts that negative attitudes and stereotypical notions about native people exist, particularly when filtered through the media, a look at how the mainstream press in Alberta covers native news-or ignores it-might dispel them. These days, native issues are virtually invisible in the tight page space of Alberta's major newspapers, even though nearly 50,000 native people live on Alberta reserves and another 25,000 in the province's cities and towns. After looking at the stories written by in-house reporters at the Calgary Herald and The Edmonton Journal during the months of April and May 1997, I found that the two papers carried an average of eight stories per month on local native affairs. But when the Stoney reserve near Calgary came under scrutiny in June, after a provincial court judge postponed sentencing a convicted wife-beater until social conditions on the reserve could be investigated, the spotlight was suddenly back on the native community, and some felt there was a spillover effect from all the negative portrayal of corruption and scandal.

"People's opinions are low, based on what they see in the media," says Greg Favelle, a native business consultant based in Calgary. Favelle says he often has difficulty convincing clients to invest in the native community, due to a media focus that gets reduced to mishandled money, alcoholism and suicide. Headlines in newspapers throughout Canada scream about dissidents and armed conflicts, barricades and corruption-the issues become us versus them. "People accept it verbatim as truth," says Favelle, and that makes the job of forming business alliances and strengthening native communities much harder.

While some journalists say they are covering native issues with the same judgement and balance they would apply to any other news story, natives like Favelle say the coverage is biased and often betrays ignorance of important historical issues that inform contemporary native reality. It's true that mainstream news is selected and written essentially by middle-class, non-native reporters for a similar audience. And even the national native publication, Windspeaker, is run by a white editor. Many natives say greater sensitivity and awareness are urgently needed.

Canadian Association of Journalists President Tom Arnold agrees that what is printed about native life often has a relentlessly negative spin. But he points out that it is in the nature of the news to focus on controversy, regardless of what community is being covered. He believes that while a competent general assignment reporter should have the skills to write accurately and fairly about native issues and events, assigning reporters to a full-time native affairs beat would improve coverage. But it has been three years since the Herald and the Journal had full-time reporters devoted to the beat. Budgets have been reworked and newspaper structures altered, causing native affairs to fall by the wayside and news to be seen as a product to be consumed rather than issues to be explored.

Jack Danylchuk, an Edmonton Journal reporter who covered the native beat for three years until the beat was eliminated, explains that during the transition at the Journal over the past few years, native issues were classified as essentially rural, and therefore not of interest to an urban readership. Native affairs tend to be outside the scope of the revised mandate, so natives on reserves remain underrepresented and virtually absent from the coverage until a catastrophe. Danylchuk still occasionally writes about native affairs, but the paper's coverage is now event-driven, he says, with little general public interest generated unless there's a kerfuffle at the Stoney or Samson reserve, for example. After years of covering the beat, Danylchuk is dismissive of native complaints that stories about unemployment, corruption, high suicide rates and drinking on reserves feed stereotypical views. "They're not stereotypes, they're facts," he insists, adding that resistance to facing these things is counterproductive to the communities themselves. "There's a lot of denial," he says, and this makes it hard for a reporter, especially a non-native one, to get on with the job.

That is, if the job is there in the first place. Being without a native affairs reporter in Alberta doesn't make much sense to Wendy Dudley, a Calgary Herald reporter who covered the native beat just prior to its extinction. "Here we are, sitting in southern Alberta, with five Indian reserves pretty close to Calgary, and it's not covered on a full-time basis," she says. "I almost feel we've gone a little bit backward in media coverage." She covered the beat for over three years, and when she left to work in other areas, the position wasn't permanently reassigned. She feels it reflects a lack of interest in native issues, both within the community and the newspaper. Dudley says that as it was, her stories were buried deep in the paper's back pages. "I used to say, in the dying days, this beat is too hard to go out and have the battles to get the stories and then to come in and have the battles with the editors to convince them that it's important." She was shocked to find one of her stories about a native dancer who had won an award running on the front page. "Can you believe it? It ran on A1 and it wasn't a blockade story," she says.

It may be that happenings in native communities don't have enough obvious impact on non-natives to make them realize the importance of covering the issues, even though the native population is growing at a rate twice that of the rest of the Canadian population, making it reasonable to conclude that native affairs will affect more and more people each year. Dudley sees the native situation as unique and therefore deserving of a specialized beat. Mark Lowey, who worked the beat for four years before Dudley took over, agrees. "It has always boggled my mind why we have a dozen sports reporters at a big daily newspaper, yet we have no native affairs reporter," he says.

Dudley agrees with natives who say that what reporting there is often tends to reflect the biases of non-native society. "We know that conditions are bad out there, or we should anyway," says Dudley, but that doesn't warrant coverage of the troubled aspects of reserve life to the exclusion of all else. Dudley says she tried to cover the good with the bad, people's individual accomplishments and community business successes along with the turmoil and tragedy. But she admits there's often a built-in tension between non-native reporters and native communities that could lead to misunderstanding. Sometimes, she says, people were upset when she didn't cover positive events, yet never thought to contact her directly to tell her they were happening in the first place.

Native communities have rarely called Danylchuk with specific positive events either, he says, but native and government organizations routinely send press releases heralding success stories, which Danylchuk tends to dismiss as meaningless PR for minor business start-ups and dubious grant-funded crafts production. "We just get screeds of this shit coming in from Indian Affairs, from all kinds of agencies," he says. None of it impresses Danylchuk as newsworthy, but Greg Favelle argues that what seems like a minor accomplishment to a white reporter may be far more of an achievement in a native context.

For instance, while non-natives might take finishing high school for granted, historical obstacles for natives mean that it's a big deal and a source of community pride for a native student to graduate from high school. Maurice Switzer, director of communications for the federally funded Assembly of First Nations, agrees. He says that native children often have to leave the reserve and attend school in unfamiliar cities in order to graduate. A reporter who doesn't understand or isn't sympathetic to all the dynamics of the situation will either ignore the issue or spread misconceptions, he believes.

But there are conflicting views of how and what stories should be covered, based on cultural differences between native communities and the press, and also among natives themselves. One problem, says the Herald's Mark Lowey, is the clash between oral and written cultures. "You're fighting against years and years of native traditions and native history that had nothing to do with writing things down," he says. And reporters are trained to think in a linear way-they want answers to questions. Some natives resist that format. "They will circle around the question you're asking and expect you to discern the meaning or their answer from it," Lowey says. "Sometimes they'll tell you a story that has nothing to do with the question you're asking" until it's analyzed. Reporters on deadline find this frustrating, but Lowey is philosophical. "You can either be generous and think this is their way of communicating, or you can be less generous and think they're avoiding answering the question," he says.

Lowey chooses to be generous, but many aren't as patient, and the communication differences may only further the gap between native communities and the mainstream public served by the media. Lowey also points out that in an oral culture you don't edit others, making the modern media practice of taking a few quotes and writing an article that reduces what is said to fit the space available in that day's paper an affront to traditional natives, who see the abbreviation of their words and get angry. Experiences like this led Lowey to wonder whether a different way of reporting might work better to alleviate some of the hostility he encountered from native leaders he interviewed. "A solution is an unedited Q&A, where we can take a page or a half page and just ask them questions and let their whole answers appear," Lowey says. He hopes to use this format for an interview with controversial Stoney Chief John Snow, but has so far been refused.

But new reporting techniques aren't likely to be readily accommodated in today's newspaper pages, nor would they entirely modify how the native community is perceived. Jack Danylchuk has noticed a shift in editorial opinion about the Lubicon band's long-standing land-claim dispute. Several years ago, coverage was sympathetic, but in harsher economic times, the band has been the subject of less than enthusiastic editorial comment, he says. The band is now being played as stubborn and difficult, even though nothing has really changed.

Wendy Dudley has also noticed a swing in the level of concern for native affairs. During the Oka conflict in 1990, people were compassionate and understanding toward natives, Dudley says. Then Canada hit economic hard times and people had less sympathy to spare. "Now we're having news coming out about the allegations of financial wrongdoings on the reserves, which is taxpayers' money," she says.

Yes, taxpayers read newspapers, and the Stoney story is considered news because it affects readers. But on the whole, what happens on the reserves isn't seen as being of immediate consequence to society. This is reflected in what readers see in their daily paper. Mike Frank is a member of the tribal police force on Tsuu T'ina reserve near Calgary, and he experiences this apathy firsthand. "If this was happening in everyday suburbia, it would be a major crisis," he says. "But it's been happening for 70, 80 years and no one cares anymore." What further muddies the waters is that natives are divided-some welcome media attention while others resent it.

As a reporter, Mark Lowey also sees the importance of researching native traditions and history, but found that nothing he read helped when he visited the reserves. "What helped the most was realizing how little I knew and how ignorant I was about their history and communities." While he acknowledges the need to provide readers with background, today's tight newspaper formats don't often allow for it.

Debora Lockyer, editor of the national native newspaper, Windspeaker, says that most mainstream reporters don't investigate the actual impetus for news events and don't know the fundamental facts surrounding the issues. Kenneth Williams, former editor of the native publication Saskatchewan Sage, which is affiliated with Windspeaker and run out of Edmonton, is also concerned with the superficial coverage of native issues. Both say cramming a little on the subject isn't enough. Reporters often call Lockyer looking for quick fixes of background information. An Alberta Report writer called her to ask about any Mohawks in the province-they are a central and eastern Canadian band. "I can't spend hours and hours teaching Indian affairs to a reporter, especially from the Alberta Report, which has never been a friend to the Indians," Lockyer says.

But in order for the media to adequately cover events, once they've done their historical research, they have to first be informed about them. Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan says, "We have to start promoting ourselves." He is proposing to his council that the band buy space in an ongoing Alberta Report section that allows businesses to address readers directly. He wants to show the public his vision, explain how things are done on the reserve and educate readers about the obstacles natives face in becoming accepted members of mainstream society. "I look at it as a challenge," he says. "I could get mad, I could get ornery, but the thing is, we have to fight what's out there with their own tools."

And Maurice Switzer knows the power of that tool. He's proud that as a freelancer he's writing about native affairs but is disappointed that few others recognize the need for it. He uses his articles to educate the public about native culture and criticizes mainstream media for ignoring the accomplishments of his people. For example, mainstream reporters write about alcoholism without pointing out that many reserves in Canada have outlawed alcohol, he says. They focus on the high suicide rates but don't include information about the peer groups of young people who help desperate people cope, or they dwell on sexual abuse without acknowledging the work being done in healing circles.

Wendy Dudley says she tried to be mindful of stereotypes, and cautions the media and the public against seeing reserves as totally different worlds subject to totally different rules. Reporters have to battle the pitfalls of these double standards and strive to be sensitive to reserve life, often while being regarded as an enemy just for being white. "Their natural inclination is not to talk to someone outside of the community," Mark Lowey says, "and certainly not to talk to a reporter." He attempts to write balanced articles, but it's difficult without cooperation from the native community. Many of the stories about the Stoney situation have been lopsided because the chiefs have constantly refused to comment. But sometimes the tension is unbearable. He once went to the Stoney reserve to speak to an Indian Affairs official "and somebody not even connected to the tribal administration threatened to blow my head off-to get his gun and shoot me." Lowey was called names for being there at all, for being white and for prying into their business. This kind of racism is representative of a small minority of the people he's encountered, but it exists. Wendy Dudley says she's encountered the same kind of resistance and frustration when she's had to ask unpopular questions, and sometimes felt that as a white person she was being blamed for historical wrongs against natives. "You'd want to say, 'Look, I'm sorry. I wasn't on the boat with Columbus. Can we move on here?'"

For many natives, moving on means dispelling generalizations that allow the media to pass off one native group's experience as representative of all. Chief Waquan says that his community is different from those getting negative press. "What is happening at Stoney is a Stoney problem," he says. "You can't lump all First Nations into that area." He says he speaks openly to the media and welcomes scrutiny of the band council's decisions.

Despite all the tensions and obstacles, Greg Favelle sees successful alliances forming between industries and aboriginal groups, with chiefs trying to convey their people's accomplishments to a cynical and unreceptive public that isn't well served by the media. "There needs to be more exposure," says former Sucker Creek chief James Badger. "There is so much the public doesn't know about."

Alberta's news media may view native issues as important enough to cover when there's a crisis, but can they be convinced to return to more regular coverage? Mark Lowey hopes that the flurry from the Stoney investigation has opened editors' eyes to the potential for more in-depth reporting. He's suggesting that the Herald post a part-time native affairs beat, and he's optimistic that the position will materialize. "Sometimes, we have to not worry so much about the bottom line and take a societal leadership role as a newspaper," he says, as he waits to find out whether his bosses will agree with him.

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