Media key to ending stereotypes in aboriginal reporting

Duncan McCue, left, Judith Lavoie and Wab Kinew discuss the role of the news media in the reconciliation process with aboriginal people in Canada. The discussion at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre was part of the Ka Na Ta Dialogues series. - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
Duncan McCue, left, Judith Lavoie and Wab Kinew discuss the role of the news media in the reconciliation process with aboriginal people in Canada. The discussion at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre was part of the Ka Na Ta Dialogues series.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Can the news media play a positive role in the reconciliation process between Canada’s aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples?

A discussion, hosted by Vancouver Island University at Vancouver Island Conference Centre’s Shaw Auditorium to explore the idea packed the house Wednesday evening.

More than 400 people turned out to hear what Wab Kinew, musician, broadcaster and educator, Judith Lavoie, award-winning freelance journalist, formerly with the Victoria Times Colonist, and Duncan McCue, reporter with CBC and a professor at the University of B.C., had to say on the subject.

The panel was moderated by Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Assembly of First Nations national chief and VIU chancellor.

The event, titled Seeing Each Other, was part of the Ka Na Ta Dialogues series, launched by the Assembly of First Nations in October 2011.

McCue said mainstream media in all forms fails to take the extra time required to fully explore First Nations issues to give a comprehensive and accurate portrayal of aboriginal people, the challenges they face and their efforts and successes in emerging as an economic and cultural power in Canada.

One way to achieve that, McCue said, is to have more aboriginal reporters covering those stories. He cited the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network as a positive example of the growth of independent indigenous media in Canada.

“There’s no question that there are more aboriginal reporters in newsrooms right across this country and that’s making a difference,” McCue said. “More aboriginal reporters means a more balanced portrait of aboriginal people in this country. It means more story ideas and more nuanced stories.”

Providing in-depth coverage means taking the time in the field to build relationships, trust and conduct extensive interviews and gather information, as opposed to parachuting into a scene for a few hours for a quick hit for the evening newscast. All three panelists agreed more time needs to be allotted by news agencies to properly cover First Nations topics, but Lavoie pointed out getting those time allotments given the schedules most news agencies follow can be a tall order.

“There’s a growing realization that First Nations issues should be a [larger] part of mainstream reporting, but a major hurdle now is media cutbacks and, like most reporters, I deal with increasingly overworked editors, understaffed newsrooms, space restrictions, crushing deadlines and none of those lead to thoughtful coverage of complicated indigenous stories,” Lavoie said.

While those hindrances should be removed to improve reporting across the board, Lavoie also pointed out it is often the aboriginal communities that shut out local media, which impedes attempts to develop relationships and cover First Nations issues. Rejection combined with dwindling news gathering resources means First Nations reporting either becomes mashed in with other beats or eliminated altogether, she said.

However, the speakers noted that business magazines are doing a reasonably good job of reporting on First Nations issues by publishing detailed, balanced stories and profiles.

“They seem to extract all the feelings or emotions, as is very often the case with business reporting, and perhaps for that reason there’s quite a bit more effort that goes into what is actually happening on a particular business project or venture or proposed venture because of how sensitive those markets are,” Atleo said.

Atleo also noted the importance of business reporting relative to First Nations and said the economic future of Canada will be based on respect for treaty rights and aboriginal title.

“Media’s role, as I see it, is to act as a lever for the less powerful to hold the powerful to account,” Kinew said. “We talk about reconciliation or de-colonization or however you conceive of what this process that Canada is going through in grappling with the challenging aspects of its history and current relationship with indigenous people.

“What you’re really talking about is rearranging a power dynamic and so, of course, the tool which can be a lever to hold the powerful to account has an important role to play.”

Kinew uses the phrase, “no truth, no reconciliation” to describe media’s potential to leverage the truth about aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples and cultures, and he asks how people can reconcile and live together if they don’t understand each other.

“From the indigenous side, how am I going to be able to live in harmony and peace with people from other nations if I’m constantly playing the victim and believe that they are the perpetrator?” Kinew said. “No, I have to step outside of that way of understanding and seeing.”

Kinew also argues that the non-aboriginal perspective of First Nations people also needs to change, something media in all forms can help facilitate, but changing view won’t be easy and can’t happen without exploring sometimes uncomfortable truths about both cultures.

“We, as citizens of the globe, can demand better of our media outlets and our media institutions, but it’s not going to be easy,” Kinew said.

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