Mon, 05/22/2017 - 13:30

Posted by H.G. Watson on May 02, 2017
Alicja Siekierska and Jesse Winter's three part story on fires and deaths in Canada’s First Nations communities. Screenshot by J-Source.

Alicja Siekierska and Jesse Winter's three part story on fires and deaths in Canada’s First Nations communities. Screenshot by J-Source.

By Jessie Anton

On Feb. 24, 2016, former Toronto Star breaking news reporter Alicja Siekierska—along with her colleague, Jesse Winter—broke away from the daily news grind and published a three-part investigative series on fire and death in Canada’s First Nations communities. Since the series’ rollout, it has generated a nation-wide discussion around the lack of access to fire and emergency services on First Nations around the country. In response to the work, the federal government has made a verbal commitment to resume tracking First Nations’ fire deaths, after a seven-year hiatus.

Since completing her journalism degree at Carleton University in 2012, Siekierska has covered news and sports in Ottawa, Edmonton and Santiago, Chile. In her short career, the Toronto-based reporter has also written stories for the Globe and Mail, National Post and Edmonton Journal, before moving into her current position as the transportation reporter at the Financial Post. Siekierska spoke to J-Source about how the investigative pieces came together, and why she considers this series her greatest journalistic accomplishment, thus far. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

J-Source: With a background in sports and breaking news, why did you decide to write about fire and death in Canada’s First Nations?

Alicja Siekierska: It actually came from a breaking news story. It was mid-December when there was a fire in Oneida Nation of the Thames, and a father and his four children died. My colleague, Jesse Winter, was sent out the night of, and then the next morning I was on the phone talking to First Nations leaders and politicians, while he was in the community speaking to people there. Through our daily reporting, we learned that the federal government stopped tracking First Nations’ fire deaths in 2010. After we finished that file, Jesse and I sat down and started discussing how we could follow-up on this story. The fact that they stopped tracking was something that really stood out to us, so we decided to look into it further, follow-up on it and track the numbers ourselves because if the government wasn’t going to do it, we might as well.

J-Source: What was your initial goal when you pitched the story?

A.S.: Our initial goal was to tell people stories they might not have known, and to shine a light on an issue outside the daily news cycle. When we spoke to First Nations leaders, some of them expressed frustration that this issue only comes about in the news when people die in a fire, but people are constantly dealing with it—whether it’s inadequate housing or inadequate fire services—and we wanted to dive into that issue and not wait until another tragedy struck another community like this.

J-Source: How did your previous work in western Canada play a role in how you told this story?

A.S.: I think it was very helpful in that we were able to bring more perspective and knew there were many more stories to tell across the country. Initially, we discussed whether we should focus solely on Ontario—because we are a Toronto newspaper and knew we weren’t able to travel far outside the province—but we knew we needed to make this a national story. We wanted to show how it’s not just affecting the communities in northern Ontario and southern Ontario, but the entire country.

J-Source: What was the process like in finding affected people willing to speak up?

A.S.: We traveled with a few people from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, went in with the grand chief and sat in meetings with community members, toured fire halls and went to schools. I think that really opened a lot of doors and helped garner a lot of trust that maybe we wouldn’t have had, if we had called them up from Toronto.

J-Source: What kinds of strategies did you use when you were trying to get the federal documents and records that deal with these deaths and fires?

A.S.: We basically went to the federal government for a statement, once we knew what the story was and what we were going to use in our final stories. So we sent a long statement and several questions, and gave them plenty of time to answer. I think it’s just being really open about what you’re working on and being clear, when it comes to your questions, and giving time so that you can follow-up—especially when it comes to complicated issues like this.

J-Source: I know the feds stopped documenting in 2010, but these issues have been going on for a long time. Why do you think it took so long to tell this story?

A.S.: I think it’s such a complicated issue and there are so many factors at play here—inadequate housing, fire services, maintenance—it really does vary from community to community and First Nation to First Nation. So, I think, part of the reason is because it’s such a complex issue and there is no simple solution to it—it requires different levels of government and support. The fact that we had them stop recording in 2010 to hinge our story on made the case for doing it quite compelling.

J-Source: As a non-Indigenous journalist, what challenges did you face in telling a story that directly affects Indigenous peoples?

A.S.: I think it was being sensitive to what changes the First Nations wanted. We didn’t want to come in and say, ‘this should be changed’—we were really relying on them to try to tell their story. We were just trying to be as sensitive as we could when it came to what they wanted told, and what their story was—not just us going in and thinking it’s a certain way.

J-Source: How important is it for Canadian journalists to report on Indigenous issues in our country?

A.S.: Oh, incredibly important. We need to be aware of the situation that our First Nations communities are in. Many of them are grappling with issues that many of us don’t often have to worry about and we shouldn’t put them on the back burner. These are issues that people need to know about.

J-Source: What good have you watched come out of this series since it was published?

A.S.: My colleague, Jesse, spoke to Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on the Monday following the rollout of the series. He spoke to her about the stories, and she had said that the government is committed to tracking the numbers again and instating a fire marshal’s office for First Nations. It was a verbal commitment, but she said that it is an issue that the government is aware of and they’re going to come back to it once they receive a report from the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada—which we spoke to in our reporting about what they wanted to see changed. So I’m hopeful that the government will consider implementing some of the changes that AFAC have been asking for.

J-Source: What were your thoughts when they said they were actually going to do something about this?

A.S.: I’m still skeptical. I was surprised to see such a quick response—it was days after—but I was encouraged to see that everyone is willing to work together on this. I just know that we’re going to wait to see what happens and we will be reporting on it.

J-Source: What did you learn most in doing this story?

A.S.: I learned that it’s important to cover a wide range in your reporting. This story had personal stories; it had government comment and information, and lots of data from freedom of information requests. That’s what, perhaps, made our stories so well rounded. We had a lot of information from a lot of different sources, which made it stronger.

J-Source: How did you grow as a journalist in the process?

A.S.: I think this is by far the biggest series I have ever worked on, and it’s probably what I’m most proud of in my journalism career, so far. It was challenging in many ways, but these are the kinds of stories that remind me of why I do journalism. I was really grateful to be able to do that.

Jessie Anton is a recent graduate of the University of Regina School of Journalism. In 2016, she interned as a web and video journalist for CTV News. Today, she works as a radio journalist at 620 CKRM in Regina, Sask.

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J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.