An Idle No More candlelight march in Toronto on Jan. 11, 2013. (Photo: Matrix X on Flickr/Creative Commons)
By Benjamin Shingler
In the two decades since the Oka Crisis, media coverage of Aboriginal issues has changed. For one, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which launched its first weekly news magazine in 2000, has become an important part of the Canadian media landscape.
Though criticism of mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal issues remains, print and online stories and television panels about the Idle No More movement include more Aboriginal voices, and Aboriginal viewers have been holding the media to account like never before, some experts say.
APTN, being a small, feisty station with around 30 news reporters in bureaus across the country, got attention last year for scooping the competition on the Bruce Carson affair.
These days, it’s a key source of information for anyone interested in Idle No More, which began as a protest against the federal government budget bill that made legislative changes to environmental assessments and the Indian Act. The movement has since evolved into something much broader, touching on issues such as housing, education and treaty rights.
APTN has covered the protests from the outset, with the National Day of Action held on Dec. 10, and continued to track its development as it grew on social media.
Most of the big networks picked up on the story about two weeks after APTN, says Jean LaRose, APTN’s longtime CEO.
“The only reason that it gained some traction with mainstream media was that they were watching us,” LaRose said in an interview. “All we did was start to follow it as we saw it.”
LaRose said APTN tries to be a mirror for what’s happening in the Aboriginal community and rejects any notion that his network has devoted too much attention to the protests. “Right now we’re seeing what many of us we’re thinking could one day come to a boil,” he said. “By covering them, that doesn’t mean that we throw objectivity out the window.”
Mainstream media has long been accused of poorly reporting on Aboriginal issues.
Rima Wilkes, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, has looked at the media coverage of the 1990 Oka Crisis and found scant perspective from the aboriginal side.
“From Oka you had basically a lot of quotes from government people, government spokespeople and then maybe you’d talk to one chief,” she said. But with Idle No More, she says, the coverage has included more Aboriginals’ voices both in mainstream print and television stories, panels and op-eds.
Wilkes, who studies media and Aboriginal issues, said that despite this, problems persist today in the way stories are framed by mainstream outlets.
For example, she points to a focus on the internal divisions within the movement and the depiction of road and rail line blockades as “violent.”
She added, though, that “the Internet really has changed everything because it means you don’t have to go through mainstream media to get heard.”
Duncan McCue, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, noted Aboriginal viewers have been holding media outlets to account for their coverage like never before.
He said viewers have complained about a focus on “conflict” rather than “dialogue and reconciliation.”
“I can’t say I have ever seen as many Aboriginal audience members give feedback to this extent,” he said. “I find that quite heartening.”
McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation and a reporter for CBC’s The National, believes some journalists lack an understanding of the history behind Idle No More, such as unsettled land claims and the treaty agreements between First Nations and the Crown that date back to confederation.
“I think there are a number of reporters who don’t have a baseline,” said McCue, who set up a web guide for journalists covering indigenous issues in 2011.
LaRose, a member of the Abenaki First Nation of Odanak, who was raised in Ottawa, contends APTN has played an important role in changing the way aboriginal issues are depicted in the media.
“Until APTN came along, Aboriginal people were literally invisible in mainstream media,” he said. “News coverage was usually focused on either major crises, or anything negative related to Aboriginal peoples.”
APTN began offering a daily newscast in 2003 and the staff is about two-thirds Aboriginal, he said.
The network is planning to add more reporters in future, along with a weekend newscast and an expanded website.
LaRose said APTN is aimed not only at Aboriginal viewers. It’s also aimed at Canadians.
“As a growing segment of the Canadian population, we’re being ignored,” he said. “We have a contractual agreement with Canada called treaties and we want Canada to respect them.”