By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor
On June 12, The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and Journalists for Human Rights will host a workshop in Toronto workshop for journalists and Aboriginal community members interested in improving mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal stories.
Part of an ongoing workshop partnership across Ontario, the event is free to attend and comes at a particularly salient time to discuss the news media’s role in helping the wider public better understand diverse communities of people often underrepresented or misrepresented in the news. At least two of the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report to the public, released earlier this week, directly addressed journalism. One is that public broadcaster CBC should be afforded specific funding for Aboriginal programming; another is that post-secondary journalism education should include compulsory courses on Aboriginal rights declarations, treaties and Indigenous law. (In addition to journalism, the commission also said that students studying nursing, law and medicine at post-secondary institutions should also receive this compulsory education.)
Angela Sterritt, a CBC reporter and the first journalist of Aboriginal heritage to be awarded a William Southey Journalism Fellowship at Massey College, said these particular recommendations are important in helping journalists do a better job of covering Canadian issues in general.
“People on Twitter weren’t too happy with the word ‘compulsory,’” she said of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s education recommendation. “But I think that if you’re a journalist and covering these issues in Canada, it makes sense to understand some of the issues and policies that shape Indigenous lives, and shape Canadian lives.”
Sterritt, who is Gitxsan, has reported on national stories from the oil sands to the ongoing issue of murdered and missing indigenous women; she will be part of the team facilitating the June 12 workshop. Also participating are Sylvia Maracle, executive director of the OFIFC, Danny Glenright, executive director of JHR, and JHR’s program co-ordinator Miles Kenyon.
The workshop, which has been held in six Ontario cities in the past year, is “aimed at bringing together journalists and members of the Indigenous community from groups,” said Kenyon. “There are challenges for everyone who has a vested interest in telling these stories, whether you’re a journalist looking to tell this story, or an indigenous person with a story to tell.”
While some of these challenges are location-specific—reporting on stories in the north or rural regions can become a budget issue for newsrooms, for example—others are country-wide, said Kenyon.
“There’s some huge trends you’ll see whether you live in Kenora or Hamilton. When these stories are told, and one of the issues is that they’re not told enough…they’re stories of crisis and they’re problem-based.”
Another challenge, said OFIFC Communication Co-ordinator Kelly Patrick, is the relative lack of Indigenous people working in Canadian newsrooms overall.
“Besides wonderful people like Waub Rice, Waub Kinew, Connie Walker, Kenneth Jackson—who broke so many first stories on murdered Aboriginal women—and the whole crew at APTN, there is very little Indigenous presence or media personalities that others can look up to,” she said.
There is also the onus of explanation for journalists of Indigenous background who cover Aboriginal communities that can, at times, extend beyond the scope of straightforward reporting, said Sterritt. Reporting on Aboriginal stories for a mainstream audience can, depending on the topic, mean re-explaining complex histories and context, which for daily news is a particular challenge. “Yesterday I did a live hit,” said Sterritt, “and one of the CBC bureaus asked if there was really a connection between residential schools and murdered and missing indigenous women, and could I make that link? Doing that in a quick live hit is difficult and uncomfortable.”
“Growing up Indigenous you’d expect [non-Indigenous] people to have some of the same understanding of Indigenous history as you do,” she said. “Having to explain what treaties are, what Section 35 of the Constitution is, what colonization is, the Indian Act—it’s complex stuff, being the go-to person.”
The workshop will run from 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. “Hopefully—and this is the truly productive part—journalists can speak directly with representatives from Toronto's leading Aboriginal organizations, and somehow from that can better report on issues affecting a growing, diverse, culturally rich, urban Aboriginal population in Toronto,” Patrick said.
Illustration photo by Daria, via Flickr.