Arrested journalists, misrepresented conflicts

An illustration in black lines on a yellow background. It shows three megaphones.
Illustration by: Meky Ottawa

When Anishinaabe journalism professor Duncan McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, first read the section of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action dedicated to Canadian media, he was glad the commission was highlighting journalism’s role in reconciliation.

“I think that the commission recognized the critical importance that media plays in forming opinion in Canada,” McCue said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“[There’s a] need for the media to […] recognize that [they] aren’t at arm’s length from reconciliation and all that entails […] The media, unfortunately, has its own history of misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples that it needs to atone for and change.”

Over the years, many Indigenous people have spoken out about the way Canadian media has supported negative stereotypes in the Indigenous issues they choose to cover and the way they cover them.

Sections 84 through 86 of the TRC’s Calls to Action are dedicated to reconciliation in media, addressing the CBC, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), and journalism schools specifically.

The Pigeon spoke to Indigenous journalists across Canada working in independent and mainstream media about whether the TRC has made a tangible impact on the state of reporting on Indigenous issues in Canada today.

Four years before the TRC’s recommendations were released, McCue launched Reporting in Indigenous Communities (RIIC), an online toolkit with extensive guides, resources, and checklists to help journalists improve their coverage of Indigenous issues.

Some of the questions the RIIC encourages journalists to ask themselves are: “Have you considered whether your story falls into a common stereotype of Indigenous people in the news?” and “Are you thinking of ways to fit in context and history about Indigenous Peoples?”

In 2011, following the release of RIIC, McCue taught a journalism course at the University of British Columbia similarly titled, “Reporting in Indigenous Communities.”

At the time, it was the only journalism course in Canada that focused on teaching students about Indigenous histories and media representation.

The section of the TRC directed to journalism schools asks that “Canadian journalism programs and media schools […] require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples.”

Since the publishing of the TRC, some Canadian journalism programs have added mandatory Indigenous history courses to their course loads, while others added courses focusing on Indigenous portrayals in media. However, other Canadian journalism schools have said their limited resources are a barrier to introducing further Indigenous-focused education to their program.

McCue thinks journalism schools have done a better job of responding to the TRC than mainstream newsrooms, but he believes they still have their issues.

“I think when you start to do a deeper dive into what kind of content they’re delivering to the students at the moment, it’s a bit of a mishmash,” he said. “There needs to be work done by each and every journalism school in this country to make sure that they don’t just check a box when it comes to the delivery of Indigenous content in their curriculum.”

“To not provide journalism students with a cultural competency when it comes to Indigenous issues […] is akin to not teaching them how to write a lede or how to white balance a camera.”

McCue, who is the Roger’s Journalist in Residence at Ryerson University, said a lack of historical context continues to be an issue in mainstream coverage of Indigenous stories.

“It’s the same over and over again. What we see is that reporters, unfortunately, don’t have the kind of understanding of Canadian history—and certainly don’t have an understanding of Indigenous history—to be able to report fulsomely […] on [these topics],” McCue said.

He referenced recent coverage of the attacks on Mi’kmaq lobster fisheries in Nova Scotia defending their treaty right to fish—a right affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. Despite this legal right, the Mi’kmaq have had to defend themselves against violence from members of settler fisheries and other non-Indigenous community members who were protesting their right to fish.

“Many media outlets have not done a great job of understanding the treaties that are underpinning some of that dispute, and don’t seem to understand or recollect the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions with regard to Mi’kmaq fisheries,” McCue said.

McCue has worked as a journalist with the CBC for over 20 years. As the conflict in Nova Scotia unfolded this summer and into the fall, several media sites, including CBC, incorrectly referred to the Mi’kmaq fishers’ actions as illegal because they were trapping out of the legislated season.

However, Mi’kmaq fisheries have a legal right to trap, and that right exists outside of the regulations for settler fisheries set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The CBC invited a Mi’kmaq journalist from APTN, Trina Roache, to discuss the mistake.

In the interview, Roache said, “When CBC or other media are calling this fishery an illegal fishery, or keep referring to it within the report as ‘this illegal fishery,’ to me, that’s bias.”

Other outlets like IndigiNews have also covered how the Canadian media has failed to fairly represent the conflict in Nova Scotia, understating the violence and missing the historical context.

McCue says journalistic standards have a certain complexity that makes it difficult to address issues like biased reporting.

“Balance, fairness, impartiality, all are really important aspects of mainstream journalism that separate us from people who are merely on the scene with their iPhones,” he said.

However, he said the journalistic notion of impartiality is limiting, especially for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour (BIPOC).

“There’s no doubt that Indigenous journalists, Black [journalists], [and journalists] of colour have felt at times that the notion of objectivity has been and continues to be a straightjacket, if you will, that prohibits them from connecting themselves to their communities in their reportage,” McCue said.

“I would argue objectivity never really existed in the first place and it needs to be re-examined through the lens of not only Indigenous people, but BIPOC people, for sure.”

Indigenous reporting unburdened by colonial standards of objectivity can be found outside of the mainstream, in independent media.

Karl Dockstader is a Haudenosaunee journalist who spent a week at a site near Caledonia, Ont. where Haudenosaunee land defenders are fighting a housing development. They’ve re-named the area 1492 Land Back Lane.

Dockstader arrived at Land Back Lane to write a story on the community inhabiting the encampment and blockade. He chose to write his piece from a non-objective, personal perspective for the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre. In the piece, he explains why.

“I—like the land defenders—am Ukwehu:we,” the article reads. “We are the people original to these lands. It was important for me to help tell this story from a perspective different from the way legacy media was telling it.”

“I have never gone to this land action for the purpose of extracting a story. I am there to give narrative sovereignty to a people who have been the subject of too many one-sided tales.”

In an interview with The Pigeon, Dockstader said pursuit of narrative sovereignty is what led him to tenting with Land Back protestors in August.

Sovereignty refers to self-governance and is a term that frequently comes up in the Indigenous fight for decolonization and improved rights.

The fight for sovereignty ranges from advocating for Indigenous laws to be recognized over colonial laws in certain communities, to Indigenous people being in control of telling their own stories the way they see fit.

On Sept. 2, 2020, Dockstader was arrested and charged by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) for “mischief and failure to obey the court order.”

The court order referenced in his charges is the injunction obtained by Haldimand county in the summer that was reinforced by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, siding with the developers and preventing occupation of the site by the Land Back protestors.

In Canada, journalists have a constitutional right to do what’s necessary to pursue stories of public interest. Dockstader’s arrest drew international attention, including coverage by the New York Times.

Dockstader connects his arrest to the complexity of being an Indigenous journalist in Canada.

“My arrest is part of the fact that it’s easy to arrest Indigenous people—there’s a lot of data that supports how Indigenous people are criminalized, and now I’ve been criminalized along with them,” he explained.

The OPP haven’t dropped the charges, although they have allowed Dockstader to return to the site to continue his coverage for the podcast he co-hosts, “One Dish, One Mic.”

This year, Dockstader and his podcast co-host Sean Vanderklis were awarded with an Indigenous journalism fellowship by the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the CBC.

Neither Dockstader nor Vanderklis have previous formal journalistic training. Dockstader said they never set out to be journalists; they were just responding to a lack of information on local Indigenous issues.

Courtney Skye is a policy analyst and research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, a guest commentator on CBC TV’s Sunday Scrum, and has been published in the Washington Post and CBC. She is also Mohawk, Turtle Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, the same community as the land defenders occupying 1492 Land Back Lane.

Skye was arrested on Sept. 3, 2020 after bringing land defenders food and spending time at the camp. Reflecting on the coverage of her arrest, Skye is interested in the distinction Canadian media outlets made between her arrest and the arrest of other journalists in connection with the site.

Skye often writes opinion pieces for news outlets as a contributor, not as a direct employee. She believes that is why she was not identified as a journalist by the RCMP.

“I was categorized as not being a journalist or not part of the media profession based on […] the internal dynamics at play of who is a journalist and who isn’t, and what’s objective coverage and what’s not.”

Skye can’t distinguish whether she was at the site in a journalistic capacity or a personal one, and she wouldn’t want to.

“I have so many different roles,” she said. “I think the hard thing is that obviously those lines become skewed when it’s your own community, because my own community is going through something right now. This is my home territory.”

“I have a job, but is that job more important than what my people are going through? I don’t think so.”

Skye said she does believe she has a responsibility to media and her writing, but she also has a responsibility to the encampment of people she has known her entire life.

She believes objectivity in media is an illusion to begin with.

“Every journalist and every person writes from somewhere—they write from their home experience, they write from the dirt they have on their shoes. That just happens.”

In 2016, settler journalist Justin Brake received the same charges as Dockstader and Skye—mischief and disobeying a court order—for covering an Indigenous land dispute in Labrador that had a similar injunction against occupation.

Brake, like Dockstader and Skye, embedded himself in the camp to do his coverage. This blurred the lines for police on whether he was reporting or occupying.

A final decision wasn’t made in Brake’s case until last year.

When Brake went before the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2019, representatives from APTN joined as the legal intervenor, arguing for the necessity of Brake’s coverage and citing the TRC’s call to media as an argument for why in-depth coverage of Indigenous protests are part of Canada’s journey toward reconciliation.

APTN’s intervention informed the final decision the provincial court later made to drop Brake’s charges.

Brake wasn’t the first journalist to be arrested for attending an Indigenous protest, but because his case reached a provincial supreme court—a court that must provide a lengthy opinion on which their decision was based—his case provided a legal precedent.

For example, the court clarified that their decision should only apply if the journalist “is not actively assisting, participating with, or advocating for the protestors about whom the reports are being made.”

In Dockstader’s coverage of 1492 Land Back Lane, he criticizes the way Canada’s legal system evaluates land claims and criminalizes Indigenous people, all while also lifting up his people.

“The only crime I saw at 1492 Land Back Lane was that people wanted to live on their lands in the way they have always done,” he writes.

Is this advocating for the protestors?

The day she was arrested, Skye was bringing chicken noodle soup to land defenders who were at the site. She then sat as they sang “esganye,” a song that honours women.

Is this participation with the protestors?

In Nov. 2020, journalist Karyn Pugliese published a paper with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, World Press Freedom Canada, and Journalists for Human Rights called “Silent no more.”

Pugliese is an Algonquin journalist who previously worked as the Director of News and Current Affairs at APTN, and now teaches journalism at Ryerson while completing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. The paper is based on Pugliese’s own experiences in Canadian media as well as the experiences of her 15 interviewees.

Pugliese and the other Indigenous women she spoke to reported that when they enter situations on the job, their position as a journalist does not protect them from the increased risks of violence and sexualized violence they experience as Indigenous women every day.

Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other women in Canada.

Pugliese recommends that newsrooms create systems of mental health support for their female Indigenous employees who she determined are often traumatized or retraumatized by the stories they are covering.

The journalists she spoke to reported being called a gender- and race-based slur, witnessing a man tearing down red dresses hung to commemorate Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and being run off the road in their car, all while trying to do their job.

Five of the 15 women interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

One of the major examples of systemic racism in the Canadian newsroom that Pugliese outlined was the CBC’s social media policy which prohibits CBC journalists from sharing their opinions on “controversial” topics on social media so as not to “undermine the credibility of CBC journalism and erode the trust of our audience.”

One of her interviewees, Terri Monture, reported that at least three journalists this year at the CBC had faced discipline for public statements. The examples Pugliese gave were calling land “unceded” or identifying a public figure’s statements as racist, which white managers considered to be opinions rather than facts.

“This report shows that Canadian, and western, newsrooms need to recognize their diversity challenges and address these issues by promoting Indigenous journalists, and in particular Indigenous women, into leadership roles,” Pugliese completed the report by saying. “Additionally, these newsrooms need to understand and accommodate the severe psychological impact of the job on Indigenous women journalists.”

The paper was collected into a report on the challenges women face as journalists which also included papers written by female journalists from Syria and the Congo.

The unique experience and needs of female Indigenous journalists is not something the TRC explicitly addressed.

While the TRC’s call to action toward the CBC asked for “increased” funding from the federal government for “increased” efforts from the CBC, the section on APTN was more of an acknowledgement than an instruction.

The TRC simply called upon APTN to “continue” their efforts toward reconciliation.

When APTN CEO Monika Ille saw the brief section on APTN, she was pleased.

“I think that gave recognition of the importance that APTN plays within reconciliation and building those bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” Ille said in an interview with The Pigeon.

When APTN began 21 years ago, they were the first national Indigenous broadcaster in the world. They are a non-profit organization born out of a report that found broadcast media programming could help Indigenous people preserve their languages and culture.

Today APTN offers programming not only in English and French, but in a variety of Indigenous languages as well.

Their most recent project is joining five other international newsrooms and organizations to produce a collective report titled the Anti-Indigenous Handbook which describes anti-Indigenous ideologies and organizations in countries from Canada to Australia.

At APTN, 107 of their 168 employees are Indigenous. Ille said this Indigenous majority shapes their organization.

“We’re here to give voice to Indigenous peoples. We’re here to tell our stories,” Ille said. “I think that there’s a way that we see things or we understand things because of our history […] I think we’ve got the sensitivity, this know-how, and I think that just makes APTN a unique place, especially for Indigenous storytellers.”

APTN’s executive director of news and current affairs, Cheryl McKenzie, has been with the news organization since 2001. Before joining the team, she had a much different experience at other media organizations.

“I started out in a mainstream news organization and it was a revolving door for Indigenous people,” she said. “I talked to other [Indigenous people] when I got that job … and I met more and more people who had that job and then moved on.”

Early in her career, McKenzie received an internship at CBC radio called “New Voices,” which has since been renamed New Indigenous Voices. While giving a speech at Ryerson University in 2011, McKenzie revealed that after less than a year there, they told her they didn’t have enough funding to keep her and that she didn’t have what it took. She was hired at APTN a week later.

McKenzie said the barriers still preventing young Indigenous people from succeeding in journalism often come down to lack of diversity in positions of power.

“We’re recognizing now that [these barriers] have a lot to do with Indigenous people not being in those senior positions and decision-making roles, so that’s where I see there needs to be more improvement […] in media organizations.”

Ille herself didn’t go to journalism school. When she started at APTN 17 years ago, she was a Québec liaison officer. Since then, she’s had mentors support her as she rose through the ranks of the news organization. Ille said APTN makes a point of being active in training and developing their employees.

McKenzie echoes McCue, citing the coverage of Mi’kmaq fisheries as an example of how far the Canadian media still has to go in properly covering Indigenous issues.

“I’m not sure how much other media outlets pay attention to the TRC calls to action these days, to tell you the truth,” McKenzie said.

Like Ille, McKenzie believes APTN was deserving of the TRC’s acknowledgement.

“Canada would not be the same if there was no APTN because we come from here. We don’t come from anywhere else,” McKenzie said.

“The Indigenous people who do work at APTN have generational ties to this land […] Indigenous people and Indigenous media definitely have a vital role in Canada’s national dialogue.”

As a professor, McCue is excited about the future of Indigenous journalism.

“What I see now are journalism students who are better educated, certainly on Indigenous issues, than journalism students when I was an undergraduate,” he said. “They recognize that there needs to be a change, that the mainstream media hasn’t done a very good job in the past.”

At the same time, he’s aware of the barriers to young Indigenous people being able to enter the field of journalism.

“There are barriers with regard to funding, there are barriers with regard to moving to urban centres where [Indigenous youth] don’t feel that their culture may be supported. Unfortunately, the dropout rate and the gaps in education that many First Nations students experience continue to be barriers in terms of their achievement in post-secondary,” McCue said.

“We, as journalism schools, need to start to make efforts to design our programs in ways that will attract Indigenous students and better serve them.”

Skye thinks that meaningful decolonizing change may involve the TRC calls, but it must also go beyond them.

“I think any tool that kind of helps Indigenous liberation is important, but I also don’t think that there’s only one tool or one tactic. I believe in a lot of different strategies and different people organizing to push their view of Indigenous sovereignty,” said Skye.

From podcasts and blogs to Twitter threads, Indigenous people are finding ways outside of mainstream media to tell their own stories and amplify their own voices. Skye said Indigenous people have harnessed the internet’s democratized access to information as a platform from which to speak.

“I think that Indigenous people have always been willing to adopt new technologies and adopt new ways of existing. […] We are contemporary people in a contemporary world and we can shape and adapt technologies to our use.”

She sees social media helping people better contextualize the reporting on Indigenous issues they are consuming.

“I’ve seen on social media a lot of people making the connection between RCMP inaction in Mi’kmaq territory and the over policing [of] land defenders at 1492,” Skye said.

On Nov. 16 of this year when Trudeau tweeted, “It is never acceptable for a journalist to be attacked for doing their job, and it is never acceptable for anyone, anywhere, to have their freedom of expression denied,” alongside a link to him speaking at the Global Conference for Media Freedom. Twitter users responded by criticizing Trudeau’s statement for not acknowledging the journalists who were arrested at 1492 Land Back Lane and other Indigenous protests.

Social media has changed Indigenous political protest and agency. Different platforms have helped by mobilizing allies to act in protest with Wet’suwet’en to oppose the Trans Mountain Pipeline, allowing Mi’kmaq fishermen in Nova Scotia to post videos of the settlers threatening violence against them, and giving Indigenous people the space to tell their own stories.

Skye said if there’s been any change following the TRC it should be attributed to Indigenous people themselves.

“I do think there’s been more willingness to cover [Indigenous issues], but I don’t think it’s necessarily driven from mainstream media outlets,” she said.

“I think it’s driven from Indigenous people and Indigenous journalists taking things like the TRC and advocating on its behalf and using it as a tool to leverage and advocate from.”

Maia Herriot is a Mount Allison graduate who doesn’t want to be a journalist but does make a habit of hanging around places where it’s cool to care and ask questions. She is based in Saskatchewan where she spends most of her time with five troublemaker chickens.

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