As the lights dim in the auditorium of Halifax’s Micmac Native Friendship Centre, a chanter breaks into song. It’s graduation for 24 native adult students. Anita Martell, a 32-year-old mother, is one of them. Graduation, after years away from school, is a significant achievement. It’s an event that would have been well covered and widely read In the Micmac News. But :here is no one here to record it-the 21-year-old paper has shut down.
A few streets south of the Friendship Centre, the Halifax bureau of the Micmac News is closed, the telephone disconnected. The receptionist for the four businesses that still operate out of the basement address points to the desk formerly occupied by the paper’s editor. He packed up a couple of months after budget cuts took effect.
The graduation wasn’t the only thing readers of the monthly tabloid missed. There was no report on talks between officials at the Department of Indian Aff’airs and Northern Development and Micmac politicians over treaty claims. No January issue of the News to report on the wrangling between native chiefs and Federal bureaucrats. Nothing all issues concerning fisheries or the environment. The Atlantic paper is one of 11 native newspapers and two magazines that lost all their funding after the February 1990 federal budget cuts. In an effort to control spending, Secretary of State Gerry Weiner scissored his way through native, women’s and youth programs. The Native Communications Program was axed. It was a savings of $3.45 million and it was deemed necessary to help reduce the country’s staggering deficit. The Micmac News, The Saskatchewan Indian and Ye Sa To in the Yukon Territory, which combined have brought news to natives for more than 40 years, folded within months. Three more papers were rumored to be on the verge of collapse. As some fought hard to keep from shriveling up, others embraced new and unfamiliar business strategies, hurling themselves into the dollar-driven arena of the publishing world. Observers say if this is the future of the native press, it’s a dismal one. Out east, the Micmac News was the only form of communication for more than 20,000 Micmacs scattered throughout Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Quebec’s Gaspe region. It was used to explain treaty issues, promote health, publicize education programs and publish stories by elders about Micmac legends and history. It was also invaluable in achieving justice. All have firm convictions that the Micmac News was integral in having Donald Marshall, Jr., freed. The government cuts to such a service, natives say, are an obvious attempt to weaken them.
Ottawa denies native accusations that the cuts were designed to keep them silent. Because of the cuts, natives got more publicity than ever, the Secretary of State’s press secretary, Len Westerberg, says. “If they had gotten the money, they wouldn’t have made any noise and no one would have known they existed.” Something had to be cut. Nothing was cut from programs for the disabled, race relations and official languages because, Westerberg says, they need government money, but “native communications have alternatives.” Westerberg says natives have to go after a larger circulation and get advertisers.
The funding cuts to the region’s traditional paper were welcomed by the Micmac Confederacy, a political organization in Nova Scotia. It didn’t think the News gave it adequate coverage, so when a void was created in September, the Confederacy decided to launch a paper of its own. But many Maritimers question whether the Confederacy’s Micmac and Maliseet Nation News has the financial resources to do what the Micmac News used to. The paper is operated by one person who is also the Confederacy’s self-government adviser and employment and fisheries officer. The challenge is extraordinary. The mandate of this young paper is to serve two nations, divided into 31 bands, spread over the eastern provinces, every month. Until the last half of the twentieth century, native papers published by natives were rare. In fact, it wasn’t until the communications revolution of the 1960s that aboriginal communications surged. To this day, the development of native media has been paralleled with a steady development in the communities. Ray Fox, president of the National Aboriginal Communications Society, credits the native media for the hundreds of land claims that have surfaced in recent years. Robert Rupert, a journalism professor at Carleton University and an expert on native news, echoes Fox’s sentiment. In the last 15 years, natives have made substantial progress, says Rupert. But without good newspapers, that will change.
Half a dozen Indian tribes in the Yukon now have only television and radio as sources of native information. The 18-year-old magazine Ye Sa To (translated as the “voice of the people”) teetered for months, struggling to survive from issue to issue. Finally, with the release of her latest issue in October 1990, managing editor Doris Bill was planning an official announcement of the demise of the territory’s only native publication. Bill can’t even imagine what the impact on the already isolated communities will be. She says Ye Sa To was instrumental in teaching the Yukon’s illiterate native population to read and inform themselves about treaties and land claims.
More failures are predicted, but there are some publications whose stubborn editors refuse to let the government paralyze them. They are sure they can pull through. Some will survive, Rupert says, but those that do will have to change their mandates. “Two or three papers have a chance at survival, but that’s by going commercial.” And going commercial means becoming mainstream-attracting a readership and then selling the numbers off to advertisers. Fox says for natives to do so would be to sell their souls. But that’s the way most papers are going. The Press Independent in the Northwest Territories has already adopted this strategy of mass appeal. Before the cuts took effect in September, it was a biweekly paper serving 15,000 Indians in 26 communities and covering 560,000 square kilometres. It used to be called the Native Press. An extra sales representative was added and overnight it was marketed to the Northwest Territories’ 15,000 non-native population. The paper’s editor, Lee Selleck, says that the former name restricted readers to the native community. With some changes, he is sure the paper will draw a larger readership, including non-natives. The paper has gone weekly and is growing thicker with more general news, arts, entertainment and comic strips. So far it’s working. Ad sales have doubled and now The Press Independent may get a government business loan.
At the same time, The Wawatay News, which covers more than 300,000 square kilometres in northwestern Ontario, is doing some serious restructuring.
Yet, it is deemed one of the papers that can least afford to. The population is scattered over vast regions, speaks three languages and has the highest suicide rate among native teenagers in the country. A reduced staff of four has been putting out a 24-page newspaper in two languages every two weeks, without a travel budget.
Since the news broke that their annual $100,000 government grant was cut, they scurried to put together a market development plan. What they’re after is increased circulation, and they’re looking at centres like Timmins, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg to get it. As a result, the character of the paper has changed. The communities are no longer directly reflected in the paper. John Rowlandson, an assistant director for Wawatay Native Communications Society, worries about this. “A lot of people here live in fly-in communities. When the road ends, you turn your car around, but north of the road are 16,000 people,” says Rowlandson. “Without a newspaper these Indian people disappear.” Rowlandson knows he has a lot working against him. He avoids making predictions.
Things may look grim for the native press but it’s not all the fault of the government, according to some. Inefficiency, large travel and administration budgets and the wavering integrity of some papers ruined it for the rest, critics say. Clint Buehler, the founding editor of Alberta’s self-sufficient Native Network News, says cuts to his competition, the Windspeaker, give his paper a greater chance at fair competition. He says there are a few papers, such as The Wawatay News, that may really need funding, but their chance has been spoiled by the fat cats. Buehler refutes the argument that aboriginal publications cannot command big bucks from advertisers because Indians are among the country’s poorest. Natives, he says, have control over a large amount of money. “Even people on welfare have money to spend and they make decisions where they want to spend it.”
Back at the Friendship Centre in Halifax, an injured press touches personal lives. Anita Martell is disappointed about the turmoil the native press is in. But a more immediate disappointment is that the Micmac News isn’t there to record the memory of the day she worked so hard to achieve. “It would have been nice for them to take pictures,” she says. “I would have cut mine out and saved it.”