In August 2000, I was sent to Burnt Church, New Brunswick to cover the daily showdowns on Miramichi Bay between Mi’kmaq fishers and conservation officers. The federal government had set a deadline for native fishers to remove their lobster traps to make way for commercial fishing – a deadline ignored by members of the Burnt Church reserve, who felt that their treaty rights had been violated. The Warrior Society, an aboriginal paramilitary group that was deeply involved in the Oka standoff in Ontario, set up barricades blocking access along the connecting highway between the Acadian Peninsula and the rest of New Brunswick. The standoff also led some non-native fishers, as well as some reserve residents, to fire bullets at each other’s vessels and equipment. I had been working with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) for only six months and here I was, reporting on one of the most chaotic and violent clashes I’ve ever witnessed in my career.
I spent more than two weeks following this conflict, logging countless hours of overtime as I tried to keep up with a story that changed by the hour. By the end, I was exhausted by the stress, but I also felt a great sense of accomplishment. I was finally covering the kind of news story I had always wanted to cover.
I have always been compelled to tell stories that are important to Aboriginal Peoples – after all, it’s who I am. As a Mi’kmaq born and raised on the Indian Brook First Nation in Nova Scotia, I’ve often wondered why things are the way they are on Canada’s reserves. I grew up surrounded by poverty, addiction and dysfunction, never knowing my people’s history in the Atlantic Region. It wasn’t taught in any high school history class, and I wanted to know why these social situations existed and what could be done to change them.
This was the basic question I wanted to answer when I entered journalism eighteen years ago. It was important for me to explore a part of Canadian culture that had traditionally been poorly covered by mainstream media. Despite my background, it was difficult to put this desire into action.
While interning at CBC Radio in Halifax in 1990, I pitched stories I thought were important to aboriginal people. Many were dismissed as “too internal,” lacking appeal to a wider audience in Nova Scotia. Things got better at The Halifax Chronicle Herald. Pitches were well-received upon my arrival in May 1994 and some of my articles even made the front page. After a while, though, the encouragement to write about aboriginal issues faded, as did my optimism. I heard, often second-hand, that some colleagues questioned my objectivity and fairness when writing about aboriginal issues.
The most hurtful experience happened six months before I left in 1998. One day, my supervisor discussed his concerns with me pitching aboriginal story ideas. He told me my insistence on covering these issues would only hurt my career because the news desk would never take me seriously. By extension, I’d also never be considered for promotion to more prestigious beats. What I found most disturbing about his comments was what he didn’t say – he never asked about my career goals and how those goals fit with the newspaper. It was readily apparent my aspirations didn’t mesh with the newspaper’s plans, so I left.
A year later, APTN went on-air for the first time. When the network advertised for an Atlantic video journalist – a role I’d been waiting for since graduating from journalism school in 1994, I applied for and got the job.
The atmosphere at APTN National News is no different than any other newsroom. The same journalistic ethics and standards apply as we aim to provide viewers with fair and balanced coverage. The difference is that the entire news staff is aboriginal and the primary goal is to cover issues and events important to Aboriginal Peoples. I report on these issues in the Atlantic region without being questioned about bias or objectivity. Through my work, I’ve learned about the history of my people and the treaties my ancestors signed with the British in the 1700s by covering the Mi’kmaq logging rights trial in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as by travelling to Innu communities in Labrador to cover the gas-sniffing epidemic among their youth. I would never have been given the chance to cover these stories if I had continued to work in the mainstream media.
My career choices may have limited how far I can go in this profession, but what I do now is far more fulfilling. I’ve developed a beat that goes beyond the headlines to look into why things work the way they do in aboriginal communities. I report on these issues with authority and knowledge.
Even media executives are starting to realize the importance of covering communities and having a diverse workforce in newsrooms. Canadian cities themselves are diverse entities and media outlets need to attract readers, listeners and viewers from a variety of communities.
For me, diversity in the newsroom means more than just hiring people of colour to cover mainstream issues. It means providing coverage of matters that are important to these communities, rather than dismissing such stories as being “too internal.” This kind of coverage needs to occur more frequently and consistently. Only then will diversity be meaningful in mainstream newsrooms.
About the author
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.