As a journalist based in Northern Ontario, Jon Thompson was used to being ignored. He knew that the rest of Canada, and even most people south of Barrie, had no clue what was happening in the land he says he loves so dearly. They had no idea about the massive unemployment caused by the failing mining and lumber industries, or the issues facing Indigenous teens who are often forced to move far from home to go to high school.
But he wasn’t going to let his freelancer status stop him from trying to get someone to listen. Fortunately, someone did.
Last month, Ontario provincial public broadcaster TVO launched its ambitious Ontario Hubs project, an initiative dedicated to providing long-form in-depth journalism in areas that have suffered local media losses. Its first announced hire was Thompson, who’s based in Thunder Bay and is the dedicated Northwestern Ontario journalist. Eventually he will also have freelancers, and the aid of students from Confederation College’s Journalism program at his disposal.
“I had committed myself to my life’s work being standing and screaming into the wilderness, as proof that I would never be heard,” Thompson says on being hired by TVO. “I’m changing the way that I think about that, because after all this time, we suddenly have a network and a platform to talk about these issues on a bigger scale.”
Thompson grew up in Thunder Bay, and has a deep connection to the land. He describes himself as someone who is not from Northwestern Ontario, but who belongs to Northwestern Ontario. From age six, he knew he wanted to become a writer. He attended Carleton University for political science, with the goal of becoming a journalist. He returned to Thunder Bay in 2002, and established the first Canadian branch of the Independent Media Center. As he experienced the effects of the diminishing mining and forestry industries, Thompson says the media coverage outside of local outlets didn’t reflect what he thought was the reality of the world around him. The mines and forests in this area and others were big factors in Canada’s growing economy, yet the coverage focused on Bay Street. Whenever the attention turned to the north, Thompson felt that the media coverage treated the region as exotic.
“[Media coverage of the north] is kind of like, I’m going out to the wildlands to have an adventure,” says Thompson, “And it’s not looking at our communities as if they’re permanent.” Critics of areas with depressed job markets question why people won’t stop complaining and move somewhere with more jobs. They fail to realize that while the communities people create are permanent, the economic structures are not always.
Thompson, realizing he wasn’t making much money from the field, went to teacher’s college, but found it wasn’t for him. He moved to South Korea after his girlfriend broke up with him. While there, Thompson got back into writing and started a book about homelessness in Thunder Bay’s south end. It was released in 2007, and was successful for a book that was self-published, selling an estimated 1,000 copies. It was then that he decided to cover the region as a freelancer.
Thompson was happy to provide the coverage he felt the area deserved, despite that in the beginning, it required him to hitchhike and camp on the side of the road because he didn’t own a car. Northwestern Ontario covers 526,371 square kilometres. And, when there’s such a small population spread over such a wide area, that means community leaders and educators are required to travel hundreds of kilometres on one-lane highways to attend meetings. Since the budget barely covered places that were easily accessible, it was difficult reporting on remote Indigenous communities.
“Most of the coverage in the beginning was on my own time and on my own dime, so I would take my vacation and fly into the far North and have to pay for airfare,” he says. “I would drive out to First Nations reserves as far out as I could drive to, and then either drive back in the middle of the night, or I would stay in my car if I had to. Some of those nights were cold.”
Although the lack of budget was difficult, it wasn’t the reason an outlet like TVO hadn’t heard from Thompson before. People in Toronto and Hamilton weren’t interested in what was happening in Northern Ontario. Thompson faced similar issues trying to draw attention to Indigenous issues. He was privy to the beginning stages of Idle No More, a grassroots movement that started in December 2012 in response to violations of Indigenous treaty rights from the former Conservative government. This happened when he was hired by the Kenora Daily Miner & News in 2007.
“Idle No More didn’t come out of nowhere—it grew from youth reclaiming their culture on their own terms,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been such a mystery to the national media as to what was happening if they had been on the ground and they had seen what I saw during that time.”
Now, the region is undergoing a transformation, Thompson says, and the mainstream media can’t look away anymore. Mining and forestry companies are slowly coming back after years of decline, and this time they’re working in collaboration with Indigenous communities around them. The story needs to be told from the eyes of someone who understands the region on a deeper level than someone visiting short-term.
“There’s real decolonization happening now in our institutions—it’s even starting to happen socially,” Thompson says. “Unless there’s someone’s boots on the ground, ready to provide context, we won’t be able to avoid sensationalism.”