If you visit Louis Bird, a Cree elder in Peawanuck, Ontario, he will tell you fantastic stories, laughing, over a cup of tea. Some of these tales are about his life: about how he was born in the bush on a winter day 82 years ago and how his mother brought him through the snow to his father and grandfather, or about working as a translator decades ago and staying up through the night to learn complicated medical and legal terminology. Some of them are legends about the history of his people, from the distant, foggy past when men visited from the stars to marry a pair of young women. Bird is a storyteller, and he knows how to spin a yarn. It’s a skill perfected with practice: to have an audience hang onto every word, gasp in the right places, laugh in the right spots. He says that many stories start with a phrase, often a seemingly simple sentence steeped in meaning. Of course, so do all good stories—even journalistic ones.
How to craft a good story is an important lesson for any aspiring reporter. And over the past year, this tiny reserve along the Winisk River, near the shores of Hudson Bay and along the edge of Polar Bear Provincial Park, has seen a surprising number of these new storytellers. This is thanks in part to Journalists for Human Rights (JHR)’s new Indigenous Reporters Program (IRP). One of its goals is to train and encourage Indigenous people in remote communities to tell their own stories and, ideally, to share them with the rest of Canada. In 2015, JHR sent trainers to four remote communities—Peawanuck, Sandy Lake, Fort Albany and Sachigo Lake—to run eight-month training courses.
Peawanuck is the home of fewer than 300 members of the Weenusk First Nation. There are no year-round roads out of the reserve. For a few months each year, an ice road goes from Peawanuck through Fort Severn, the most northern community in Ontario, all the way into Manitoba. The runway at the small airport is packed dirt, and a similar road goes out into the bush, through the spruce trees, past a flag point, right to where it ends abruptly in the soft muskeg. While Peawanuck may be small, it’s rich in stories and storytellers. But like many remote First Nations communities, it doesn’t get much attention.
The Toronto Star sent a reporter up here last fall. Some residents later said they thought—or hoped—the story was about living in the North. The reporter thought it was about the community’s opposition to mining companies. Because of misunderstandings like these, JHR trainers have held open workshops about the job of a reporter. Journalism can seem mysterious and even threatening when it’s not part of daily life.
Pam Chookomoolin is one of a handful of Peawanuck residents trying to change that perception. A master corporal with the Canadian Rangers’ Peawanuck Patrol, a diabetes prevention educator and a mother of two, she signed up for the training program thinking it would be something interesting to fill her free time. Under trainer Brandon MacLeod’s guidance, she’s written stories for publications such as Wawatay News, a northern Ontario paper that considers trainee pitches as part of its partnership with JHR. One such piece is a story about her 10-year-old son, Logan, shooting his first two geese of the 2015 season. For NetNewsLedger, she has written a news story about a prowling black bear and first-person pieces about working with the Canadian Rangers.
Last August, the trainees launched their own website, Pehtahbun Peawanuck Dibajimona (Sunrise Stories from Peawanuck). Chookomoolin’s “Three sisters go camping at Shamattawa Lake” features audio from an interview she did with three elders. Mostly in Cree, it’s a meandering conversation, punctuated by laughter, and doesn’t follow standard, structured interview rules—like many pieces by trainees. Yet, if Canadian journalism ever wants to move past superficial narratives and harmful tropes about Indigenous people, it needs to accept the stories these new journalists want to tell and how they want to tell them.
In 2011, Robin Pierro was a JHR trainer returning home to Toronto from Ghana. She’d spent nine months there working with journalists at TV Africa and students at the African University College of Communications. Her head was full of ideas for improving awareness and coverage of human rights in Canada. She realized there were problems—how journalists covered Aboriginal issues, in particular—that weren’t being addressed. Indigenous people aren’t always treated as reliable sources, and stories about them tend to follow stereotypical narratives about substance abuse, criminal behaviour or victimization.
Pierro was the lead writer on a JHR report called “Buried Voices” that examined how Ontario newsrooms covered stories about Indigenous people. The findings were disheartening. From 2010 to 2013, a period that includes the start of the Idle No More movement, only 0.28 percent of all stories were about Indigenous “people, culture and issues.” Around one quarter were positive, and under half were neutral.
Negative stories focused on corruption on reserves, criminals and drug use. While no similar reports exist for other regions, anecdotal evidence suggests Aboriginal coverage is not much better outside of Ontario.
A 2011 book, Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, offers a longer-term look at the situation. University of Regina professor Mark Cronlund Anderson and associate professor Carmen L. Robertson found Indigenous coverage in Canadian newspapers from 1869 to 2009 both colonial and paternalistic. In 1990, Mohawks in Kanesatake, Quebec, set up a blockade to protest the proposed expansion of a golf course onto an old burial ground.
The standoff known as the Oka Crisis, lasted 78 days and started with the shooting death of Sûreté du Québec Corporal Marcel Lemay, who went to the barricade with an emergency response unit. Newspapers often described the Mohawks as violent or unreasonable, calling them, for example, “militant Mohawks.” Meanwhile, some referred to the police benignly as “law-enforcement authorities.”
A headline on a Montreal Gazette story about the Mohawk Warriors, who established the barricade at Kanesatake, was “Less like Warriors than thugs.” Many columnists called for cultural assimilation. Other journalists toed the government line, relying on news releases while treating Indigenous sources as less trustworthy.
A couple of months after the crisis, CBC’s then-chairman Patrick Watson cited the recent Oka Crisis as an example of journalists going for polarized political sources without analysis out of laziness. To avoid having to rely on outsiders for coverage, Kanesatake residents started their own community newspaper, the Eastern Door, two years later.
The archives of The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s show that stereotypes persist. In 2013, both publications covered Idle No More, a national movement for sovereignty and better protection of treaty rights. A column by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe titled “Too many First Nations people live in a dream palace” mocks Indigenous communities for calling themselves nations and claiming sovereign rights. He commended those that have formed partnerships with natural resource companies and criticized people in Attawapiskat for refusing to move closer to Timmins, Ontario, where they could, he argued, get jobs. He didn’t mention the nearby Victor Diamond Mine, which hasn’t brought prosperity to the community.
Globe stories, and those by other publications, often called Idle No More a “protest,” rather than, say, a movement, and highlighted civil disobedience—reinforcing the idea that Indigenous people are troublemakers or criminals, complaining about problems that other Canadians don’t see or experience.
The headline on a Maclean’s story about an Aamjiwnaang First Nation demonstration in Sarnia was, “Idle No More disrupts railway traffic, but CN fights back.” The short article focused on the losses for business and the inconvenience to the Canadian National Railway. Apart from mentioning the Aamjiwnaang people’s support for Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, the piece ignored the community’s motivations.
This story, like much of the Maclean’s coverage of Idle No More, links it all back to Spence, who was a convenient central character. Spence features heavily in many reports, which simplifies the narrative and could lead readers to believe the national movement was really about only one community and one chief. Even stories that included Indigenous voices and concerns often failed to adequately address the motivations behind Idle No More, apart from noting that many communities, including Att wapiskat, were in poor shape.
Last November, Billy-Ray Belcourt, one of Canada’s first Indigenous Rhodes Scholars, wrote a blog post criticizing journalists for relying on stereotypical narratives of Indigenous people, especially the depiction of them as victims of violence. Belcourt wrote the post after a Metro Edmonton article about his scholarship described him as someone who “faced family violence.” The sentence was a poor paraphrase of his comments in the interview: he had experienced violence and racism, and his grandfather was a residential school survivor. The story has since been corrected. Belcourt ended his post with five rules for journalists who want to speak to him. The first: “Violence should not be your lede. Indigenous suffering should not be your angle.” Reporters often fail to provide enough context, especially when covering conflicts, says Trina Roache, a Mi’kmaq journalist and the Halifax correspondent for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) National News. “It’s hard to mess up a story on a powwow or an Indigenous artist or something like that,” Roache says, although the Belcourt story is proof that journalists can bungle those, too. When Aboriginal interests conflict with other communities, she adds, an Indigenous perspective becomes even more important.
Roache points to hunters, guides and non-Indigenous locals in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park protesting a Mi’kmaq moose harvest in November 2015. The Mi’kmaq have a treaty right to hunt moose and had been working with Parks Canada to control the overabundant population through what would be the park’s first moose harvest. The protesters sent mixed messages: Roache saw someone with a Stop the Slaughter sign next to someone with a Let’s Hunt Together sign. News outlets gave a lot of ink to Parks Canada and the protestors’ concerns, but some didn’t include a single Mi’kmaq voice in their stories.
As imperfect as Idle No More coverage was, many people credit the movement with making Canadians—and journalists—more aware of Indigenous issues. Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer and professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, where he also serves as the director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance, says Idle No More changed the way reporters approached Indigenous stories. The number of people participating in Idle No More introduced journalists to many new Aboriginal voices, which meant a wider variety of opinions made it to print. King hopes news organizations are moving toward a better
relationship with Indigenous people, one that involves talking to them rather than talking for them.
One promising example is at CBC, which has a dedicated online hub for Indigenous stories that launched in 2013, a year after Idle No More started. CBC Aboriginal cross-posts some content with other pages on the network’s website. Connie Walker, a CBC News reporter from the Okanese First Nation, worked on the strategy for the unit before it launched and still contributes to it. The goal was to build community and showcase stories that aren’t traditionally part of mainstream coverage. When the documentary series 8th Fire aired in 2012, it proved there could be an audience for something like CBC Aboriginal. The four-episode series explored the relationship between Aboriginal communities and the rest of Canada. A separate online component, 8th Fire Dispatches, featured short films from 20 First Nations, Inuit and Métis reporters and filmmakers. There’s now a platform for Indigenous voices in journalism and the arts. “It’s telling our own stories,” Walker says, “and it’s this recognition that there’s an appetite for these stories.”
Telling more stories is only part of the challenge—they also need to be told well. Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan First Nation who has worked for CBC, on and off for 13 years. She’s writing a book about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. After she completed a broadcast program as a teenager, the representation of Indigenous people bothered her more. It was a bleak picture. Most stories portrayed them according to tropes— savage warrior, greedy chief or victim. The victim narrative was the hardest to take, because the stories rarely addressed the root causes. These narratives are changing, especially at CBC, she says. Early in her mainstream broadcast career, colleagues told her that Indigenous reporters shouldn’t cover Indigenous stories because they might be biased—a sentiment she likens to saying non-Aboriginal people can’t write non-Aboriginal stories. “We’d never get any news done,” she says. “It also didn’t make sense because a lot of us are sort of the experts.”
When Sterritt runs workshops for non-Indigenous journalists as part of the IRP, some of the questions—about what terminology to use for Indigenous people (it’s always a good idea to ask) or what a status Indian is—are basic. But she encourages all questions anyway. “Whenever I start any of my classes, I say, ‘Don’t beat yourself up.’ Because this stuff has been erased out of school, out of education, out of our minds, out of the public discourse.”
For those who aren’t in the workshops, the Reporting in Indigenous Communities website is one of the few resources for people who want to educate themselves. Duncan McCue, a CBC journalist and a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, created the resource and designed the site while on a fellowship at Stanford University. He wanted to help journalists report on Indigenous communities respectfully and with context, which is also what he teaches as an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia. There’s hope reconciliation between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada is possible, he says, if we can all work together toward that goal. “Journalism needs to be a large part of that bridge-building,” he says. “And that will happen by educating journalists about some of the sins of our past and how we can improve things for the future.”
And people do want to change the way they work. Roache tries to edit TV reports with longer clips and removes her voice-overs to let sources tell the story. But it’s hard to do well within the constraints of a newscast, and it takes longer than a traditional format with shorter clips. She and other Indigenous journalists say including context (like complex treaty rights or colonial histories) is difficult in short news reports. Online pieces allow for richer storytelling and for posting full interviews, but APTN lacks the necessary resources to prioritize and build its web presence.
Meanwhile, some Indigenous people are looking beyond mainstream news to publications such as Red Rising, a Winnipeg magazine, to share their stories. Too often, reporters cover Indigenous stories when the subject is “dead, drunk or drumming,” says Anishinaabe activist and Red Rising co-founder Lenard Monkman, using a pithy, oft-used phrase. Monkman and his friends wanted to give Indigenous youth a venue to write about their experiences. Red Rising, which appears in print and online, is currently produced by volunteers. It includes personal essays, poetry, art and videos. The goal is to be unfiltered and uncensored, and ultimately inspirational. “I’m trying to move it far away from telling victim stories,” Monkman says. “There’s a lot of negative, but there’s also a lot of reasons to be optimistic.”
On a chilly mid-October day in Peawanuck, some snow’s already gathering on the ground when MacLeod, the JHR trainer, arrives at the empty community hall. He sets up his blogging workshop in the building’s drop-in activity room, which is strewn with toys and games. Chookomoolin always comes, but MacLeod doesn’t know if any of the other trainees will. Sometimes people get busy, and in a community without cellphone service, it’s not as if they can easily call ahead. He has a start time in mind, but he won’t stick to it too rigidly. Up here, things start when people show up. Rather than lecture about journalism—an initial fear for many of the trainees—MacLeod helps people develop the skills they need to tell their stories. He’s run workshops on human rights, interviewing skills and photography (with a guest appearance from a local photographer) and worked one-on-one with trainees to help them write and pitch their stories.
Tonight, he has a handout that covers what a blog is and how to make one, with examples. People start trickling in about 10 minutes late, grabbing cookies and orange slices and settling in around the round table so everyone can see MacLeod’s laptop screen. Chookomoolin brings a huge pot of tea and Logan, her son, who takes an interest in the cookies. MacLeod starts by explaining what a blog is—a web log—and why people keep them. He restarts a few times as more people arrive, including a couple who aren’t in the usual group of trainees.
MacLeod points out that a blog means they can publish whatever they want. They don’t need an editor’s approval, and they don’t need to justify why a story’s important. While MacLeod talks, Gilbert Chookomoolin, another trainee, sets up a Tumblr blog for sharing his thoughts. He hasn’t published any stories, although he’s working on a personal project about a long walk his family took through the muskeg to Howley Lake, a summer fishing ground. He hopes the training will help his community research and respond to companies that want to mine in the area. There’s a lot of laughter as people poke fun at each other.
Almost all residents of Peawanuck have lively Facebook profiles. They share thoughts, photographs and videos and post on Peawanuck group pages, so some of them don’t see the need for blogs right away. Journalism, or even blogging, sounds more serious and formal than simply posting on Facebook. But the core trainees want the sense of legitimacy that comes from a platform other than social media—MacLeod explains that a blog lends their story importance and shows that they worked to get it right. Sam Hunter, a trainee who wasn’t at the workshop, later says he wants a newsletter to keep the community properly informed.
If we want Indigenous journalists embedded in communities, we need to accept that these stories can’t all be about corruption or resistance. Reporters need to reflect the community and interest the audience to stay relevant. Although Pam Chookomoolin has written several traditional news pieces—bears in the community, a vet clinic—as well as personal essays, she’s also interested in preserving stories about life and culture in Peawanuck. Traditional legends or tales from the elders about the old ways aren’t what we usually consider journalism. But the trainees know they need the skills to record them or they’ll be lost. They want to preserve their culture and their way of living and experiencing the world, or nobody will know who they are and where they come from.
For now, this knowledge is stored in the memories of their elders, although the trainees aren’t the first to try to create a record. Louis Bird, the storyteller, has been working since he was young to preserve the legends he heard from his elders. He recorded the tales in his head and on reels of tape that are now stored in his basement. Bird knows the stories he tells don’t always sound like they can be true, and many probably aren’t.
But some have turned out to harbour truths he didn’t expect. One old story is about a man from a place far to the south, the home of small people with tails, with pyramids where men were killed. As it passed down through the generations, people assumed it was just a fanciful tale, until it reached Bird, who knew about ancient Mexico. He argues that not all stories are meant to be an exact telling of history. Sometimes, they are sharing a version of history or teaching a lesson, even if the original facts have been lost to time.
The trainees are Peawanuck’s new generation of journalists, for stories old and new. They’re here to preserve the traditional tales, continue to unravel more mysteries and share new ones. What they want to tell may not always sound like hard news or classic journalism, but they just might show us something deeper about ourselves.
About the author
Erin Sylvester is the head of research for the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Her work has appeared in several publications, including the Calgary Herald and the Torontoist.