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The Right Words Matter: Aboriginal Terminology in Mainstream Media

The best measure of the under-representation of Indigenous peoples in mainstream Canadian media is the common misuse of the terminology related to them, their communities, and their issues. There are numerous examples to cite, but the one I hear regularly that irritates me the most is referring to a community as a “First Nations reserve”.

The term “First Nations reserve” is sort of redundant and it doesn’t really make sense. A community is either a “First Nation” or a “reserve”. No one who’s Indigenous would refer to their home as a “First Nations reserve”. I notice broadcasters from across the country make this mistake often. The CBC, where I work, is no exception. I actually addressed this recently in an email to my colleagues, which I’m adapting here. I explained that when we use a misnomer like that, Indigenous viewers and listeners roll their eyes and we instantly lose credibility.

I understand how that particular term came about and why it causes confusion. Recently, “First Nations” has arisen as an adjective to describe Indigenous people. Along the way, someone decided that a reserve needed to be described as “First Nations” (using the adjective), and it stuck. But by that logic, it’s like calling a small, non-Indigenous community a “towny town”, or in another way, a “white town”. It just sounds silly and weird. It’s perfectly acceptable to simply call a community a First Nation. I come from Wasauksing First Nation. It’s kind of like saying New York City (although Wasauksing is far less glamorous but far more gorgeous).

Being correct with the terminology used in mainstream media means a lot to Indigenous readers, viewers, and listeners. There’s still a big rift between Canadian media and people from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, so it’s imperative that journalists be sensitive and diligent with their words. Mainstream media outlets are sometimes the only connection between Canadians and Indigenous people, so in order to tell the stories properly, journalists need to get the words and ideas right. In many ways, they’re making up for the historical shortfalls of the Canadian education system.

As mentioned, “First Nations reserve” is just one common error of many, and my motive for bringing this up is to highlight two essential online resources for covering Indigenous communities, issues, and stories in Canada. One is Reporting in Indigenous Communities, the brainchild of CBC’s Duncan McCue. It’s a comprehensive hub for context, terminology, scenarios, protocol and other vital information and pointers for journalists about to embark on the Indigenous beat. It should be the first stop for the unsure, the unfamiliar, and the unaware.

For an extremely useful reference on proper terminology, the Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection (SABAR) created a handy guidebook on key terms. You can either download it or search the online database. A quick visit there prior to making a call to do research or set up an interview can help ensure the right words are used for the right people/communities. Those words can make or break a story.

While it’s easy gloss over proper parlance and cultural sensitivity as tedious political correctness, the foundation of journalism is supposed to be telling a story fully and correctly. That includes getting the words right to do the stories (and the people in them) justice.


I’m extremely pleased to announce that my new novel Legacy will be published in the Spring of 2014 by Theytus Books. Theytus published my debut collection of short stories called Midnight Sweatlodge in 2011. Their new managing editor, Paul Seesequasis, has tremendous energy and an exciting vision for Legacy, and I’m really happy to be working with them again. Here’s a brief synopsis:

In the winter of 1989, Eva Gibson is a university student living in downtown Toronto. She’s homesick for her community in northern Ontario, but she’s determined to get her education to one day return home and serve her fellow Anishinaabe people. After a rare night out with friends, she is beaten to death by a man whom she met at a bar. It’s a devastating loss for her siblings, who continue to mourn the violent loss of their parents just three years earlier. Tragedy becomes the Gibson family’s legacy. Back on the rez, Eva’s brothers and sister struggle to cope with their losses and redefine their legacy in the years after her death. Some turn to ceremony; some turn to vice. All the while, they contend with a creeping sentiment of revenge.

More to come…

Notorious Native Noise

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting in on an episode of CHUO’s The Circle to talk about Indigenous heavy metal from around the world. The Circle is a weekly hour-long show on the University of Ottawa’s campus radio station that features Indigenous music, arts, and current affairs. Airing every Tuesday at 9PM, it’s a great show that’s an integral part of Ottawa’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities. I’ve been a guest in the past with regular host Jocelyn Formsma, and summer host Darren Sutherland invited me back for a special all-metal edition.

I’m generally a fan of all kinds of music, and I’ve been into heavy metal since I was about 12 years old. It’s a diverse genre that embodies loud, passionate, and complex music that transcends cultures. Naturally, Indigenous people from around the world have embraced it as a way to showcase their traditions and stories with sheer force. While country and rap music are widely known as the most popular genres on the rez, Native people have been making compelling heavy music for decades. Darren had the idea of showcasing some of that talent for The Circle’s listeners, and asked me to come on the show to play some of my favourites. I was really stoked about the opportunity, and joined him on the air on August 27. Here’s what we played:

X-Status – “Warpath”
Sepultura – “Roots Bloody Roots”
Breach of Trust – “Who Am I?”
Biipiigwan – “Kingmaker”
Ethnic De Generation – “Blood Land”
Garden of Bedlam – “Sovereignty”
Rage Against the Machine – “People of the Sun”
Bruthers of Different Muthers – “Bows and Arrows”
Northern Cree – “Stay Red”

For more on the bands, their songs, and the importance of heavy metal in Indigenous communities, listen to the entire hour-long episode here:

Chi-miigwech to Darren and Jocelyn for having me on!

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