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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.

Midnight Sweatlodge Update


It’s with great excitement that I can now announce that Midnight Sweatlodge is printed, bound, and available. Theytus Books now has copies for order, and it will start showing up in stores across the country in the coming weeks. If your local store doesn’t have it, ask them to order it! I’m thrilled that you’ll be able to read my debut collection of short stories. One of my life’s goals was always to have fiction published, and now that dream has come true.

I debuted the book’s first story “Dust” at a reading in Winnipeg last week. I was in town to work on CBC’s ReVision Quest, and coincidentally, Midnight Sweatlodge was printed the same week. Kelly Hughes from Aqua Books was kind enough to quickly organize a launch with Rosanna Deerchild and Duncan Mercredi (two of my literary mentors). About 50 people showed up, and I’m truly honoured that I was able to read one of my favourite (and oldest) stories in front of such an amazing crowd. Chi-miigwetch!

Reading at Aqua Books, Winnipeg. Final tally: Applause 5, Boo 4

I was also fortunate to do a bit of press to promote Midnight Sweatlodge while in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Free Press ran a short Q & A with me in their weekend edition prior to the launch. CBC’s Manitoba Scene also posted an interview, along with audio (at the bottom) of a chat I had with CBC Radio’s Weekend Morning Show. APTN National News invited me onto their show for an interview about how the book came about. Chi-miigwetch to everyone for the support! Keep coming to this site for more press and reviews.

We’re now planning launches for Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Parry Sound/Wasauksing (hometown show). We hope to have those confirmed in the coming weeks, and I promise to keep you updated. I’ll also be taking part in this September’s Thin Air festival in Winnipeg, and I hope to make other festival appearances in the next year. This book would not have been possible without the hard work and confidence of the great staff at Theytus and the editorial guidance of the brilliant Jordan Wheeler. Most importantly, it was inspired by young Aboriginal people everywhere – especially in my home community of Wasauksing. Last, but certainly not least, I would have never accomplished this goal without the love and support of the Rice and Shipman families. Chi-miigwetch!

Why I became a TV reporter

At home it was one of our weekly rituals. As it got dark outside, mom would light candles and dad would start pumping the few kerosene lanterns that hung throughout the house. When lit, these tender and harsh degrees of light seemed to fight each other to illuminate our young brown Ojibway faces. Mom would then keep us busy with a book or a song while dad prepared our entertainment for the evening.

He would pull a car battery and a small black and white television with rabbit ears out of the closet. He then somehow wired the TV to the battery and turned the knob. The screen would sputter like a lawnmower motor with dots and diagonal white bars dancing up and down before coming to life. The static would then fill the screen, and with a few tweaks of the antennae, we’d have a picture. This is how we watched TV back then.

We lived in a humble home with no power or running water in a deep corner of the reserve. Every week, our parents would cobble together that makeshift TV set so we kids could watch “The Nature of Things” on CBC. It was our favourite show and they made sure we never missed it. After David Suzuki’s informative lesson about the natural world around us, they kept the TV on to watch “The National” with Knowlton Nash. Then it was time to unhook the TV from the battery, blow out the candles, turn down the lanterns, and go to bed.

Even as an eight-year-old, it was a bit late in the day for me to be watching national news. But this was my exposure to a world that was so far from me. That’s not to say we didn’t know “white” Canada – our mom is white and the reserve we grew up in is only a ten minute drive from a town. But when you’re huddled with your family around a tiny, fuzzy and flickering pale blue screen in a powerless and waterless house enveloped by darkness in the middle of the bush, it’s like peering into an entirely different universe.

When I watched the news I saw a world on that little screen that I didn’t know. The stories I heard and the places I saw were things I had no idea I could ever be part of. I thought Knowlton Nash was some kind of supreme being, because it sounded like what was on the TV was named after him (Nash-ional). Never once did I see people that looked like us in that little box, so I never imagined we had any kind of role in that far-off place.

Little did I know back in the 1980s that there were already lots of Aboriginal people breaking ground in Canadian broadcasting. But those moments just never hit the rabbit ears or the AM dials of some of the people on reserves who were able to tune in, no matter how close they were to transmission towers. I grew up not knowing I could be telling stories on TV too.

As I went through school I loved writing and I loved telling stories. I loved hearing the lessons my grandparents and aunties and uncles told through these ancient tales. I had a wild imagination so I started writing down some of the stories I came up with. I didn’t know that what we saw on our rudimentary TV back then were stories like the ones I heard and still carry with me today.

Then when I was 17 I travelled to Germany as an exchange student for a year. A newspaper in Ontario asked me to write stories about that experience and send them back. That was my first experience with journalism, and I quickly realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. When I returned I applied to university to study that. Originally I thought I’d become a worldly correspondent, writing about more wild experiences for newspapers and magazines around the globe. But then I got a taste of what it takes to put stories on TV – matching resounding words with unforgettable images – and I fell in love with a whole new way of sharing peoples’ experiences with countless others in remote corners of the country. So at Ryerson I started to focus on broadcasting – more so to produce these stories than to actually be on TV to tell them.

In school I got in front of the camera from time to time just to have fun. When we got back to the edit suite, it was even more challenging and exciting to make an actual story of the images and interviews we shot. I thought if I ever did get a job in the field, I’d fill in as a reporter once in a while, but that was it. As that four-year journey wrapped up, I had a couple of internships with two very different Canadian broadcasters – the Weather Network and CBC. After graduating, the former gave me my first job in the business, and after being a writer for them for a couple of years, they put me on TV as their reporter for southern Ontario.

I reported on all kinds of crazy weather stuff in Ontario and across the country. Then I got a job with CBC in Winnipeg. I spent four great years with Canada’s national broadcaster in that gorgeous Prairie city before returning to Toronto this past summer to do fill-in work. Now I’ve settled with them in Ottawa. I’ve been an on-camera reporter for about six years now and more than 1,000 stories later, it’s been a wildly fulfilling ride. There have been some ups and downs but it’s mostly been a hugely rewarding and remarkable experience.

TV stories are short and often very forgettable. But when you create them, you can take someone by the hand and show them what they need to see, and explain to them what they need to know. Throughout life, most of us have indelible memories of people guiding us through confusing new experiences and making us understand. That’s how many reporters approach our assignments. On TV it’s primeval storytelling in the most modern medium. If you do it effectively, people will never forget the story and as a result, they’ll never forget you.

But I’ve never been in it for that kind of recognition. Too many people in this business get caught up in the plight for exposure and glamour. People who know me know I’m the opposite of glamourous. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I just want to tell a good story and do it honestly. I’m hugely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I just hope I do everyone that I encounter on this journey justice. I am a conduit for your stories and my primary passion is to do them well.

That being said, I don’t judge success by how far I’ve come since those days of rabbit ears and car batteries on the reserve. Today, I watch the news in HD in 5.1 sound. I’m fortunate enough to be telling the stories that I love a lot of the time. And today, I report for the National from time to time – the first news show I ever saw that exposed me to life beyond the rez. I will be successful if at least one other kid on a reserve far away sees me on the news and is perhaps inspired to follow a similar path. Media is growing, and so are we. There’s an immensely powerful growing knowledge in our communities that our stories will never die, and we are in a position to make sure they resonate even louder for thousands of years.

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