Sharing Truth, Understanding Reconciliation: Covering the TRC as an Indigenous Journalist

Justice Murray Sinclair reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations in Ottawa on June 2
Justice Murray Sinclair reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations in Ottawa on June 2

Seven years ago, I was in a packed ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Winnipeg, waiting to hear a short, straightforward apology from the Prime Minister of Canada. I stood at the back of the room with my CBC colleague and the big Beta SX camera he had set up on a tripod. All around us were hundreds of residential school survivors, their families, community leaders, and other supporters. They all had their fervent eyes transfixed on the big screen in front of them.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs arranged this public viewing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the tragedy of the residential school system on behalf of the federal government of Canada. So many people showed up, organizers had to rent additional overflow rooms and hastily set up more screens. There were at least a thousand people there to hear the government say sorry for what they endured.

There was a thick fog of tension in the room in the hour leading up to the live broadcast from the House of Commons in Ottawa. We asked survivors if they wanted to be interviewed ahead of time to talk about what they wanted to hear. Everyone declined. Instead, they sat silently and strongly, waiting for those few words.

The apology itself came and went in what seemed like a fleeting moment. But almost immediately, that thick, invisible synthesis of heavy emotions seemed to dissipate. Soon, survivors were literally lining up to talk to us on camera about what they had just experienced, and to begin opening up about the pain they had carried with them throughout their lives. Ultimately, so set the groundwork for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

I covered the apology in Winnipeg for CBC TV News. I also wrote about it a few days later for the Globe and Mail. It was a very profound experience; I knew then that I had the honour and privilege of documenting an important moment in the history of this land. Little did I realize then that the TRC would become a regular part of my career, and in essence, my life as an Indigenous person in Canada.

Despite some initial challenges, the TRC began travelling Canada to document the stories of survivors a year after the apology. As its crucial work commenced, I reported on these early efforts for CBC while still in Winnipeg. The commissioners set the framework for what was about to unfold in the coming years, and it was personally very interesting and a little exciting to cover the beginning.

I don’t have a direct family connection to residential schools. None of my immediate relatives, and few people from my home community of Wasauksing (relative to other communities), were forced to attend the government-mandated, church-run institutions. Still, some in my extended family had to go. I was well aware of the shameful saga while growing up in the 1980s. We all were. I suppose when children had been stolen away from other nearby Ontario communities for generations, it was a potentially devastating threat that all Anishinaabe people knew about, even if they didn’t live it first-hand.

The residential school experience affects most Indigenous people of this land in some way, whether they’re related to survivors or not. It brutally stripped culture from communities, and the harrowing shame that attached itself to Indigenous identity became resolutely contagious. For example, outside of basic words and sentences, I don’t speak my native language of Anishinaabemowin because even my predecessors who didn’t go to residential school were led to believe it was useless.

Covering some of the initial TRC public events, I heard first-hand just how brutal the abuse was that created the awful shame that lingered for generations. It was impossible not to become sorrowful. The people who bravely got up in front of strangers to share their gruelling testimony could have easily been my aunts and uncles. I admired them all. In most cases, as they started to talk, they were cautious, yet candid; reserved, yet resilient. Over the course of sharing their stories, they bared their souls to encourage others to join them on a path to healing. At each of these events, the initial tension that weighed down each room always disappeared by the end.

In the following years, my job took me from Winnipeg to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. Every few months, I found myself at a TRC event to cover for CBC. Each time, it was an immense experience. Most of the TV stories I did were about the public hearings, where survivors were invited to share their dreadful experiences for the commissioners to document. Other stories focused on community initiatives inspired by the TRC.

But the constant in each story were the survivors. After powerfully emotional testimony about the trauma of being taken from their families and then suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, many would then allow me to ask them additional questions about being part of the whole process in front of a camera. Their courage and will to keep the conversation going always amazed me.

In those moments, survivors entrusted me with properly putting their experiences out into the mainstream media. Personally, there has been no greater position of privilege or honour in my line of work. I was a stranger to them, as were many of the people in those hearing rooms, but their dedication to the truth and to exposing the darkest chapter of Canada’s history transcended everything. I will always have the utmost respect for that.

Earlier this month, that part of the healing process came to an end, as the TRC released a summary of its key findings and recommendations at its closing event here in Ottawa. It was a historic event years in the making, and again, I had the privilege to be there as a journalist. Overall, I thought CBC’s coverage of the entire occasion was extensive, thorough, and respectful, and I was proud to be a part of it. I reported on the Walk for Reconciliation and the Education Day, and on the third day I was assigned to the release of the findings at the Delta Hotel.

The short three-block walk from the CBC building to the hotel was enough time for me to reflect on all the people I’d met covering the TRC and all the opportunities I had to learn. Soon, I found myself once again in a large ballroom packed with survivors, their family members, advocates, politicians, community leaders, and media. It was emotionally charged, like that ballroom in Winnipeg seven years earlier, but in a different way. There was understandably a strong undertone of sadness, but eager anticipation and even relief seemed to soar above it. The crowd had been waiting years – and even lifetimes – to hear what the commissioners had to say.

As TRC chair Murray Sinclair read aloud the recommendations, survivors and their supporters cheered. Sometimes they stood and applauded. Many wept in between, as memories of their experiences and loved ones no doubt remained strong in their hearts and minds. It all ended with drum songs, while the crowd rejoiced and embraced. While the apology felt like it opened a floodgate of emotion, the closing event felt like those torrential waters were finally easing thanks to the leadership and direction of the survivors themselves.

This is the end of that chapter. The TRC’s full report will be out later this year. It’s up to the federal government to implement its 94 recommendations. Since last week’s event, there’s been a lot of debate over some of those key findings, particularly the commissioners’ use of the term “cultural genocide” when referring to the deadly and violent tragedy of residential schools. There’s also contention around the term and concept of “reconciliation” itself, and whether it really is viable as it relates to Indigenous and non-Indigenous coexistence on this land.

These arguments lose sight of the original focus of this entire process, which was to hear from survivors themselves to teach other Canadians the truth about their country’s history. Most importantly, allowing them to speak their truth would lead them on that path to healing. Everything else should be secondary to this.

And in recent years, it’s been the survivors themselves who have provided their own leadership in guiding others to reconciliation. They led the march to kick off the TRC’s closing. In the days after, they were front and centre at all the public events in Ottawa. While there are still many survivors who weren’t present and others who rightfully disagree with the process because their pain is just too great, if the ones who took part believe in reconciliation, we need to respect that.

Although the TRC has come to a close, the story isn’t over. It’s important for those of us in the media to keep survivors’ stories in the headlines. There will be many new opportunities to do that in the coming years, as the younger generation gets a clearer picture of this country’s history and the importance of good relationships with each other. I vow to continue to champion those stories. It’s been an incredible honour so far.

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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.

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Indigenous Journalists Need Apply: #IdleNoMore and the #MSM

Idle No More march beginning on Victoria Island in Ottawa, January 11, 2013
Idle No More march beginning on Victoria Island in Ottawa, January 11, 2013

A modern Indigenous movement is sweeping the country and a lot of Canadians don’t understand it. Idle No More has captured the hearts and minds of people of all walks of life from small communities to big cities. At its core, the movement’s objective is to protect treaty and land rights and strengthen Indigenous culture. But for the most part, that basic message hasn’t permeated the conscience of everyday Canadians, much to the frustration of the people driving the movement. To the latter, mainstream media as a whole has yet to effectively capture and convey the essence of what Idle No More is. National newsrooms initially ignored it. Then they scrambled to cover it. Now the spotlight is moving away from it. While Idle No More was born at the grassroots and proliferated through social media, in order to properly educate regular Canadians about it and wider ongoing Indigenous issues, mainstream newsrooms need more Indigenous journalists.

Idle No More began last fall when four women in Saskatchewan came together as lawyers and academics to teach others about the impacts of the federal government’s omnibus budget bill, or Bill C-45. The initiative spread quickly via social media and evolved into a comprehensive awareness movement that sparked rallies in cities across (mostly Western) Canada on December 10. While local mainstream news outlets covered those demonstrations, this collective effort largely didn’t make it into the lineups and layouts of national news broadcasters and newspapers. That prompted an immediate backlash from Indigenous communities. Movement leaders hinted at a general mainstream media bias against First Nations issues. Some even floated the ridiculous myth that there was a federal government-imposed media blackout on Idle No More. The more likely unfortunate reality is that many news decision makers just didn’t take note or understand what happened that day, and there weren’t enough Indigenous people in their newsrooms to convince them otherwise.

But in the weeks that followed, the mainstream national news media eventually caught up. All the while, Idle No More leaders, activists, and academics continued to fuel momentum by generating discussion with blog posts and elevated coverage in community and social media. That mainstream coverage peaked in the week that led up to the ill-fated meeting between chiefs and the Prime Minister on January 11. In the lead-up, national television and radio news shows devoted large segments of their programs to features and panel discussions on Idle No More, while the developments took over the front pages of national newspapers with deeper context inside. That coverage is now fading, even though the movement itself shows no signs of slowing down.

As Idle No More evolves, it’s up to mainstream news media to tell Canadians why it still matters to the mass of people speaking up for it. In order to advance the story, Indigenous journalists are potentially key resources needed in the newsroom. Aboriginal people (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) are the fastest growing demographic in the country, especially in urban centres. Because these communities are closely connected, a journalist with the same background, knowledge, and understanding can intricately reflect what’s really happening at the grassroots.

Right now, many non-Aboriginal people who have been following coverage of the movement likely only associate it with images of rallies and round dances. But there are many other creative outreach initiatives happening at the local community level, like teach-ins and art workshops to help strengthen the relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada. Journalists with Indigenous backgrounds can help find those stories and advocate for them in the newsroom in order to foster a better understanding in the wider community. And at the most fundamental visual level, seeing and hearing Indigenous reporters in broadcast or reading their names in print goes a long way in fostering a positive sense of trust and understanding among First Nations viewers, listeners, and readers.

While inconsistent (and sometimes inaccurate) coverage of Idle No More has soured many First Nations people on mainstream news media in Canada, they shouldn’t reject it as an outlet for their voices. The movement gained momentum and continues to thrive on social media. Articles, essays, and videos still go viral across networks. Interactive online discussions draw thousands at a time. But relying solely on social media to move understanding forward runs the risk of creating an echo chamber. Ideas and stories are being shared on a scale never before seen, but in social media they’re more prone to stay within the same networks (i.e. Twitter followers and Facebook friends) of like-minded people. The much wider scope of mainstream media can help extend these unique stories to the unaware. Also, in an world of evolving information sharing, social media and mainstream media aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to raising awareness. Both can benefit from one another.

As a video journalist for CBC News in Ottawa, I’ve been able to cover local Idle No More events regularly. The newsroom has been very receptive to the stories around it because the producers understand how much these developments mean to people here. Still, I’ve heard ongoing frustrations from my peers in the community that wider coverage is falling short. Other viewers in the city may call my objectivity into question simply because I’m a visibly Anishinaabe person reporting on an unprecedented Indigenous cultural movement. But being able to tell these stories critically is the reason I wanted to become a journalist. When I was growing up, I never saw any other Indigenous reporters on TV or in print (although there were many blazing trails at the time, unbeknownst to me) telling the crucial stories I saw happening around me. I got into media to get the story out there. Now that awareness is on the rise, it should inspire a new generation of young journalists to ensure the story’s done right. Instead of spurning the media, become it.

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