20 Jahre Nachher/20 Years Later

At Toronto's Pearson International Airport on July 31, 1996
At Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on July 31, 1996

I struggled to put on a brave face and hold back tears in front of passing strangers at Pearson as I hugged my family one last time. We wouldn’t see each other again for a whole year, and I was about to embark on a journey that would change the course of my life. It was 20 years ago today – July 31, 1996 – and I was 17 years old with my world about to blow wide open.

My luggage was checked, my documents were secure in my travel wallet, and prolonging the farewell would only result in awkward crying. There was nothing left to do or say, so I turned to walk towards the international gate, waving one last time and taking a mental snapshot of the quivering smiles on the faces of my loved ones.

Months earlier, I was selected by the Rotary Club of Parry Sound to take part in the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program and spend a year in northern Germany. It was a pretty big deal for an Anishinaabe kid from a small reserve on Georgian Bay. It wasn’t really planned; I literally stumbled upon the opportunity when I saw a poster for the program in the hall at Parry Sound High School, which piqued my interest. It was a crucial time in my life: the waning months of Grade 12 when high school students were supposed to formulate an educational and career path before the now-obsolete OAC year.

But instead of getting ready for my last year of high school, I was now about to board a plane to a European country, not to return until the following summer to prepare for OAC in the fall, and hopefully have a clearer vision of career ambition. I was both nervous and excited about the foreign path ahead of me, but I couldn’t have anticipated just how it would shape the person I was to become. The tears were long buried as I buckled into my seat on the plane.

The months in the lead-up to my exchange were full of Rotary orientations, visits with family and friends, and learning as much about modern-day Germany as possible. I had tapes and books to learn the language, but admittedly, I barely listened to or read any of those (although I did learn German fluently while there). But one conversation I had in those final months in Canada stands out as truly momentous and ominous.

I got a call sometime before I left with a sort of job offer. I don’t remember exactly when it was, because it has been 20 years, and details aren’t as sharp. Either way, it was from the Anishinabek News, the newspaper published by the Union of Ontario Indians (now the Anishinabek Nation) to serve its 40-plus communities across the province. The editor said they had heard about my upcoming trip, and wondered if I’d be interested in writing about my experiences as a ‘Nish teen in a European country for publication every month. And he said they’d pay me for each story.

The notion of being paid to write blew my mind. I had no idea that was possible. Journalism was never presented as a viable career option to me, mostly because I hadn’t been exposed to the few Indigenous journalists at the time who were out there blazing a trail in Canadian media. And the main reason I applied for the exchange program in the first place was that despite being an honours student in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, or what or where I wanted to study for college or university.

At the Berlin Wall in November 1996 with fellow exchange students.
At the Berlin Wall in November 1996 with fellow exchange students Lisa Hill and Jen Ottaway

That’s why, after attending the information session for the Rotary exchange program the day after seeing that poster in the hall, I thought it was a good option to keep those big decisions at bay, and take the opportunity to figure out my path during a year away from home in a far-off place. My parents were supportive, as were the rest of my family and the wider community around me, especially the people in my home of Wasauksing First Nation. I didn’t realize then that I would become an ambassador for Anishinaabe people especially, and not just the country of Canada. That role emerged in the writing I was about to do.

In early August, I began the German equivalent of high school in the town of Brake in the maritime lowlands of the northeast. My host sister Anne drove me to the front door of Gymnasium Brake, and I had never been so nervous in my life. Those nerves were exacerbated by the dozens of students gathered out front. They all stared as I got out of the car, and my gut teetered on fear.

But as I approached, I saw affability and enthusiasm in their eyes, and they welcomed me warmly. I learned later that they gathered there that morning because they heard there was an “Indianer” coming to their school. They wanted to see how I looked. My friend Tim later told me they were disappointed to see me arrive in jeans and a t-shirt with short hair. They were expecting a “real-life” Indian like the ones they read about in the Winnetou tales by Karl May. We laughed, and I wrote about that for one of my first assignments for the Anishinabek News.

It’s a story I tell often nowadays when I explain how I got into journalism and decided to make raising awareness of Indigenous experiences in Canada my life’s mission. Up until that point in my life, I had never encountered such a great degree of enthusiasm and general interest in my Anishinaabe background. Most people I met there valued my heritage and experiences, and wanted to know more. Back then, outside of my own non-Indigenous family, that just didn’t happen to me in Canada.

That made the cultural and social divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians even clearer to me. I was well aware of the racism and general ignorance that existed in my home country because I had lived it first-hand, growing up in the 1980s and 90s. It took going to Germany to really feel celebrated and appreciated outside of my own community, and that was a shocking eyeopener.

The more I thought about it, thousands of kilometres from home, the more I realized Canadians just weren’t learning the proper story of Indigenous peoples and the actual history of how Canada came to be. And it wasn’t the fault of everyday Canadians themselves. It was the education system itself that erased those truths and experiences. While I alone could never fix those problems, I could help raise awareness by writing about them.

"We don't live in a tipi" - article in the Nordwest Zeitung newspaper following my speech (in German) to the Rotary Club of Brake in May 1997.
“We don’t live in a tipi” – article in the Nordwest Zeitung newspaper following my speech (in German) to the Rotary Club of Brake in May 1997

There were more eyeopening experiences like that first day of school. There was the time I was at an anniversary party for my host parents when an elderly German man told me to be proud of who I was as an Anishinaabe person and to ensure that my culture stayed strong. He said because when he was my age, he was forced to salute a man named Hitler and fall in line with all his horrible beliefs. As such, he said he found it hard to feel proud of his German background later in life. I wrote about that interaction, too.

I began getting letters from people back home who read those stories. They thanked me for sharing my experiences, and for representing the Anishinaabeg a world away from our homelands. Feedback like that was heartwarming and motivating. It made me realize that this kind of storytelling could have a real impact. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a journalist.

The year in Germany wrapped up, full of many beautiful, compelling, and enlightening stories. I could write a whole book about how that exchange year unfolded and what it really means to me. But 20 years to the day that I left, I’ll just focus on how it helped define my career and my desire to share the important stories of Indigenous people and the issues that impact them.

I returned to Canada at age 18, had one last year of high school to go, and applied to journalism school. I got into Ryerson, graduated four years later, and have worked in different storytelling capacities since. It’s an honour and a privilege to do this for a living, and I don’t believe I would have found this life without that year in Germany.

I’ve looked back often. I’ve even gone back twice to visit, and I’m long overdue for a return. It will always be like another home to me. It’s where I found my path, which continues to take shape. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Danke schoen/chi-miigwech/thank you!

Thanks to the following who made that year possible: my parents and brothers, my friends and family in Wasauksing and Parry Sound and beyond, the Rotary Club of Parry Sound, the Rotary Club of Brake-Unterweser, the Heitzhausen family, the Kordes family, the Doeding family, the Koehlers, the Funks, staff and students of Gymnasium Brake, the lovely people of the Wesermarsch, Dave Dale and Maurice Switzer of the Anishinabek News, and all Rotary exchange students I met. You’ll all have a special place in my heart always.


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.


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.