News representations of Indigenous issues in Canada have long been problematic and contested by Indigenous peoples themselves. Early colonial newspapers portrayed indigenous people as uncivilized and inherently warlike, routinely referring to them as “savages,” and “heathens” (Harding, 2006), made no attempt to include Indigenous voices or perspectives, and promoted settler interests for their exclusively white audiences. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found evidence of persistent patterns of racism towards Indigenous peoples in all forms of public discourse. Contemporary news discourse is characterized by a sanitized ethnocentrism, a creed of “identical treatment,” and a denial of the existence of racist practices, attitudes and outcomes. Indeed, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) and the Journalists for Human Rights organization (Pierro et al, 2013) found deeply troubling patterns of representation of Indigenous peoples in the media. These problems include decontextualization of issues that have long historical antecedents, stereotyping, conflation of diverse Indigenous identities into Native or Aboriginal, and binary coverage, sometimes framed in us vs. them terms.
In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples concluded that stereotypes of Indigenous people pervaded all forms of public discourse, including print media, the two most prominent stereotypes being “angry warriors” and “pathetic victims.” In the new millennium, research has confirmed that these venerable stereotypes are alive and well. Furthermore, as Indigenous peoples exert their right to self-governance in areas such as child welfare, health care, and management of their resources and institutions, crippling new stereotypes have emerged, including Indigenous people as incapable of self-governance, and Indigenous peoples as "taking advantage" of “special rights” and entitlements (Harding, 2018, 2010). A potential consequence of these stereotypes is that Indigenous people may internalize them and begin to doubt their competence and potential in these areas. More importantly, at a time of reconciliation, entrenched stereotypes may dissuade non-Indigenous Canadians from supporting critical initiatives to redress past injustice, enhance public education and strengthen the ability of Indigenous peoples to govern themselves.
Editorials and opinion pieces about some Indigenous topics include highly limited and selective context, and foreground the concerns of settler society, while minimizing the harmful implications for Indigenous peoples. This is especially true of treaties, resource extraction activities, and “flashpoints” – emotionally-charged events that give rise to accusations of unfairness and racial bias of Canada’s public institutions, such as the court system, as in the recent trials of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier. In the face of such challenges to the legitimacy of Euro-Canadian interests and institutions, news commentators typically focus on the immediate threat posed by Indigenous rights and protests to our “interests,” and forego any meaningful analysis of issues that have long historical antecedents that, in some cases, date back to before Confederation.
While context is especially important to include in coverage of court proceedings, journalists in the Cormier trial may not have reported all of the relevant details due to an incomplete understanding of what they are legally entitled to report. While the Criminal Code prohibits the publication of certain evidence that comes out during court cases, it does not preclude reporting on “explanatory background details that could illuminate the backdrop against which the trial is happening” (May, 2018, April 3). Indeed, the president of the Canadian Media Lawyers’ Association, Ryder Gilliland, “says he was contacted by journalists seeking clarity on what they could report during Cormier’s trial, and they may not have been as limited as they thought they were” (ibid.).
Decontextualized opinion writing may result in binary framing of complex issues, and commentary couched in threats and warnings about what they (Indigenous peoples) will do to, or take from, us (non-Indigenous Canadians). These black and white depictions leave out a wide range of other positions, dramatically narrow the interpretative choices available to audiences, and elicit intense emotional reactions, often fear or anger. Reactionary responses from news audiences to highly emotive news commentary may be gauged through an analysis of the “comments” sections attached to these editorials and opinion pieces. In 2015, the online arm of CBC decided to shut down all commentary on news articles covering Indigenous issues, in an attempt to control the virulence of readers’ comments that were “clearly hateful and vitriolic … or hate disguised as ignorance” (Fenlon, 2015). On the other hand, the National Post and other Postmedia newspapers seem to make little effort to “police” the comments sections attached to their commentaries and news stories about Indigenous issues as their comments sections regularly feature hateful, and overtly racist tirades against Indigenous peoples. Consider this reader’s comment about Indigenous culture in a National Post column written in response to calls to change the jury selection process in the wake of the Gerald Stanley trial: “racist, hatefilled culture that spews out damaged young girls who choose the sex trade over staying with familial rape” (Blatchford, February 28, 2018).
There is no quick or easy way to improve how Indigenous peoples are represented in the news. Over the long haul, better education may be the answer. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called for improved education about Indigenous issues and Canada’s history of colonialism for Canadians generally, and for journalists in particular. Duncan McCue, an Anishinaabe journalist teaches a course at the UBC School of Journalism on how to report in Indigenous communities, the only journalism course of its kind in the country. Perhaps the way forward for journalists covering intense Indigenous stories such as the Stanley and Cormier trials is to adopt a trauma-informed reporting style. Instead of focusing on the victimhood of Indigenous people affected by tragic events, reporters could report on “stories of conflict and of injustice” so that the “individual Indigenous people in those stories are people who are fighting back, rising up and challenging historical wrongs, not poor helpless victims who find themselves somehow at the mercy of a colonial system”.
Blatchford, C. (2018, February 28). Messing with jury selection won’t fix Indigenous alienation from justice system. National Post. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/opinion/christie-blatchford-messing-with-jury-selection-wont-fix-indigenous-alienation-from-justice-system
Fenlon, B. (2015, November 30). CBC News Canada - Editor’s Blog: Uncivil dialogue: Commenting and stories about indigenous people. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/community/editorsblog/2015/11/uncivil-dialogue-commenting-and-stories-about-indigenous-people.html
May, K. (2018, April 3). Court reporters grapple with meeting the plea for trauma-informed reporting. J-Source: The Canadian Journalism Project. Retrieved from http://j-source.ca/article/court-reporters-grapple-with-meeting-the-plea-for-trauma-informed-reporting/
Pierro, R. with Blackstock, C., Harding, R., McCue, D., Metatawabin, M. (August, 2013). Buried Voices: Media Coverage of Aboriginal Issues in Ontario Media Monitoring Report: 2010 – 2013. Toronto: Journalists for Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.jhr.ca/en/aboutjhr/downloads/publications/buried_voices.pdf
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). People to people, Nation to nation: Highlights from the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from www.trc.ca
Robert Harding is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work and Human Resources at the University of the Fraser Valley. His work on media discourse about social media policy, poverty, and Indigenous self-governance has been published in journals such as Discourse and Society, among others.