Shameless scapegoating: A catty critique of how Canadian media cover Indigenous people

Yesterday marked the United Nations’ International Day of Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme for the Day: “Empowering Indigenous Voices.” As the UN noted, the aim was “to highlight the importance of challenging stereotypes, forging Indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”

And while we should take this opportunity to celebrate outlets like APTN, Anishinaabek News, Indigenous Waves, and MEDIA INDIGENA, among others, I’m not sure the Canadian media got the memo. In fact, I could hear, read or watch more coverage of this week’s International Cat Day than of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. But I guess cats are cuter than Crees.

Reflecting on this coverage, or lack thereof, I recalled a 2008 Canadian Journalism Foundation conference entitled, “The Greatest Media Failure in a Century: Reporting on Aboriginal Issues.” The event was a response to a series of news stories that led to the most sustained media coverage on Native issues since 1990. Along with Parliament’s apology for residential schools and the newly-released report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, the conflict in Caledonia was in the papers daily (not to mention the United Nations and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). The conference concluded, not surprisingly, that newspapers and broadcast journalists were doing a very poor job.

Allow me to preface what follows by noting that not all mainstream media are unfair to Indigenous peoples… just most of them. Take the case of Ipperwash, where, as Ryerson’s John Miller would write, “the coverage was not based on the facts of the occupation, but on crude generalizations about First Nation people that fit many racist stereotypes.” Here, the primary stereotype was of the savage or lawless Indian, a stereotype that would once again be promulgated in later coverage of Caledonia. As evidence for the latter, I submit the following headlines, which ran in the Globe and Mail in the Spring of 2010:

The “strong” in this latter case were Native thugs immune from law enforcement; the “weak” were peaceful, persecuted White homesteaders.

Then there is the stereotype of the lazy, taxpayer-leech Indian. This notion was apparent even at a time like the residential school apology. The National Post editorial that same morning — “Six reasons not to apologize” — argued that an apology would encourage dependence and discourage Indians from getting jobs. This stereotype has never been more apparent than in the media coverage of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat late last year. Stories revolved around the salary of the Chief, corruption, sustainability of isolated reserves, wasted taxpayer dollars — all of it without a modicum of context. Most media outlets uncritically toed the government line, messaging now confirmed as shameless scapegoating.

This stereotype is even more pervasive in on-line editions, in particular, within the comment sections that typically follow articles. In any given story on any subject relating to Cowichan or Dene peoples you’ll find comments such as “money, money, money, that’s all these lazy freeloaders want,” which was the first comment upon the Reuters article, “Canada reopens its ‘most disgraceful’ act” — an article that you’d expect would evoke compassion. It’s gotten so bad that newspapers have begun to actively monitor these comments. As a consequence, the most frequent (and perhaps most telling) comment on Globe and Mail stories about Oneida or Salish peoples is “This comment has violated our Terms and Conditions, and has been removed.”

At the same time that Canadian media perpetuate such stereotypes, they also cultivate a culture of indifference. There is no better example of this than the widespread use of the term “Aboriginal.” Canadian lawyers adopted the word to be inclusive of the three recognized Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It was then included in the Canadian constitution. More recently, the Department of Indian Affairs dropped the ‘Indian’ in favour of ‘Aboriginal,’ thus becoming the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, a move lauded by most in the media yet despised by those so-called Aboriginals themselves.

As Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinaabek Nation pointed out, “the history, cultures and contemporary issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are entirely different. The best way to [deal with them] is not to call us all by the same name.” For Madahbee, among others, the result of employing the term “Aboriginal” is homogenization rather than inclusion. And for the media to miss this most basic of facts by using the term ‘Aboriginal’ almost exclusively — even when the specific subject of a story may be Dakota or Tlingit — speaks to reporters and editors’ lack of qualifications to cover Dakota or Tlingit peoples. By contrast, a correspondent in Europe would surely be expected to know the difference between Spaniards and Swedes as well as Europeans generally.

And yet, the media keeps on keeping on. Amidst this international day of empowering Indigenous voices, you’ll see, hear or read very few of those voices (and nearly none in the mainstream media). Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, and the Winnipeg Free Press were just some of the newspapers to publish multiple articles and editorials on the potential privatization of reserve lands. Collectively, they tended to include just a single perspective from a Native person, Manny Jules, one of the architects of the plan. That’s it. Little critical investigation, faithfully toeing the government line, and even employing a few stereotypes (notably, “the taxpayer leech”).

The perpetuation of stereotypes, a culture of indifference and a lack of Indigenous perspectives — endemic across Canadian media — all amount to an uneducated public. It means that Canadians know very little about Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk peoples, or the differences between them, or even how to pronounce those words. As long as ‘aboriginals’ continue to be defined as lawless or lazy on the one hand, and rendered nameless, faceless, and invisible on the other, Canadians will never appreciate Indigenous perspectives. They’ll never even hear their perspectives. And the next generation of Canadians will still be wondering who these Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Mushkegowuk peoples are.

But there is some good news to share: a ton of cats got adopted this week.

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5 thoughts on “Shameless scapegoating: A catty critique of how Canadian media cover Indigenous people

  1. So the stereotypical mentality against Indian* to my studied opinion if racism being #1 and Christianity as a 2nd motion in favour of the 1st. Christianity being about 3/4 of the total populous living across North America today. That’s a lot of stereotypical belief that’s out right wrong.The mystery to total understanding the “Context” of the Christian Bible is knowing is was expressly written “TOO and FOR” the Jewish people. Not other nations of colour and creeds over the earth. So when the Bible mentions non-believers, it was speaking to those of the Jewish nation who didn’t and don’t believe.However the root of racism needs a reason where “trade and commerce” come into play, so play the devil card against those who are not Christian and popular opinion wins the day. Hence, we the red-devils must come together against the root of popular opinion where Christianity leads the opinion. Change their opinion changes the equation.My facebook is open to all public

  2. Actually, you’re right. We don’t care. Natives are not any more special than any other resident of Canada. They, too, were immigrants once and if they were conquered by other nations arriving from more advanced civilizations, that’s the breaks.

  3. Seems Janet Cline is missing the point and is totally ignorant of any education on matters relating to Indigenous populations in Canada.

    First of all Treaties are binding legal documents between two nations. This means that since the inception of Canada as a country, the Canadian government has broken the law continuously and consistently in relation to Indigenous communities.

    A person could then argue that the Canadian government operates in Canada unlawfully.

    But facts don’t matter. People will cling to their racist stereotypes and continue to remain ignorant because they profit from it at the expense of others they deem as not human.

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