The National Media and the AFN’s “Angry Indians”

It’s an auspicious week for the Assembly of First Nations. The AFN’s Annual General Assembly will either re-elect Shawn Atleo as National Chief or select one of seven challengers to lead the organization through the next three years.

Today’s vote is the culmination of a relatively short and mostly unexciting campaign, yet it is one that has nonetheless caught the attention of some in the national media, in particular, the two Johns: John Ibbiston of the Globe and Mail and John Ivison of the National Post. Each have filed a number of stories. Interestingly, both writers share a remarkable and disappointing similarity: a very apparent tendency to cast the field of candidates as angry, ungrateful militants.

Rather than mask some kind of agenda, Ibbiston’s inaugural AFN-related piece (“Shawn Atleo appears unchallenged in push for native-education reform”) on June 18 perhaps demonstrates the writer’s lack of qualifications to report on First Nations politics. The Globe veteran illustrated this sophomoric understanding when he confidently asserted that, “barring an unexpected last-minute challenger, Shawn Atleo will be acclaimed for a second three-year stint as National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations.” Not only was Ibbitson very poorly informed at the time of his assessment that Atleo would go “unchallenged,” but the field vying for the National Chief position actually became the largest in the organization’s history.

Ibbitson’s second article (“Native leaders risk missing their moment of greatest influence”) a month later was an outright endorsement of Atleo and marked the beginning of this trend. For Ibbitson, Atleo was the wise decision because his opponents are “militant.” More than that, Ibbitson employed some awkward demographic analysis (the First Nations population will flat-line at some point and increasing immigrant populations will have little ‘guilt’ to compel justice for first peoples) as a veiled warning to Chiefs that they should “bear in mind a future of steadily diminishing influence as they choose the next leader of their Assembly.”

While Ibbiston’s third piece (“Atleo’s second term as AFN chief hinges on 250 votes”) on July 18 largely offered an overview of the AFN Annual General Assembly’s Day One proceedings, as well as some soft predictions on voting, he yet again managed to frame Atleo’s challengers as “determined to set Canada’s native people on a more emphatic path of confrontation with the federal government,” and “(speaking) repeatedly about colonization, occupation, victimization.” In these latter two articles, National Chief contenders Gabriel, Kelly, Nelson, et al. continue to be cast as angry, perhaps wrongfully so. In that sense, they are unappreciative as well.

The National Post coverage has been equally problematic. Leading it has been John Ivison, who has won few fans over the past week. At the end of Day One’s proceedings, he joked to the Toronto Star’s Tanya Talaga via Twitter, “my security detail should have arrived by [the morning], leaving me plenty of time to don my body armour before entering the breach.” Ivison’s remark is an apparent reference to the general disdain accumulating among Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Ojibwe peoples for his reporting of the leadership contest, candidates and commentators alike, calling his writing “right-wing propaganda” and “ignorant.”

Like Ibbitson, Ivison is squarely in the Atleo camp. In “The fight for the soul of the AFN” (July 16), Ivison notes that “only in native politics could securing the Prime Minister’s undivided attention for a day, and hooking hundreds of millions of dollars at a time of austerity, be considered a sellout.” Moreover, and not unlike Ibbitson, Ivision depicts many if not all of Atleo’s seven challengers as radicals who discuss issues like sovereignty, which he deems to be “only a recipe for gridlock.” This perspective encourages two assumptions; firstly, the notion that Dene, Cree and Cayuga peoples are currently well treated, and secondly, that only those issues that the federal government is interested in talking about actually matter.

While Ivison happily provides candidates his advice, he has tremendous difficulty listening to them in turn. Following his July 16 column, leadership candidate and professor Pam Palmater criticized the writer for twisting her words and the facts; subsequently, in his July 18 piece, “Candidates talk of anger and injustice,” Ivison persisted with his theme. Quoting candidate Bill Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people.”

Ivison then goes on to use the sentiment as a way of framing the candidates as threatening to Canadians. But, in fact, Ivison cut Erasmus off. Had he included the full quote from Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people but we have to contain that anger. It’s not the way (forward) [emphasis mine]”

one would readily see that the speaker’s full intent and implication are very different from what Ivision would have his readers imagine. Clearly, the foundation of Ivison’s entire article is built on a butchered quote, one originally pleading for reconciliation, not confrontation.

But it would seem what Erasmus actually said — what any of the candidates actually said — doesn’t really matter to Ibbitson or Ivison. Investigating the anger that does exist in any earnest way (as opposed to excusing it) or covering the candidates’ many expressions of love and hope and sadness (instead of solely frustration) is outside the already constructed narrative of The Angry Indian. Whether the narrative is naturally transposed onto this situation or is being exploited to strategically support Atleo is unclear. Still, a partial answer may be found in Ibbitson’s most recent column (July 18: “Native leaders ponder the path of most resistance”) where he notes “the AFN inhabits a world not easily recognized by those outside the Native community.”

In Ibbitson’s case, truer words were never written.

4 thoughts on “The National Media and the AFN’s “Angry Indians”

  1. angry, ungrateful militants?   We’ve been called worse…. we also know that people label others when they’re feeling inadequate about themselves.

  2.  Excellent resource. Here in
    Glasgow, Scotland we are not only angry. We are also poor, lazy, dirty,
    sporadically militant, extremely ungrateful, suffering from delusions of
    equality, and beseiged by blinkered monocultural amnesia in mainstream
    education and reporting. Interesting parallels. *cracks open a beer and
    gazes out from under the Hielanman’s Umbrella at the Clyde Valley
    permanent cloud cover*

  3. I agree with all you write on both Ibbitson and Iverson. I saw both skulking about the halls at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, prowling for someone willing to talk with them. The problem as I saw it with them, as I too was out there prowling, most of the folks I was speaking with wanted nothing to do with either of them. They’ve blown up whatever trust they might’ve developed by deciding to play to an audience they want to impress instead of seeking truth and being fair about it. The only chiefs I knew who seemed willing to talk directly with them thought they might curry favourable coverage from them by doing so.  Poor fools. 

    Probably, both Ivison and Ibbitson would disagree with my take on their effectiveness. Like them, I’m entitled to my opinion based on what I saw and heard.

    They did come up with some uncomfortable truths though. For example, Ivison wrote:
    “Much of the rhetoric this week was about the need for change. But the 540 chiefs who voted decided discretion was the better part of valour. Co-operation and compromise won out over confrontation as the way to deliver changes to comprehensive claims policy, economic development and native education.”

    Yep, that’s what happened. It’s the interpretation why where I differ with both. It wasn’t all about “compromise” versus “confrontation.” “Us” against “Them Injuns,” at some point in the future unless a majority of chiefs come to their senses.  That was the easy (lazy) interpretation. There was influence peddling and vote buying, bullying, dirty tricks, and the axe-handle politics one can see at Conservative or organized labour conventions too. One could almost replace the words “chiefs” with “delegates,” “AFN” with “Conservative” or “CUPW” and get similar “cut-and-paste” analysis.

    In short, I felt cheated. I felt I didn’t get my $1.50’s worth at the newsstand. Both newspapers could’ve and should’ve done better unless they wish to join the growing list of dailies heading for the trash heap in this age where knowledgeable writing and insightful commentary can be found online for nothing..

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