Reporting People as People

By Austin Spearman

First Nations, Aboriginal, and Native are just a few terms that have been used to describe the Indigenous people of Canada. It might seem difficult to some reporters to know which words to use. However, two style guides make it easy to know what to say or write.

There’s the Journalism for Human Rights (JHR) Indigenous Style Guide. There’s also Reporting in Indigenous Communities (RIIC), first proposed by Duncan McCue, a longtime CBC reporter and instructor of University of British Columbia’s ground-breaking course known by the same name.

Even with this information readily available, there still seems to be a lack of understanding on how to report on Indigenous people. Combined with the lack of knowledge of the past, it creates a media landscape that rarely gets it right.

The RIIC sets out how to cover Indigenous stories, from the news desk to final read. The guide begins by breaking down stereotypes that media has long held of Aboriginal people. “An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she was one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead,” the guide says. 

From there, the guide explains how reporters can do better, from when they first contact sources when they are out in the field. Ultimately, the RIIC wants to help journalists decolonize journalism.

The guide from JHR also provides journalists with best practices when reporting on Indigenous communities.

The JHR’s guide begins by pointing out the flaws in what many journalists consider the be-all and end-all of rules for journalists: The Canadian Press Style Guide.

Lenny Carpenter writes in the guide’s introduction: “Previously, in the 17th edition (2013) of the CP Stylebook, the section called “Aboriginal Peoples” instructs journalists it is acceptable to use terms like “Canadian Indians,” explains that Métis “is usually taken to mean anyone of mixed Indian and European ancestry,” and starts off the section with the term “Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples” – a term often rebuked as it implies Canada owns Indigenous people.”

The Canadian Press has since updated its terminology in the 18th edition (2018), but it just goes to show that the media’s problems with reporting on Indigenous people aren’t old news.

The JHR guide and the RIIC guide will help reporters cover Indigenous communities from Charlottetown to Victoria Island and everywhere in between. 

Pat Kane is a photojournalist living in Yellowknife, in an area that is predominantly Dené people. Kane is also from the Timiskaming First Nation, on what is now called Quebec. Speaking from his personal experience, Kane says he thinks that when approaching an Indigenous subject, the best advice is to just listen. 

“I think throw out all misconceptions and stereotypes out the window and just listen to people as people,” Kane says. “Put their Indigenousness aside and get to the heart of what people believe in and their perceptions are of the world they live in. Listen to their history and just really try to understand Indigenous people as regular Canadians,” says Kane.

Kane says the style guides are a good start but he says, it’s important to note that the word Indigenous is in and of itself a blanket term. It covers many differing communities across the country.

“There are thousands of different groups of people in the country. In the North West Territories alone there’s Inuvialuit, Inuit, Dené, Métis, Gwich’in, Chipewyan, and Cree,” says Kane.

Jasmine Kabatay, a reporter with the CBC, agrees.

“There’s Mohawk, there’s Ojibwe, there’s Salish, there are so many other nations within Canada, and to just call them all Indigenous is kind of just pretty lazy,” she says.

Kabatay suggests calling people by the Nation they’re from, or otherwise be more specific.

“You could just call them by their actual Nations, and it would make things a lot easier. You would know the region and area where they are,” she says. “When someone asks me, ‘Oh, you’re an Indigenous journalist,’ yeah, I am. I’m also Ojibwe.  I’m Anishinaabe too.”

The RIIC recommends asking people how they’d like to be identified. 

“Ultimately, there is no sole agreed-upon name for the original peoples that inhabited North America before European settlers arrived,” it says. 

It borrows from the Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection, and outlines some things to know. For example, journalists shouldn’t replace the word “Aboriginal” with the term “First Nations,” as that tends to exclude Inuit and Métis people.

Another way to fill gaps in reporting on Canadian Aboriginal people is through implementing programs in educational systems. 

Journalism for Human Rights and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released recommendations for the media in 2015. They specified that journalism and media schools should require students be educated on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including education on residential schools. 

 “Any education on what happened in residential schools and what those impacts are now is crucial to bridge the gap and to have true reconciliation in Canada,” Kane says.

There are a lot of misconceptions around residential schools. One is that these atrocities happened a long time ago. The reality is that the last government funded residential school was only shut down in 1996.

“There are people who are very much alive who were in those schools,” Kabatay says. “My father was in residential schools,” 

“There’s a thing called intergenerational trauma,” she says.  

This trauma, Kabata says stems from the schools that raised many kids with no love, no support system and left many kids with no ability to cope.

The goal of these residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society by eliminating their culture and identity. At the time, the government and church framed their schools as a place of salvation. The reality was extremely grim, and many children died. 

Kabatay says that there are problems besides a lack of education when it comes to the media’s treatment of Indigenous people. The coverage itself can be extremely lacking.

She says that when Coulten Boushie was murdered, many stories missed the point.

“They were focused on Gerald Stanley and his family and what they had done,” she says. “But they were forgetting the family of the victim.”

Kabatay says that this kind of poor media coverage isn’t anything new.

“You will just see the differences in an article written about an Indigenous person compared to another person,” she says. “You will see the discrepancies.”

The way the media treats Indigenous people can lead to negative self-perceptions. Kabatay says she went through this growing up, learning about her community through non-Indigenous media and what she was seeing in her own life. 

Through researching and reading on her own Kabatay learned about the lasting effects of traumatic events that her community

Kane says that learning this history is essential for helping reporters to better understand the present. He says it’s crucial to understand a subject’s heritage and culture no matter what you’re reporting on, especially when the culture might be a bit different than a reporter is used to.

“Journalists need to get out there and put their feet on the ground especially when working with Indigenous communities and see first-hand what life is like and why life is like that,” he says.

Ultimately, Kabatay says, newsrooms are changing and becoming more inclusive. There are more opportunities for reporters like her.

“But,” she says, “is it a sign of tokenism or are they genuinely looking for people to go into their newsrooms?”

She says that internships and placements are well and good, but editors need to listen to the people they have on their team.

“They’re giving opportunities and they’re doing all these things. They want to include Indigenous people but I don’t think they’re actually listening to what Indigenous peoples and Indigenous reporters are saying when they actually go and cover these communities.”

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