It’s heartening to see the mainstream media’s sudden interest in the multiple crises facing Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Federal politicians, including the prime minister, have been forced to react to the graphic reporting from Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario where people have been huddling in unheated tents, condemned housing and portable trailers in sub-zero temperatures. Media reports have made it clear that many Native reserves face similar crises. It’s also clear that the desperate conditions endured by Canada’s aboriginal peoples represent a massive failure of public institutions including the mainstream news media themselves.
Thus, it was interesting to watch Peter Mansbridge Monday night introducing updates to previous CBC reports. Reporter Reg Sherren revisited the Wasagamack First Nation in northern Manitoba. In the year 2000, Sherren reported on the lack of clean water and sewage disposal; sky-high food prices; an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and a chronic shortage of adequate housing. On his recent return, Sherren found that “life hasn’t changed a lot in the last 12 years.” The biggest change was that everyone suffering from diabetes who appeared in his first story had since died. A shot of white wooden crosses in the local graveyard underlined that sombre point.
Meanwhile, Duncan McCue’s return to Gilford Island, B.C. was, in his words, “deja-vu all over again.” Six years ago, McCue reported that Gilford Island was facing a water crisis and that many homes were full of toxic mould. Today, there’s a new water plant and a few new homes, but federal bureaucrats seem to have abandoned the village. “We’ve been forgotten,” Chief Bob Chamberlain told McCue, “and we’re halfway towards the solution.”
It may have been unintentional, but Sherren and McCue’s updates aptly illustrated the CBC’s fitful interest in conditions on aboriginal reserves. Why did it take nearly 12 years, for example, for the CBC to send Sherren back to Wasagamack?
Part of the answer lies in the routines of mainstream journalism. Journalists think they need a “peg” for the stories they tell, something that makes those stories newsworthy. In this case, the state of emergency in Attawapiskat provided a peg to hang similar stories on. To someone not versed in the strange standards of mainstream journalism, that might seem weird. If a reporter files a story on a crisis facing a Native reserve, wouldn’t it make sense to check back periodically to see if conditions have improved? Well, not without a “good, solid peg,” it wouldn’t.
Lessons from Ipperwash
I first became interested in how standard journalistic routines inhibit the coverage of aboriginal peoples in August 1993 when The National carried a report from Ipperwash, Ontario where Native people were occupying a military camp. “Tense situation tonight at a Canadian Forces camp in southern Ontario,” a younger-looking Mansbridge told viewers. He added that the occupation had been going on for three months, but that someone had fired a shot at a military helicopter. Bingo! There was the “peg” that made the story newsworthy enough for national attention.
Reporter Paul Hunter had been despatched to Ipperwash where he talked to two of the Native occupiers as well as a military spokesman. The Natives said the military had taken the land from them temporarily during the Second World War and now, after more than 50 years of waiting, they wanted it back. Major Brian Hay insisted the military had purchased the land from the Natives. “This is a bought and paid for public site that has been here for 50 years.”
Hunter obviously did not know that a year earlier, a Parliamentary committee had unanimously called on the military to “rectify a serious injustice” and hand the land back. So, he covered himself by quoting “both sides” and leaving it at that. The National let the story lie for more than two years before another “peg” compelled the CBC to return to it — the police shooting death of Dudley George, a young native man, in Ipperwash Provincial Park. Only then did Mansbridge tell viewers that the Native occupiers had been right all along — the military were supposed to return the land after the Second World War. For an account of how The National covered the Ipperwash story over a 10-year period, see CBC Ipperwash coverage.
Yes, it is encouraging that the mainstream media are focussing once again on the deplorable conditions that Canada’s First Nations are forced to endure. But past practice also shows that journalists will stick with the story only if they think it can be hung on a newsworthy peg. As long as the political uproar continues in the House of Commons, for example, this story will continue to be told. But when the politicians move on, the media are likely to follow.