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Missing voices

Media coverage of Harper's apology left obvious holes

by Tim McSorley

Missing voices

Reactions in the media to the federal government’s June 12 apology for the horror and tragedy of the residential school system came quickly and were plenty. Many, including pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star, called on the federal government to take further, immediate action to back up the apology.

But even when challenging the government, by and large the underlying message in the press was: Now that we have said sorry, Canadians can pat ourselves on the back and feel better about our colonial past. While there is little doubt that such an apology was necessary and is an important step forward, the majority of mainstream media coverage shied away from the fact that we are still living in a colonial present.

Absent from coverage was talk of current problems in British Columbia concerning the 2010 Olympics and the accompanying spike in luxury ski resort developments on unceded aboriginal land. Neither was there mention of ongoing battles over mining and forestry exploitation in Ontario that landed seven First Nations elders in jail for defending their territorial rights. There was also no word of the Quebec and Canadian governments’ removal of the traditional elders in Barriere Lake, replacing them with government appointed officials. This lack of coverage isn’t necessarily surprising, given there was little coverage of these incidents before the apology, but by ignoring these concrete situations, among many others, the media relegates colonialism to our past. By doing so, we ignore the fact that the same beliefs that inspired residential schools in the early 1900s are still present – perhaps just more subtly so – today.

While this lack of coverage could be countered by mainstream journalists doing a better job reporting on the ongoing crisis facing First Nations, Innu and Métis communities, another way would have been to open up the pages and airwaves to those who suffered through residential schools and are living through the repercussions today. There were a few exceptions, such as a piece by Thohahoken Michael Doxtater in Montreal’s Le Devoir and Matthew Coon Come in the Montreal Gazette, but overall First Nations voices were reported on, instead of being allowed to speak for themselves. This is not for the lack of possible voices. From the above-mentioned Doxtater to acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin, to Cree playwright Tomson Highway, there is no lack of choices.

One venue that seemed perfectly suited for providing this forum was the Globe and Mail’s inaugural Globe Salon. An online discussion featuring 15 participants, it provided a real-time analysis of the apology, with voices coming in from across the country. The Globe, while admitting that the list was perhaps incomplete, noted it believed the voices brought together were those Canadians would want to hear. The list featured some better and lesser known names, from the Canadian Autoworker’s left-leaning economist Jim Stanford, to conservative Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee, to the online newspaper The Tyee’s David Beers and Christian broadcaster Lorna Dueck. But there were clearly some holes: all were white and many are already provided ample room in the media. The most obvious problem, however, was that the list did not include a single First Nations, Innu or Métis person, let alone a survivor of residential schools.

One commenter brought up this issue. In reply, discussion moderator and Globe and Mail Opinions Editor Patrick Martin posted an advance excerpt from an online exclusive comment piece by Stephen Kakfwi, the former premier of the North West Territories and a residential school survivor. No mention was made of whether Kafkwi had originally been invited to participate in the forum, and The Dominion did not receive comment from Martin by deadline.

Any hopes of returning the land, resources and rights that First Nation’s, Innu and Métis people strongly deserve will obviously require much more action and will invoke much more debate in Canada’s media. But only by looking beyond the typical voices and faces will we ever truly have the nation-to-nation dialogue necessary to rectify the mistakes of the past.


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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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