Creating space for Indigenous journalism amid the whiteness of Canadian media

OPINION: Media needs spaces where we, as Indigenous people, can tell our stories — without having to explain ourselves, soothe discomfort, or feel like troublemakers
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Sep 03, 2020
Participants in the Indigenous 150+ training program. (Courtesy of JoAnne Fishburn)

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Click here to read this article in Mohawk. Read more about TVO.org’s Indigenous-languages initiative.

To learn more about Indigenous voices in media, read Shelby Lisk's interviews with Megan Fowler of Journalists for Human Rights, professor Carmen Robertson, and journalist Kelly Boutsalis.

In late February, I was sitting at my kitchen table, scrolling through Facebook, when a post popped up on my feed: “Indigenous-led training opportunity for youth to learn to host and moderate cross-cultural conversations.” The words that followed were ones I had been looking for since I’d started journalism school three years earlier: “The goal [of this program] is to provide skills and training for Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to learn protocols for working with Indigenous communities, learn interview techniques, how to moderate cross-cultural conversations, and address harmful stereotypes.”

The Indigenous 150+ training program — which grew out of the Indigenous 150+ film and conversation series, created by JoAnne Fishburn of Good Influence films, as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action — would involve four weeks of interactive online classes with access to mentors and industry professionals. Following that would be six weeks of practicum, which would include recording podcast episodes in collaboration with Indigenous guests.  

I applied and was accepted. It was set to begin on March 11.

I hoped it would be a space to have conversations about working effectively and respectfully with Indigenous communities. A space for addressing the continued harmful representation of Indigenous people in media. Two things that had been glaringly absent in my journalistic education.

The absence of these discussions left me grappling with feelings that I couldn’t understand and had no community to explore with. I was left thinking that I just wasn’t cut out for journalism, when the real issue was that the way I wanted to work with Indigenous communities was bumping up against what I was learning about “journalistic practices” and “objectivity.” I studied photojournalism and was constantly questioning how to create the image of a subject — distilling a whole person, life, and culture into one photo, one moment — without reducing my subjects to (or perpetuating) stereotypes. Consumers of news want to understand the meaning of a photograph within seconds. As a result, the media world has established ways to signal to readers that they are looking at an “Indigenous story.” Those cues usually include pan-Indigenous imagery — drumming, regalia, feathers — that doesn’t reflect my everyday experience or that of many of the Indigenous people I know.

Growing up just outside the borders of my community, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, I wasn’t immersed in my culture as a child. After finishing a fine-arts degree at university, I moved back home to reconnect with my community, enrolling in Mohawk language classes, meeting new people, and learning as much as I could, while simultaneously studying photojournalism at Loyalist College. What I was learning about Onkwehonwehnéha (our ways as Kanyen’kehá:ka) — how to be a good person, how to reconnect with my culture — conflicted with what I was learning in journalism school about how to treat subjects and the world around me. I had questions constantly floating around in my head around informed consent, narrative sovereignty, reciprocity, and the position of power and responsibility journalists occupy. I was also concerned — on a deeply personal level — with the way that the individuals and communities who trusted me to tell their stories were portrayed. And I often cared more about how I could use my voice to create a better world for Indigenous people than about finding the most newsworthy photo or story.

Teachers and peers cautioned me about becoming pigeonholed as an “Indigenous journalist” — to the point that I felt discouraged about telling Indigenous stories. At the same time, though, I saw that it was no problem for white journalists to specialize exclusively in such areas as sports or politics or the environment. Peers would make claims about what my Indigeneity would do for my career: one classmate once described his “jealousy” over my “access to Indigenous communities.” I was left dumbstruck, barely able to string together a response.

Upon reflection, what I wanted to ask him was, “Do you also want the weight and emotional responsibility of representing your people in a public forum? Do you want to look at your news feed and constantly see stories portraying your people as troublemakers or a drain on tax dollars? See Indigenous victims of violence paraded around by non-Indigenous journalists, who emphasize their trauma and ‘resilience’?” I would guess that his response would be no. I feel that burden every day as an Indigenous storyteller. I carry the weight, as many in our generation do, of trying to right the wrongs of journalism (and, more broadly, all media), which, for decades, has offered and sustained harmful portrayals of Indigenous people.

I began the 10-week podcast and leadership program in March, just as much of the province was shutting down because of the pandemic. Led by Sean Vanderklis, Anishinaabe radio and podcast host of One Dish, One Mic, two groups of 12 youth from across Canada completed four weeks of podcast training. We learned the basics of recording good audio, which included consideration of the size of the room you’re in, the objects in that room, your distance from the microphone, what software to use, how to speak clearly and at a good pace (I crafted my own “sound studio” out of a blanket fort in my bedroom). We also learned how to edit audio files and about the general structure of a podcast (introduction, teaser, interview or story, outro). We listened to podcasts weekly and discussed the interviewing and storytelling techniques they used.

After the training, we each had to create three episodes, which later became a collective podcast. Each participant interpreted the given themes: Indigenous community, film, and influencers. The result was illuminating, funny, and educational conversations with inspirational Indigenous role models such as playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor, actor and producer Jennifer Podemski, and award-winning author Jesse Thistle.

As a multimedia journalist, I have worked with words, video, and photography, but the one realm I had yet to explore was audio. I have experience in taking great care with my subjects’ words and their stories, but I learned quickly that many podcasts are not one-sided — which is to say that the process can be more transparent than other forms of journalism. When it comes to written reporting, no one sees the questions that I ask or the conversations and stories that are shared. They see the final product, which has been interpreted through me and then my editors. Podcast hosts, though, generally don’t pretend to be objective; instead, they share their own voices and perspectives, often directing the story with the interviewee, using their comments and narration to further emphasize their guests’ stories.

Throughout this program, I pushed myself to be confident hearing my own voice and even wrote and recorded narration, something I never imagined I could do and certainly something I never thought I’d put out into the world. But my first podcast has now been released. (It can be found on Spotify, Google podcasts, and Apple podcasts. It’s safe to say it’s very much out in the world.)

The program wasn’t simply about podcasting training: over the course of the 10 weeks, we created a community. We entered into uncomfortable conversations and learned from one another’s lived experiences, cultural perspectives, and visions for the future. And, even though the course officially ended over a month ago, we continue to meet: we’ve grown to care about one another and the space for conversations we’ve created.

The experience reminded me how important it is to have spaces where Indigenous people feel safe to talk about issues without having to explain ourselves to death, without having to confront and soothe the discomfort of others or feel like troublemakers. That the community we’ve developed allows us to support our sense of self and nourish our soul —  it’s a place not just for conversations about trauma, but also for laughter — is equally important. If there is one thing I know about Indigenous communities, it is that laughing and poking fun at one another can be a language of love, caring, and acceptance, and a medicine for everyone.

This program was not exclusively for Indigenous youth. According to coordinator JoAnne Fishburn, there were participants with backgrounds ranging from South Asian to Nigerian to European — participants living in cities and communities from Nunavut to New Brunswick to British Columbia. It was first time in my life that I had been part of a safe and respectful community that brought Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together to ask honest questions, listen, and learn from one another.

In alignment with many nations’ protocols, we opened and closed each class with a sharing circle; everyone was given a chance to speak. The facilitators made room for everyone’s questions and opinions, and we all respected the diverse knowledge and experiences our fellow classmates brought to the conversation. We talked about identifying stereotypes, decolonizing sexuality, the personal effects of intergenerational trauma, whether or not non-Indigenous people should learn Indigenous languages. We talked about colonization, police brutality and systemic racism.

If you have been paying attention, you will know that journalism is in a moment of reckoning. Media outlets across North America are scrambling to make up for the historical gap in reportage on the long-standing issues and causes behind systemic racism in our police and justice systems. As Brandi Morin, a journalist of Cree, Iroquois, and French descent, writes for Elle magazine, “In 2020, mostly white voices continue to dominate our TV screens, debating the value of the lives of millions of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), and mostly white journalists interpret our stories, writing headlines that dare to question whether racism exists in this country.”

Is the Indigenous 150+ program the answer to systemic racism in journalism and media? Of course not. But it could be part of the solution. So, too, could Journalists for Human Rights’ Indigenous Reporters Program. And commitments from institutions — Carleton University, for example, recently promised to hire a Chair in Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion Studies; Ryerson University is offering a new course called “Reporting on race: The Black community in the media” (both moves were the result of student petitions). All these things help create a journalism landscape less hostile toward BIPOC experiences.

As Morin points out, in order to see change, the journalism industry will also need more BIPOC voices telling stories. However, as the pressure to recruit more BIPOC journalists into the industry rises, those of us already working in the field face the ethical dilemma of encouraging people to join us on the battlefield, where every day we know they will be pushing back against a system that is not made to support us or our stories. As Jesse Wente said on CBC’s Metro Morning last month, “Just being in the room doesn’t cut it. What we need is the walls of that room to come down so there isn’t even a room to begin with.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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