Rewriting journalism: ‘Get Indigenous voices involved’

TVO.org speaks with journalist Kelly Boutsalis about being Indigenous in journalism and the responsibility that comes with telling stories from your own community
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Sep 03, 2020
Kelly Boutsalis writes about such topics as art, theatre, film, pop culture, fashion, and motherhood. (Courtesy of Kelly Boutsalis)

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To learn more about Indigenous voices in media, read TVO.org interviews with Megan Fowler of Journalists for Human Rights and professor Carmen Robertson — and read Shelby Lisk's essay "Creating space for Indigenous journalism amid the whiteness of Canadian media."

Seventeen, YM, Jane, Sassy: while growing up in the Six Nations of the Grand River community, Kelly Boutsalis says, she couldn’t get enough of books and teen magazines. “I always thought that I was going to wind up writing books,” she says. “I would write short stories in Grade Six and pass them along to my friends.”

But journalism wasn’t on her radar until she moved back to her community after finishing her degree in comparative literature at Western University, in 2004 — and got the opportunity to write for Tekawennake News, a local paper that, prior to its closing in 2013, billed itself as the oldest Native weekly paper in Canada. “I was young, and I started to take on basically everything that you do in a community newspaper,” says Boutsalis. “I remember I went to take a photo of these two twins who had turned 90, and that was a story on the reserve, but, then, at the same time, I was covering council meetings.” Her interest in learning and doing more reporting on entertainment led her to sign up for journalism school at Humber College in Toronto.

Now Boutsalis writes for such outlets as Elle Canada, Flare, Vice, and Chatelaine on art, theatre, film, pop culture, fashion, and motherhood. Her first full-time staff-writing job was with Realscreen magazine, an industry publication for non-fiction film and TV. “There was usually myself and about two other writers and an editor and everyone was white, excluding me,” she says. “But, because it was so focused on that industry, my Indigeneity didn’t really come up.”

After Boutsalis had her second child, four years ago, freelance opportunities started coming her way. She found herself drawn to telling positive stories about Indigenous role models, especially Indigenous women. “I’ve made a point of my journalism career to highlight and lift up Indigenous voices, to keep things positive and show off incredible achievements and spirit,” Boutsalis writes in a recent opinion piece for Find Your Pleasure. “Right now, I’m wondering if that is enough.”

As she explains in that piece, given recent events — such as those involving the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous land disputes across Canada — she’s not sure she can continue focusing only on the positive: “Maybe I need to rethink what I’m doing and try to educate about the negative with the positive. It may not be pleasurable, but it sure as hell is necessary.”

TVO.org speaks with Boutsalis about her career thus far, being Indigenous in journalism — and the responsibility that comes with telling stories from your own community.

TVO.org: Do you think that growing up in Six Nations and growing up around your Mohawk family has influenced the way you tell stories?

Boutsalis: I think so. I would read constantly when I was growing up — all the large magazines — and I never found myself in them. Even from the makeup, it was never my skin [tone]. It was always stories that weren’t ours. I remember trying to pitch when Sassy became Jane, and they had this column called, “It happened to me,” and I pitched them “what it’s like growing up on a reserve.” At that point, nobody cared, or nobody was interested in us, and so she wrote back, and she was like, “No, thank you.” Later, once I realized there is an interest, I was very interested in putting us in the kind of stuff that I read, the major magazines, and being very conscious of the words. I understood, very much, that how we speak about ourselves is incredibly important, and that’s something that I try to put in my work today.

little girl in a living room
Kelly Boutsalis grew up in the Six Nations of the Grand River community. (Courtesy of Kelly Boutsalis)

TVO.org: You said your Indigeneity didn’t really factor into your writing at first. Did it come up at all in journalism school or in your reporting before you started freelancing?

Boutsalis: The one thing that I can tie to my time at Humber is when — I believe it was when the Caledonia protest had happened — and I was at a friend’s house: two non-Indigenous friends. I heard [on the news] that they were talking about “the people versus the Natives.” We were all learning about how important word choices were, and we were like, “What! How in the world did this make it onto the news?” It was really upsetting, and my boyfriend at the time (now husband) and my best friend were both like, “Well, Kelly, I guess you’re not a person according to this news.” That has stuck with me forever when thinking about how we write about Indigenous people. According to this [news outlet], which was the news that I would watch growing up — and it was always white faces, never Indigenous faces, even though it was the local Hamilton news — they didn’t see us as people, essentially.

TVO.org: How did you start freelancing, and when did you come to telling Indigenous stories?

Boutsalis: I had my second kid, and it was during that time that a friend reached out to me, who I had worked with at Realscreen, who became one of the editors at Now Magazine, the alternative newspaper in Toronto. He sent me on this story about a telecommunication and video program for education purposes, for some of the Indigenous schools up north to have access to a lot of cool stuff in Toronto and in the States. There was an opening ceremony that I got invited to, with a press conference, and my dad drove me. He asked me who was speaking, and I’m pretty sure it was the Elder Duke Redbird doing the opening speech. My dad was like, “Oh, I’m interested in him. Can I come along?” So my dad came, and it was fully catered by Indigenous caterers: there was strawberry juice and all foods that I knew. It was welcoming, and it was familiar, and it was friendly. I hadn’t experienced much of that. My own culture at a press conference was absolutely new to me. I thought, “This is interesting — I like this,” and then it started to grow.

TVO.org: How did that pivot feel when you started focusing on telling Indigenous stories?

Boutsalis: It was amazing. I was putting these stories out that I wish I had seen when I was growing up and reading magazines and newspapers. It is the most fulfilled I have ever been in my entire writing career. It’s also validation when editors say, “We want this story. We need this story.” And I hope that I’m doing a good job. But I feel, especially because they’re Indigenous [stories], I feel a lot of onus that I don’t mess it up. Whenever these stories go live, the people that I featured, I really want to make sure that I’m doing them justice. I probably take it to heart a little too much. The people I’m interviewing are people that I admire; they are people that I may not have known about. And I get to know more about them. I get to put that out into the world for other people to read about them, and I hope that it is impactful.

TVO.org: Yeah, every time one of my stories is going live, I feel as if I’m going to vomit. I don’t know if you feel this, but being an Indigenous journalist telling Indigenous stories, I’m always terrified that I’m going to put something out and then people are going to get really mad at me. Like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have told that story” or “Who do you think you are to be able to talk about that?”

Boutsalis: Absolutely: 100 per cent. As soon as somebody tells me, “Oh, you can’t write this” or “We’re in ceremony — you’re not supposed to write about that,” I’m like, okay, now I will never, ever, ever. I’m thankful that they told me that I shouldn’t write about that. I feel the same way. I just don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to mess it up for the people I’m writing about.

TVO.org: When you started telling more Indigenous stories, what kind of stories were you most drawn to covering?

Boutsalis: Mostly stories about Indigenous women. I’ve found that I feel more comfortable and sure of my storytelling when it’s an Indigenous woman, but then there’s also the stuff that just pops up in my life. I wrote about Molly of Denali because I knew that show was coming, and then my kids started watching it. It was fun to do something that is part of my own life. I wrote about an app that I was using to learn Mohawk. What else? I love TV, and I love movies, so I also really, really like writing about that — especially Indigenous people in those roles.

TVO.org: What’s your favourite story that you’ve written?

Boutsalis: I think it was the story I did for Vice, when I talked to the Mohawk code talker Levi Oaks. And he’s passed away, so it feels even extra special that he allowed me into his home. I literally walked from my uncle’s house in Akwesasne across the street to go interview him. I sat down — I walked over with my dad, because I was a little nervous — and so my dad sat down, and my dad listened. We were at the kitchen table with Levi and his daughter. He’s hard of hearing, so his daughter was kind of speaking up for me. Then my mom and my daughter wandered over, and they came in, and they sat down. It was probably the most family oriented interview I’ve ever done. That was definitely an amazing moment, that I got to speak with him — and great to have my family all around me listening to him speak as well.

TVO.org: What has your experience been like pitching stories to editors, and have you seen changes over the course of your writing career?

Boutsalis: When I began doing freelance, I found that people really wanted Indigenous writers for Indigenous stories, and that’s only been about four and a half years. Sometimes, the onus is on me to describe things and give a context that I feel a reader can just look up themselves, so there is a burden to explain ourselves. Sometimes I do it, but it is a lot of extra work.

TVO.org: And sometimes editors will also ask for that within the actual article, right? You know, “Oh, well, people don’t know what that means: Can you explain it?” But sometimes you don’t want to use 200 words of your 800-word article explaining something.

Boutsalis: Yeah, absolutely. And I did have a good experience recently. After Black Lives Matter kind of blew up, I wrote that piece for Find Your Pleasure, and I mentioned snow snake, and I mentioned Sky Woman. The editor, who is Cynthia Loyst from The Social, she said, “We need a little explanation for that, but I don’t want you to do extra work.” So she asked, “Can you just find a link and then link it [in the article].” Or, she said, she could even do it. That was honestly the first time someone has been like, “I understand this is extra for you — let me know how to make this easy,” and that happened ... that piece is from just a couple months ago, right? That was a really nice moment, because it was a relief, honestly, to be like, “Oh, I don’t have to explain that here.” The reader can click on this if they want, but I don’t have to write it out.

woman interviews a hockey player
Kelly Boutsalis interviewing Indigenous NHL player Jordin Tootoo. (Courtesy of Kelly Boutsalis)

TVO.org: There is a line in the opinion piece you wrote for Find Your Pleasure where you talk about the kinds of stories you tell. You write, “Every story I wrote that lifted up an incredible Indigenous artist, curator, writer, student, teacher, app developer, fashion designer, cosmetics company CEO, etc, was trying to hold back the tide of missing and murdered Indigenous woman, Indigenous people dying at the hands of cops, dying by suicide, or something similar.” You’ve made this point in your journalism career thus far to tell these positive stories. But, in the piece, you say you’re starting to question whether that’s enough. Can you explain what that dilemma is and how you’re feeling?

Boutsalis: The news about us has always been so depressing, and you don’t really see a lot of positives. I don’t particularly want to have my stories be something else to add to that negative tide and negative perceptions of who we are. So that was something that I was always doing is making sure some people who are really at their top of their games, doing amazing things — role models, essentially — that I’m putting them out there for other younger Indigenous people to see and to give them hope and [something to] aspire to.

When I wrote the story with Find Your Pleasure, we did a Zoom meeting, and the entire meeting, instead of being about COVID, which I thought we might talk about, turned to race, and it was really heavy. I had been trying to keep everything out of my headspace, everything that was awful in 2020, and I was forced to think about it in that Zoom call.

Afterwards, I wrote most of the piece. It was me thinking: Everything I have been doing so far is just positive, positive, positive. Is it enough? Am I supposed to be doing more? Do people not know about a lot of the stuff that’s happening? I could be using my role to also put a spotlight on that, because it seems like there’s so much that’s happening, and I’m not talking about it. Is that a problem? Am I missing opportunities to bring to light all of this stuff? Is it detrimental that I’m not also using my power where I’m able? I know editors, and they’re willing to take my stories. Should I also be putting a spotlight on that? That’s where that came from.

TVO.org: Do you want to pursue more of those kinds of stories now?

Boutsalis: I mean, Land Back Lane is happening on my reserve, and I don’t know what to do. That kind of stuff kind of stops me in my tracks. Where do I even start? The responsibility of getting it right, especially when it’s my own community, is really heavy. I don’t know if you knew this, but the Chief of Six Nations — his house was burned. It was lit on fire. My mom told me that someone was going to be charged with arson. Emotions are really heavy there, and I don’t want to make it worse. I don’t want to add fuel to the fire, you know? There are so many pieces, especially because that’s where I’m from, that’s where my family is, that I need to either suck it up and be brave and write this stuff or step back. I don’t know which is the right move yet.

TVO.org: You also wrote in your opinion piece about this burden of educating that is put onto BIPOC journalists. What do you think non-Indigenous journalists and editors could do to take some of the responsibility?

Boutsalis: I think there’s just a lack of knowledge about how to talk about us, but also how to talk to us. When I speak to [Indigenous] people, and right off the bat I say I’m Indigenous, you can tell the majority of the subjects I’m interviewing, they relax, and so there’s a deep distrust, often, with non-Indigenous media. There’s something vital missing between the non-Indigenous journalists and Indigenous journalists. We feel like we’ve been burned too many times. I think it is just coming at it with an openness, being willing to really hear us and getting a base level understanding of Indigenous people in Canada.

TVO.org: I found that when I did a short internship with APTN. When people hear that name, they assume you’re Indigenous. They think this journalist is Indigenous, the editors are likely Indigenous, and this outlet has historically covered these issues well, so this story is probably going to be handled well, and they can trust it.

Boutsalis: Yes, I agree. There is a trust level. My defences are going to lower when I talk to you and we have something in common. That commonality doesn’t happen, I’m imagining, with many of these people being interviewed by, often, non-Indigenous reporters and journalists, so when they get us, it’s like, “Oh, this is a nice relief. I don’t have to explain myself even more.”

TVO.org: Do you ever worry that this interest in Indigenous stories will pass?

Boutsalis: No, actually. At first, I thought, “I’ve got to get in while it’s hot,” and now I feel like there is a shift. I still feel like a lot of publications are just figuring out how to do it, right? I think they’re still figuring out how to make sure that this isn’t just a token, that they’re not just doing this to fill this quota — and they are, 100 per cent. Many of them are doing that, but they have to do it from a good place. I feel like once they’re in a good place, it’s just going to keep moving this way. I feel like we can’t go backwards. I feel like the interest in us and other stories and other cultures’ stories just can’t go away at this point.

TVO.org: I work with Carleton University’s journalism program a little bit through my position, and the thing that comes up over and over with students is that they’re scared to tell Indigenous stories. Is there any advice that you would have for, especially, emerging journalists who are not Indigenous but want to report on Indigenous issues? Or do you even think they should be?

Boutsalis: Absolutely, they should be. We all need our stories out there, and the way to do it responsibly is to actually interview Indigenous people instead of doing an Indigenous story where most of the voices aren’t Indigenous — that’s how you can do better. I find that even in some of the stories that I’m writing about an Indigenous topic, there’s always an expert that I could involve, but they’re not Indigenous, so do I give them the platform, or do I find an Indigenous expert? And the word expert is a little looser for Indigenous people because of where we value our knowledge from, but you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to be the president of the company, to know what you’re talking about, because of our knowledge systems. For those people interested, get Indigenous voices involved.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Cynthia Loyst's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

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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