Rewriting journalism: How Canadian media reinforces Indigenous stereotypes

TVO.org speaks with professor Carmen Robertson about representations of Indigenous people in media — and how news stories have helped shape Canadian identity
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Sep 03, 2020
Carmen Robertson holds a Canada Research Chair in North American Indigenous Visual and Material Culture at Carleton University. (Fangliang Xu)

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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 journalist Kelly Boutsalis — and read Shelby Lisk's essay "Creating space for Indigenous journalism amid the whiteness of Canadian media."

When Carmen Robertson, a Scots-Lakota professor, was searching for resources for her Indigenous art-history courses in the early 2000s, many colleagues directed her to National Film Board presentations. But Robertson quickly noticed that the ‘60s and ‘70s films featured damaging stereotypes of Indigenous people. “I was looking for a PhD topic at the time, and I decided to write about the problematic representations of contemporary Indigenous artists by the NFB films,” says Robertson. “That got me thinking about all sorts of ways popular culture was providing skewed representations.”

This led to a study of Indigenous representation in Canadian newspaper stories, and, eventually, to her 2011 book Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers. In Seeing Red, Robertson, alongside her co-author, Latin American historian Mark Cronlund Anderson, looked at major Canadian newspaper stories between 1869 and 2009: topics included the sale of Rupert’s Land, the signing of Treaty 3 and the Oka Crisis. Now, almost 10 years later, the pair is working on an updated edition, which is slated to come out in 2021 with the University of Manitoba Press.

Robertson, who is also known for her extensive research and writing on Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, currently holds a Canada Research Chair in North American Indigenous Visual and Material Culture at Carleton University. Her research centres on contemporary Indigenous arts and on constructions of Indigeneity in popular culture.

TVO.org speaks with Robertson about representations of Indigenous people in newspapers and media in Canada, how news stories have helped form Canadian identity — and what has changed in the decade since she published Seeing Red.

TVO.org: In your book Seeing Red, you explain the ways newspapers stories about Indigenous people have contributed to our collective national understanding of it means to be Canadian. How has this happened throughout history?

Robertson: We have such a huge nation, and it was difficult to come up with kind of a united mythology, but newspapers and, I think, the National Film Board of Canada, served the purpose of helping Canadians understand who they were as a nation. People looked to national newspapers, dailies, across Canada, as a way to unite them. What we found looking at newspaper coverage, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is that, even though there were newspapers that had different political perspectives, when it came to the way they talked about racial identity, it was very, very similar — and that created the way settler Canadians think about Indigenous people through this very homogenized and, sadly, problematic lens.

TVO.org: What are some of the common stereotypes about Indigenous people you see used in reporting and in media?

Robertson: You’ll see these notions of violence, of quote-unquote “drunken Indian[s]” again and again. You’ll see ideas [of Indigenous people as] childlike, that they really aren’t fully formed the way settler Canadians are. They’re difficult to talk about without getting people very angry. Luckily, these days, those are being questioned on many fronts, including and especially by Indigenous journalists today. In the 19th century, there were many more of these stereotypes. The notion that Indigenous people were dying out was very common. Today, we don’t see that, but we do see that culture is dying out, language is dying out. Those things are reinforced in the press, and they have a kernel that takes you back to that notion of 19th-century moribundity.

TVO.org: I still think about with the way Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook’s death was reported on. I wasn’t living in Ottawa at the time, but I remember finding the reporting so upsetting that I couldn’t read anything about it, because I just kept thinking, “Why are all these stories focusing on her ‘troubled life’? What about her amazing art?” It was so upsetting that I turned my social media off and didn’t read the news for a week or two. I couldn’t handle it, and I’m not sure why. But that example has just stuck in my mind, and I still think about it. I think that was almost five years ago now.

Robertson: Yeah, it was about five years ago, and that’s a really good example that demonstrates just how deeply these stereotypes run through Canadian culture. When we have these flashpoint moments — and I think the Colten Boushie case and Tina Fontaine are good examples — very quickly, mainstream newspapers fall back on those stereotypical representations. There are nice features and stories that we see in the press today, but when there’s a flashpoint moment, it just seems like they go back to what they know deep inside them, and that’s often demeaning and destructive.

TVO.org: Can you talk about how mainstream media came to promote itself as objective and non-partisan? Do you think that this is true?

Robertson: Canada is such a young nation — 1867 — but we see these roots going back into Europe and then into the United States. Newspapers really had their heyday first in Europe and brought those sorts of ethical ideas about “objectivity,” and things like that, here, which we know are obviously skewed. When Canadian newspaper outlets were started, many of them were started by settlers who came over and brought those ideas. Those ideas became entrenched in what we see as journalism and, sadly, a lot of images of the representations of Indigenous people — they go far, far back.

As an art historian, I look through the history of art, and I see cultural appropriations and representations that go back far into the 1400s. Those ideas were already entrenched in the way Europeans saw “the Other” or people of colour more generally — people from Africa, people from Asia. The early press reports just reinforced those ideas, and they already made sense for early settlers and immigrants, so they embraced those ways of thinking about Indigenous people in really problematic ways.

TVO.org: If people were (or still are) interacting with the media as if it represents the truth and is objective, how do you think that might affect the way Canadians read the news and form ideas about Indigenous people from news stories?

Robertson: Throughout the 20th century, that notion that the press was objective and above any sort of political persuasion hung on. I think, today, many people consume their news more critically, but most news consumers from the 20th century (so, many older people in Canada today) maintain those ideas about the press as providing a source for news that is above reproach. That does really manipulate the way that Canadians see themselves and the way they see Indigenous people in Canada. 

TVO.org: There are always a lot of Indigenous news stories around defending land, right? All the news outlets flock to our communities when something like that’s happening. One of the stereotypes you talk about in the book is the idea that Indigenous people are being “resistant to progress.” In the recent reporting on the Coastal GasLink pipeline project on Wet’suwet’en land, for example; or on my community, Tyendinaga, which shut down the railway for a few weeks in the winter; or on what is happening in Caledonia right now — how are Indigenous people portrayed during land disputes?

Robertson: I think that they are being portrayed more fairly by some journalists. And there are some stories that were really balanced, I think, last summer, with Wet’suwet’en and what was going on with the Dakota pipeline resistance. However, what I see in relation to that stereotype of backwardness and not keeping up with progress is the idea of the importance of growing our economy. The idea that in order to grow Canada economically, we need to work in a world market for gas and oil.

Ultimately, these sorts of resistances and sovereign connections to land don’t play well with many Canadians because [they think], “How will we progress? How will we become more successful and get more money?” There’s a disconnect there in what land means from a settler perspective — a possession, a way to improve economics in this country — and then the notion of land as something other than that, which is a relational or kinship tie, which many Canadians, for the most part, just can’t even fathom. So, again, we see those stereotypes bubble through, because the fact that they’re “stopping progress,” they’re stopping the economy, that doesn’t play well [with Canadians].

TVO.org: How do you think Canadian journalists could better report on Indigenous issues in general?

Robertson: I think it’s really important that stories have a deeper context, that a story doesn’t just last for the news day. It has to go on; it has to continue. Journalists have to return to communities to continue those conversations and keep reporting on what’s happening. A few years ago, everything in the news was on Attawapiskat, and today, I think, most people wouldn’t even remember the name of that community. It was something that rolled off people’s tongues for one summer. It’s really important that journalists think outside this flashpoint moment of what’s making the news that day and think about a much longer and deeper relationship to news stories.

TVO.org: In 2021, it will be 10 years since Seeing Red came out, and you’ll be releasing a new edition looking at more recent reporting. What major differences, if any, have you found?

Robertson: For the most part, there are far more Indigenous voices in the press, and stories are often more balanced, but we still see daily newspapers that have to fill those pages just fall back on what they already know, which continues to reinforce those stereotypes within people’s minds. Sometimes it’s just presenting a photograph that undoes everything that is in the news story. The way we consume images is every bit as stereotypical as the way people have learned to consume text, so it’s really important that visuals also are taken into consideration. We don’t have a lot of room in this new version. We’ve just added two more chapters, one on Idle No More and one related to discussions of genocide, which seems to be a huge flashpoint in Canada: whether we can use that term outside of thinking about the Holocaust and World War II or not. We went back to the UN definition [of genocide] and then followed coverage across Canada, so we do still see those problems, but not in the same way, which is a good thing.

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

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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