Journalists must embrace their role as educators when reporting on indigenous issues and recognize how their work shapes perceptions.

TRC commissioner and former journalist Marie Wilson delivers this year’s 2016 Atkinson lecture on covering aboriginal issues at the Ryerson School of Journalism. Photo courtesy Ilina Ghosh.

By Ilina Ghosh for the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre

Journalists must embrace their role as educators when reporting on indigenous issues and recognize how their work shapes perceptions, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson said during this year’s Atkinson lecture at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

In her address, Wilson drew upon lessons she learned over many years as a CBC journalist and, more recently, the six and a half years she spent as one of three TRC commissioners.

“Recognize the extraordinary value of the space you have been given – your column inches, your air time, your video frames, your Twitter characters, your hashtags,”  she urged the journalism students, professors and professionals in the audience.

“Use your spaces well, as teachers. Despite all the new and emerging technologies, despite all the fracturing of journalistic audiences, you are still teaching in some of the biggest classrooms in the world. And the people you are serving are still learning, one person at a time.”

The TRC investigated Canadian residential schools, which for more than a century, forcibly removed generations of aboriginal children from their communities. Established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s mandate was also to educate the public about the residential school system and help its survivors heal.

The TRC heard from more than 6,750 witnesses and issued 94 calls to action, including three directly related to media and journalists.  It called upon the federal government to restore and increase funding to the CBC/Radio-Canada so that it can reflect the diverse cultures, languages and perspectives of Aboriginal Peoples; it called upon the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network to support reconciliation; and it called upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to make it mandatory for students to learn about aboriginal history.

Wilson outlined a list of best practices for journalists covering indigenous people and issues. She said, for instance, that it is essential for journalists to recognize the significance of the residential schools when reporting on the victims, the survivors, the TRC or its calls to action.

“Recognize the enormity of what happened in those schools and the question that helps people grasp the enormity: ‘what if it was my child? What if it was you?’”  she said.

“Recognize the enormity of the settlement agreement, the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history. Think of how many things that we report on that are historic, that are precedent setting, and yet [this,] we underplay it, we mostly don’t know it. I am told by legal experts… that it’s actually the largest collective reparation package in the history of the world.”

Continue reading this story on the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre website, where it was first published.