Survivors and MMIWG families take part in a round dance in Thunder Bay under the shadow of a red dress. Photo: Willow Fiddler/APTN

Canadian newspapers had the tools and exposure to cover the MMIWG final report with the respect it deserved. They botched it anyway

Karen Pugliese on how to move forward (No token efforts please) Continue Reading Canadian newspapers had the tools and exposure to cover the MMIWG final report with the respect it deserved. They botched it anyway

Do we need one more piece on those editorials refuting the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ finding of genocide?

I think so.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made three recommendations on media, which can be summarized: chin up and ‘skoden APTN; fund the CBC more, and please teach all journalism students the basics about Indigenous people before you set them loose on the world.

The TRC also invoked the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which says a little more: Indigenous people have the right to own media, state media and private media should also strive to reflect “Indigenous cultural diversity.”

This is not much of a road map.

Canadian media has been left to figure out what its specific role in reconciliation will be on its own.

News media have shown an increased willingness to tell the stories of Indigenous communities, although they are sometimes fumbling onto the space.

In January, Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley announced in a staff memo that the paper would launch a Thunder Bay bureau in the wake of a report detailing systemic racism in the city’s police force, a reality many were already familiar with. “We cannot leave the stories of Thunder Bay to a previous year,” he wrote. The move may have been influenced by release of Ryan McMahon’s wildly popular exposé simply titled Thunder Bay, made in partnership with the Canadaland podcast.

“If that seems ridiculous, it’s because the charge of a continuing genocide in Canada is absurd.” Globe and Mail

“…there’s the question of how ordinary people will see Canada in light of this declaration.” CBC

“Does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau realize the consequences of endorsing (or at least appearing to endorse) the inquiry’s use of ‘genocide’ to describe Canada’s conduct, as he did on Tuesday?” Toronto Star

“The very use of this word may actually deflect from some very good ideas the MMIWG inquiry has brought forward.” Leader Post

Six month’s later, the Globe’s editorial following the release of the long-awaited Inquiry report concluded that accusing Canada of genocide “doesn’t ring true.”

There’s irony in the Globe’s willingness to accept the concept of systematic racism in Thunder Bay but not in Canada. The reality is that bureau is part-time and with rotating journalists. Was the grand announcement of the Thunder Bay bureau a genuine effort to be more relevant and in touch? Or was it merely a subscriber-driven publicity stunt? Perhaps the answer to that is confirmed by the Globe’s editorial response to the MMIW Inquiry.

Perhaps we should look at coverage of the report, by the Globe and others, as what the optimists in my human resource department would call  “an opportunity-rich environment for learning.”

On June 6, every major media outlet’s editorial boards hot-take on the Inquiry was eerily similar groupthink on both subject and message.   

  • We know this subject matter better than the Inquiry, and feel equally or better qualified to make conclusions  
  • The inquiry is embarrassing ‘us’ and Canada
  • If the commissioners of the Inquiry and MMIWG families say they want better press and outcomes, they ought to learn to watch their language.  

In the days that followed, the increasing vocal Native Twitter — as a loose but outspoken group of Indigenous people on social media have become known — pushed back.

Among them, a few important names in journalism. Jesse Wente, for instance, wondered if he should continue working with the CBC.

Freelancer Alicia Elliot tweeted she would no longer write for the Globe and Mail.

Robert Jago tried to refocus attention on better media coverage which was being smothered in the public debate.   

Behind the scenes in newsrooms, there were disputes and discussions. During that week, I was in Toronto attending a series of journalism conferences. Reporters who had covered the inquiry felt burned and embarrassed that the genocide-or-not editorials had drowned out their more thoughtful coverage.

No doubt the public criticism, backed by internal newsroom divisions pushed the same media outlets to subsequently publish a series of op-eds by Indigenous people.

The Globe, which was widely panned for its early coverage, later published an explainer: MMIWG inquiry reading list: Canada’s tragedy explained through the stories of three women and one word. It contextualized the evidence base for the word genocide based on the Globe’s own previous reporting, but stopped short of endorsing the word.

This article, unlike the first editorial, was signed. I am guessing with intent.

So, what are potentially the lessons learned? Here are a few.

First, you should not hijack a story about Indigenous women and make it about your editorial board, or your personal feelings. If you must, then don’t disappear Indigenous women and their families entirely out of the conversation. Try to at least include their voices.

Second, googling the word genocide (or looking up the word in the Oxford dictionary as the Leader Post did), does not make your opinion as educated or informed as a legal expert who composed a 1,000+ page report, based on 98 previous studies, two years of testimony from hundreds of family members, academics, social workers, and legal experts.

Lawyer Michael Spratt was quick to make the media false-balance comparison to flat-earthers and climate change deniers in a June 10 article in Canadian Lawyer.

Third, if you there’s a public-interest case to question the findings of an Inquiry, go for it, but do so respectfully. Avoid using dismissive and insulting language such as “absurd” and “ridiculous” which degrades the conversation to the level of Twitter-trolling.

Four, read the report before commenting. Ensure any source you’re quoting has also read the report. If you or your commentator is shooting from the hip, just admit it up front.

Five, read your own past and present news coverage on the issue, and look for facts that support your opinion. Include those which oppose your opinion for balance.  

The steps taken to balance the coverage still do not put right what happened. A story that should have been focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and their families remains, instead, centred on a debate about how non-Indigenous Canadians feel about the word genocide.

Karyn Pugliese is an award-winning journalist who has defended the rights of journalists and advanced the training, visibility, participation and leadership of Indigenous journalists throughout her career. Best known for her leadership role as the Executive Director of News and Current Affairs at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), Ms. Pugliese is also joining the Ryerson team as an Assistant Professor of journalism in January. She is a citizen of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation in Ontario.