‘It represents the public opinion and the public voice. If we don’t get the paper out, then who’s going to hear it?’
Making sure that Turtle Island News made it to publication on Oct. 30 “wasn’t just about the newspaper,” said publisher Lynda Powless after its office building on Grand River Territory of the Six Nations was targeted in an arson attack in the early hours of Oct. 28.
“It represents the public opinion and the public voice. If we don’t get the paper out, then who’s going to hear it?”
Despite damage to much of its office building and the equipment inside, the Indigenous weekly did not suspend production. The paper was on the streets by 6 a.m. the following Wednesday, as usual.
Police, fire and ambulance services arrived at the paper’s southern Ontario office at 5 a.m., said Powless. The police told her that a stolen truck was driven into the north end of the building before being doused in gasoline and ignited.
The Canadian Association of Journalists denounced the attack in a statement Nov. 4.
“This is an unacceptable act of violence, we are deeply grateful no one was hurt,” said CAJ president Karyn Pugliese. “We wish to express deep admiration for the staff who are continuing to do important work.”
Powless told the Committee to Protect Journalists that when one of the paper’s reporters called the police to follow up on their investigation, “an officer said they were busy with other matters,” according to a post from the press freedom non-profit. Since no arrests have been made, she said “everyone is looking over their shoulder.”
“Six Nations police must thoroughly investigate the recent arson attack on the offices of the Turtle Island News and determine whether it was connected to the outlet’s reporting,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director at the CPJ, in the release. “Such incidents, with property damage, can have dire consequences for local media outlets, and we call on local authorities to find those responsible and hold them to account.”
Publishing meant “just getting done as quickly as we could, anyway we could,” Powless told J-Source. “And that’s what we did –– we pushed through to get it all done. Even though it meant sharing phones, sharing everything.”
“We didn’t want to let them win,” said Turtle Island News reporter Justin Lethbridge of the attack on the paper’s office. Since his office computer was water-damaged in the effort to put out the fire, Lethbridge reported from his car using his laptop.
“We lost half of our equipment. Our reporters have lost their computers, their desks. We’ve got three people sitting in one tiny area,” said Powless. “We’ve got people even working out of my office.”
On Oct. 31, Turtle Island’s insurer estimated the attack caused $150,000 in damage. Some of the office’s charred ceiling and interior walls will have to be torn down and rebuilt, said Powless. “We do have insurance, but insurance never covers everything. So there are going to be additional costs, I have no doubt.”
Powless said she hopes to appeal to her community to raise funds. They have already received “an outpouring of support” through phone calls and over Facebook. The Oct. 30 edition included a full-page thank you to the Turtle Island readership.
As for the culprit, Powless said she’s completely perplexed as to who would want to attack the Turtle Island offices. “We’ve been mulling this over just ourselves and our staff, trying to figure out what the heck started this. We don’t know.”
Six Nations Police Services suggested that they may not be able to catch the culprit when they left the office around 9 a.m. the morning of the fire, said Powless. She said the security footage was too grainy, and that any other identifying evidence went up in flames.
“I didn’t think we had done anything recently to cause anybody to get this angry with us,” she said. “I’d rather they send a letter to the editor.”
Six Nations Police did not respond to a request for comment from J-Source by the time of publication.
Turtle Island News is “Canada’s only national native weekly newspaper,” according to its website. The paper will be marking its 26th anniversary on Nov. 29.
According to the paper’s website, Powless worked in mainstream media from “the CBC to national newspapers,” before creating Turtle Island in her home in 1994. Since then readership has grown to over 100,000.