Indigenous journalists are key to amplifying the stories of Indigenous peoples
It was the last days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s tenure in 2015, and the subsequent tabling of the commission’s calls to action to tackle the legacy of residential schools that brought Indigenous journalist Connie Walker to the table. “The growing awareness and appetite of the mainstream media for indigenous issues.
Coverage of the TRC’s latest event in Ottawa in May and June 2015 dominated national news for five consecutive nights, and on the day the commission released its final report on December 15, the first 15 minutes of The National of CBC were a cover of the CVR.
About a year later, Walker attended a journalism conference hosted by three Indigenous journalists. It was shortly after Colten Boushie, a member of the Red Pheasant Cree First Nation, was shot and killed by a farmer in rural Saskatchewan.
A statement made by former journalist and former TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson at this conference “has changed the way I do my job, changed the way I report on all Indigenous issues,” Walker said.
Wilson said “put everything in context”.
“Marie Wilson said it’s our job as journalists to connect the dots, to provide that context, to help people understand a part of our shared history that has not been taught to us in schools. Part of our history that has often been overlooked or misunderstood by the media, ”Walker said.
This advice made Walker realize that stories about Indigenous peoples begin long before an incident occurs; even before a person is born. The stories are linked to family histories, the Sixties Scoop, Indian Residential Schools, the Indian Act, colonization.
Today, intergenerational trauma often appears in the context of the Indigenous stories that are told, Walker said.
Considering the impact the TRC and its commissioners have had on Walker’s career, it was only fitting that she could speak of the “role of journalism in reconciliation” for a TRC-inspired event. On November 22, Walker spoke to over 200 people live and virtually as part of the Indigenous Speaker Series. The University of Vancouver Island launched the annual event seven years ago in response to the TRC’s Calls to Action to transform post-secondary institutions.
In his 20+ years as a journalist, Walker of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan has seen incredible changes, not only in the number of Indigenous journalists working, but also in the number of Indigenous stories told. . However, most of these changes were concentrated in the latter part of his career.
Also around this time, Walker realized that the experiences of Indigenous journalists in telling the stories of Indigenous peoples are invaluable.
“Indigenous journalists are among those on the front lines to help bridge the gaps. There are so many incredibly talented Indigenous journalists working today who are dedicated to amplifying Indigenous voices and sharing our truths, ”she said.
Walker is counted among those, but she points out that the journey has not been easy.
Walker was drawn to the profession in Grade 12 when Pamela George, a young Indigenous mother, was brutally murdered in 1995. Media coverage focused on the two young, middle-class white men, both star athletes, who had committed the crime. George was referenced primarily as a sex worker.
The incongruity of the cover was something Walker became “keenly aware” of. This sparked her desire to become a journalist who could empathize with George, not just fire her. About four years later, the two men, who were acquitted of George’s murder but convicted of manslaughter, were released from prison.
At the time, Walker was a trainee journalist and “was hopeful of the impact I might have.”
But as the only Indigenous voice in the newsroom, she realized that was not enough. She did not have the power to speak out about racist stereotypes nor the power to present Indigenous issues for media coverage.
It also became clearer to her the power of the media. That same summer, a young indigenous woman and a young white woman went missing. The white woman gained national media attention, while the indigenous woman barely registered at the local level.
In 2005, the Native Women’s Association of Canada released a report that estimated that approximately 500 Indigenous women were either missing or murdered. Walker recalls that most of her colleagues “laughed” at the number, questioning its validity because there had been no coverage of the violence faced by Indigenous women.
“Journalists, for the most part, ignored the truths throughout their careers. They couldn’t understand or probe because they didn’t understand what I or other Indigenous journalists knew because we had direct experience of this violence, ”Walker said.
Ten years later, Walker was part of a CBC News unit dedicated to telling stories about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. All the national news media were doing similar work.
Walker attributes this shift in media focus over this 10-year period to three factors: more Indigenous journalists in the newsroom; the switch to digital media; and the work of the TRC.
Social media, she says, provided an unexpected opportunity to engage with the indigenous population. CBC has dedicated a digital space to Indigenous stories. This digital space and the work of indigenous journalists have grown.
“Our success, I believe, was in large part due to the connections that we as Indigenous journalists made directly from our communities, to the fact that the perspectives we offered were different from the status quo and that it was ‘a very necessary and refreshing event. change, ”she said.
The measurements proved that there was an audience for Indigenous stories. The digital platform was in stark contrast to traditional platforms like television and radio, which mainly saw white editorial leaders assigning articles, choosing programs, and deciding where the interests of Canadians lay.
The strength of digital media helped Walker’s 2018 Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo win the top prize for Best Serialized Story at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and be named one of the best podcasts of 2018 by Apple Canada. In 2017, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? won the Adrienne Clarkson Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association and was nominated for a Webby Award.
It was also digital media that launched Walker on his latest trip after discovering a Facebook post from his brother that spoke of an incident in their father’s past that was linked to his attendance at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. The focus of his next season of Stolen is his father’s experience.
As dramatic as the change has been over the past eight years, the past six months have been even more monumental. As one elder told me, “The discovery of the anonymous graves of children at Kamloops Indian Residential School has awakened the world Walker said.
Walker’s personal awakening came a week after the remains of 215 children were announced at the site of the old Kamloops school. That’s when she was browsing Facebook and found her younger brother’s post.
He told the story of their father, an RCMP officer, who arrested a driver he suspected of having been drinking. He recognized the driver as the priest who assaulted him at the residential school. He beat the priest on the side of the road that night. He expected his career to end or be charged, but no complaints were ever filed.
Walker has spent the last few months investigating his father’s experience in St. Michael’s. Since her death in 2013, she has spoken to her family. She is also looking for the priest of the traffic control.
Learning from her father’s experience reminded Walker of what she has learned throughout her career. It is important that Indigenous journalists lead this work and are supported, funded and held accountable, she says. It is one more step on the road to reconciliation.
“It’s not only important that journalists find out the truth, but who can tell the stories is just as important. Who do we do this work to? Who can help us amplify the right voices and understand the context?
“Indigenous journalists… bring with us a unique set of lived experiences and perspectives that are crucial to understanding the realities that Indigenous peoples face in Canada and how this connects to aspects of our shared history that Canadians are just beginning to understand. understand, ”Walker said.
In recent years, Walker has seen more Indigenous journalists and admits she is “amazed” by the younger ones who don’t hesitate to speak out against the establishment when they deem something to be wrong or unfair.
However, the newsroom remains a struggle. Too many Indigenous journalists have left in recent years, she says, because of workplace racism.
“It is sometimes an incredibly difficult space to live in. Having to face this kind of racism in your work environment is demoralizing and degrading, ”she said.
Walker adds, however, that the increased number of Indigenous journalists allows them to support each other.