Aren’t these Canadian issues?

When I was in primary school, I was asked to do an assignment on my heritage. I went home and asked my mother where our family was from. She gave me all kind of answers from across Europe: Polish, Scottish, Ukrainian. I also remember her mentioning Metis so I listed it among my European heritage. I went to class and explained that I am a mutt from various places and that my family’s history in Canada can be documented back to the 1780s.

A piece of my family tree

I am not a mix of European descendants. I am Canadian. To my knowledge, all my grandparents were born in Canada. My family has a long history in this country. And do so do many other families.

That is exactly why I have a hard time focusing on what is referred to as “Aboriginal issues” as I was asked to do for this assignment. What makes an issue ‘Aboriginal’? Does it involve people of Aboriginal ancestry? Those that carry a card that legally defines them as so? Because of my heritage, I could also get this card. I have the application filled out in my room. Will that make me Aboriginal?

Or is it an issue that directly affects people who would refer to themselves as Aboriginal? In my experience, these are things like education, access to health care and affordable housing. These sound like issues I am worried about as well. These sounds like issues of social responsibility, security and human rights.

Or does it link specifically to the treaty system we put in place hundreds of years ago and still maintain under The Indian Act? If so, then I guess we have to write about these issues differently as different laws govern The Indian Act that do not apply to everyday Canadians. However, the Act is still under our Constitution, making the Act a Canadian issue.

I feel as though I am playing devil’s advocate. I think polarizing ‘Aboriginals’ and ‘non-Aboriginals’ is a large problem in Canada. That this polarization is the reason that we even have issues within these communities. I also think there are many people in Canada like me: that have Aboriginal heritage but would not consider themselves Aboriginal as an ethnicity. It is a distant past to us but still runs in our blood.

I know my thoughts are idealistic. There are issues that stem from systematic prejudice and racism of Aboriginals peoples in our society. And that is a Canadian issue within itself.

This past week, our journalism class went and visited Where are the children?, a national exhibit about residential schools that is currently at display at the University of Manitoba. For some of my classmates, this was their first time hearing about this time in Canada’s past. I had learned its details from my high school social studies teacher, and then again in university classes such as “Human Rights in a Global Sphere” and “Conflict and Development in Indigenous Communities”. I had also volunteered my time at The Hidden Legacy: Understanding the Impact on Children of Survivors of the indian Residential School System, an event put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada last year. I listened and transcribed statements made in the sessions about how the residential school system has created a cycle of abuse in households and a cycle of systematic stereotypes from those who do not understand.

I looked back and my transcriptions from that day and here are some of the notes that stuck out for me:

  • ‘One woman called The Indian Act “legalized genocide”’
  • ‘Bill C31 was supposed to erase gender discrimination but instead it created levels of status.’
  • ‘Even after death as wills have to be approved by Minister of Indian Affairs’
  • ‘Facts that Aboriginal women are three times more likely to experience violence, and Aboriginal women aged 35-44 are five times more likely to die from acts of violence than non-Aboriginal women.’

and finally,

  • ‘Portrayal in the media, especially headlines, reinforce racists thinking amongst society.’

As a training journalist, this has always been something I have examined in university courses and for my own interest. I feel that I have an opinion on it but never really needed to look at it practicality, aka actually having to write about stories that deal with an ‘Aboriginal issue’.

I am no stranger in going full into a culture that I might not know everything about. I usually stick with ‘we are both people with emotions and points of view’ and focus on the human element and not the culture. This may have got me into some situations I wasn’t prepared for including the culture of gifts to chiefs, brown envelope press conferences and even what is known as ‘the African handshake’. However, before I went to travel and report in West Africa, I was told to read the article “How to Write About Africa“.

This resource I want to share is closer to home. I learned about this project through jhr and I fell like it a resource worth sharing. Duncan McCue, a CBC reporter and journalism instructor, created a guide of sorts called “Reporting in Indigenous Communities” (RIIC)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t6CLSzIroE&feature=player_embedded]

Some of my favourite tips and items on RIIC’s checklist that fit into my statements from the first portion of my blog, as well as issues addressed in previous discussions with journalist Colleen Simard, include:

  • Is there a way to include Aboriginal people in your “non-Aboriginal” stories?
  • Are you consulting a variety of sources in the Aboriginal community?
  • Are you thinking of ways to fit in context and history about Aboriginal peoples, with graphics, sidebars, or web extras?
  • Have you addressed the “Native-Aboriginal-First Nations-Indigenous Person” question, by asking the Aboriginal people you’re reporting on which term they prefer?
  • Have you looked for humour to illustrate a point about the Aboriginal community?
  • How will you include Aboriginal people as “problem-solvers” in your story?
  • Does your newsroom have an ethics policy about accepting small gifts and keepsakes, or an invitation to eat in a home or at a feast?
  • Have you considered whether your story falls into a common stereotype of Aboriginal people in the news?

For a little more insight on the issue, I went to a friend, Renee Lilley, who is Metis and has studied journalism/communications. She has many opinions about the way media handles issues but I loved how she said,

“…most of us deal with our struggles with a great sense of humour always with family on our side. It’s just a shame that side of the human story isn’t told.” 

Indigenous people are part of Canada’s heritage. As is the treaty system, residential schools and the history we are currently writing through our news.

Will we look back and wonder why we reported so poorly on Aboriginal people, just like we do now with the residential school, or documents where people are legally ‘half-breeds’?

Legal documents 'identifying' my lineage

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