Saavy leaders learn to communicate through the press


By Paul Barnsley

Windspeaker Staff Writer


If you're a careful reader of the mainstream press, you can stitch together the types of stories that get national front page exposure, and from them get an idea of what a typical daily newspaper editor believes are the essential issues in Aboriginal communities.

Stories about corruption, incompetence, secrecy and other equally unflattering scenarios on reserves or in Aboriginal organizations will always make their way into the newspapers.

Most people will tell you that those stories should get attention.

But what seems to be missing, many band council or tribal council officials will tell you, is any attempt to understand what's really going on beyond the initial sensation.

In Indian country there does seem to be an impression that the journalists have already made up their minds about Aboriginal people and their institutions. The way the mainstream press zeroes in on stories about financial mismanagement, alcoholism, family violence, nepotism, or welfare dependency indicates they've decided that Aboriginal people and their institutions are primitive and unsophisticated and in need of some help from the 'more advanced' majority.

Why else is it that every time there's a report of a band operating in a deficit or encountering budget problems that Reform Party members or prominent business-oriented think-tanks or other Conservative establishment groups immediately pronounce that Aboriginal people are not ready for self government? And, more importantly, why would the mainstream press think nothing of reporting those people saying such things without examining what those comments represent?

Several years ago, when former CBS sports analyst Jimmy "the Greek" Snider decided to tell his large, national viewing audience that Black people weren't suited for a particular sport because of their genetic make-up, his broadcasting career ended soon afterwards. That's because he was spouting the kind of pure bigoted ignorance that forever labeled him as undeserving of a national audience. Is there any difference between Jimmy the Greek's comments and those of a government bureaucrat or politician who concludes that an entire race of people are not ready to govern themselves because of a few problems?

Aboriginal leaders say "no." They say similar problems exist in Ottawa or in provincial or local governments. They wonder why reporters aren't writing that people involved in non-Aboriginal governments aren't ready to govern themselves. Their budgets aren't balanced. There's evidence of corruption with the awarding of government contracts in their departments. Shouldn't their race be labeled as deficient as well?

Is there any difference between Jimmy the Greek's comments and Canadian news organizations repeating the comments about Aboriginal people not being ready for self government? Only the difference between black and white, Aboriginal people would say.

By reporting such stories without diving into investigating and exposing the racism inherent in the comments is to contribute to the racism and perpetuate it. When this is seen to be happening on a fairly regular basis, it creates a very high level of mistrust about the mainstream press for First Nations people.

As a result, when mainstream reporters come to call they are treated with suspicion and rarely given much co-operation. The reporters are only human. They resent the antagonism they're greeted with. This affects the approach they take to the story. The story is written in an antagonistic mood. That makes the relationship between the First Nation in question and the press that much worse.

It becomes a counter-productive, even destructive cycle: the story creates more distrust which creates more antagonism which creates more negative coverage and even more resentment in the Aboriginal community.

So what's the answer? The press isn't going to go away.

There are actually a couple of possible answers. First, somebody has to point out the mainstream's mistakes and try to educate people to be more understanding of what it is like to be a member of a minority group in Canadian society.

Second, more Aboriginal people have to be become participants in the communications media so that the mistakes are spotted before the stories make it to print or onto the airwaves. To this end, more Aboriginal people are working in the mainstream press and, at the same time, the Aboriginal press is growing and gaining credibility.

But as the Aboriginal press grows there are more problems to solve. Reserve communities are typically small and rural; the most populous reserve in the country has, at most, 9,000 residents. Newspapers and electronic media outlets operate on the same basis: the more people they reach the more advertising revenue they generate and the better the job they can afford to do and still be profitable.

Doing business in a small community means relatively low revenue and unsophisticated operations. The typical reserve newspaper is a weekly with a small staff. That staff is usually made up of inexperienced, entry level journalists who work with few of the advantages that daily papers have--things like libraries, electronic data bases, expensive resource material, even the time it takes to allow a reporter to spend a couple of days on one story and really explore it in depth. And reserve newspapers are still a relatively new phenomenon, especially independent papers that aren't propped up with band council funding.

The current generation of Aboriginal politicians can remember the days when their every move wasn't scrutinized by a critical press. That makes them resentful. Many still haven't adjusted.

Because regular reporting on band councils is a relatively new thing, media relations skills have only recently become important tools for a chief or band councillor. Some are better than others at handling the media or, to put it in a way that has a more positive connotation, some are more able to interact with the media without creating damaging misunderstandings.

It's a skill to be able to tell a reporter your story without being misunderstood on some points. It takes very strong communication skills, especially when there is a cultural barrier between the reporter and the subject of the interview.

If both parties—the newsmakers and the reporters—want to overcome the cultural barrier and get accurate information out to the people, then both sides should be ready to work at it. Many Aboriginal politicians resent the time they have to spend with the media. Many just don't bother returning phone calls or providing the information that reporters request.

In the mainstream, politicians have been dealing with the press for a long time and there are long-standing traditions and protocols that govern the way the two work together. Thoughtless mainstream reporters assume that Aboriginal politicians know these unwritten rules and have agreed to follow them as a condition of running for office. Therefore, a call not returned or an information request denied, in the reporter's mind, automatically signals a cover-up or an intentional evasion. A simple unreturned phone call can cause suspicion and antagonism.

Mainstream reporters and editors like to talk about fairness. To them, fairness is about treating everybody the same. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the law of the land guarantees a special status for Aboriginal people. As many judges have written in the last several years, Aboriginal people were here first, they have special rights. That bothers some decision-makers in newsrooms in this country.

For example, during a conference at Montreal's McGill University earlier this year, Andrew Coyne, one of the most respected columnists in Canada, became embroiled in a now famous battle with former national chief Ovide Mercredi over just that subject and it was clear that Coyne, an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed voice for the establishment, was never going to see why it has to be that way for Aboriginal people.

Coyne argued that it was time for Aboriginal people to give up their special rights and become nothing more or less than regular everyday Canadians. He argued that basic human rights are universal and should apply to everyone equally. Mercredi angrily countered that Coyne was asking for assimilation. He was asking Aboriginal people to forget about the past, forget about that world that was theirs in the days before European contact.

Mercredi said it was sheer arrogance for a white European to say 'All people should be the same and they should all be like me.'

Boiled down to its crudest form, Coyne was saying 'Why can't you Indians act like regular people?'

Mercredi's answer was: 'As far as we're concerned we do and we're NOT going to change. If we haven't given up our culture and heritage despite all you've done to wipe us off the face of the earth, do you really think we ever will?'

Aboriginal people and those of European descent each have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. The mainstream would like everybody to be the same and Aboriginal people are saying 'no way!'

Understanding that fundamental difference is the biggest gap that needs to be crossed to ensure good press relations for First Nations people. Some First Nations have decided to tackle that chore, to meet the press half-way and give themselves a sporting chance at having their point of view relayed to the average Canadian who reads the paper and watches television news.

In particular, several British Columbia First Nations have distinguished themselves for their media savvy. The Cheslatta have waged a long and determined fight to gain compensation for lands that were flooded in the 1950s to make way for Alcan Aluminum's Kemano Project. They've had a long time to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of the public eye and they've had some notable victories.

When there's an important bargaining session of the Nisga'a agreement-in-principle coming up, the Nisga'a public relations people get into gear. The press is informed before the fact, the background is provided, access to knowledgeable spokespeople is facilitated. Likewise with the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan people. During the long years when their Delgamuuk land claim case has slowly climbed the judicial ladder the First Nations learned how to make their point with the press.

At the same time, there are occasional cases where a band council tries to ban the press. The Consolidated Regulations of Canada say that regular band council meetings must be open to the public. Some councils have decided that only general meetings are 'regular' meetings, and committee meetings can be closed.

That gives councils the option to do a majority of their business in closed session, something that the membership and the press feel can lead to corruption.

In late summer of 1997, beginning at the Stoney Reserve in Alberta and spreading to other communities in the province, dissident groups began to demand more accountability from their chiefs and councils. The Stoney case began when a provincial court judge ordered an inquiry into the band's finances. The province and Indian Affairs both objected to the judge's decision. But members say that only the band council establishment is benefiting from the band's oil wealth.

Close observers of band council politics have long noted that nepotism and political influence in the awarding of government contracts at the local level are rampant in many First Nations. Most observers, not just journalists, believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant, that openness is the only way to avoid these pitfalls.

When a group of people who had been central in the call for more accountability on the Stoney Reserve travelled to Ottawa they were not welcomed by government officials who, one might think, would be anxious to address their concerns. Instead, they complained that they were given the 'run-around.'

Many Aboriginal observers, who have lived their entire lives under the Indian Act, and have learned how the system really works, believe the federal government doesn't want the true extent of band council mismanagement and lack of accountability to ever be exposed. The observers say that Indian Affairs has created the mess and it's not in their best interest to ever find out just how extensive that mess might be or who's really responsible. They say the band council system is not all that different from the Canadian system, a system which is not nearly as open as the average Canadian believes.

Any journalist who has ever tried to discover what the Cabinet is doing during their meetings or what transpires when the powerful Bureau of Internal Economy (the all-party committee which sets the working budget for the House of Commons) meets, will agree—some of the most important work done by the people's representatives in Canada is never revealed to the people.

The press has a huge responsibility. Reporters must keep shining the light on those who do the people's work to ensure that all the people are represented. Politicians and bureaucrats frequently feel that the press makes their job harder. That might be true but the unrest and controversy that continues to haunt band politics is a sure sign that only openness will leave the people feeling secure they are being treated fairly.

That's a lesson that all public servants—Aboriginal or otherwise—will learn as they continue in their careers. If they're smart they'll choose to learn it the easy way.