2011 Review: Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers

Seeing Red Book Cover

Don’t believe everything you read.

Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers

By Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson

Published by University of Manitoba Press


Review by Christine McFarlane


“Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers” is a book that examines historical news coverage of formative events in Canada’s history, from Confederation through to the present day, and demonstrates through the authors’ research how overt racism against Natives has consistently existed in Canadian newspapers over this time.

Seeing Red is a groundbreaking study of how Canadian English-language newspapers have portrayed Aboriginal peoples from 1869 to the present day. It assesses a wide range of publications on topics that include the sale of Rupert’s Land, the signing of Treaty 3, the North-West Rebellion and Louis Riel, the death of Pauline Johnson, the outing of Grey Owl, the discussions surrounding Bill C-31, the “Bended Elbow” standoff at Kenora, Ont., and the Oka Crisis.

Cronlund and Robertson write “Canada is home to more than 600 Indigenous nations as well as roughly one-half million Aboriginals living off reserve. Prior to the centuries-long European invasion, these groups spoke dozens of different languages, exhibited wide variety in architecture, child rearing, clothing, diet, gender relations, material culture, religion, rituals—in short they varied in all the ways one might expect of an enormous region occupied by a wide range of cultural groups.”

The authors argue that despite these differences, “the country’s most ubiquitous agent of popular education, the newspaper, has tended to conflate all of these peoples into one heavily stereotyped monolith, patterned on a colonial ideology that flourishes to this day.”

If we were to believe the Canadian Press, Indians would have died off decades ago.

Take, for example, the Klondike press in the 1800s in which papers decided that “Natives were dying off, and, indeed, were intended by evolution to die off—even if the papers periodically reported that scientific study disproved this widely held late nineteenth century view.”

The authors write The Whitehorse Star reported that “Indians…have no idea how to cope…(they) are rapidly disappearing before the unequal struggle for existence side by side with white men.” The “average” Indian, the Star said, could only “mourn for the future of his race.”

The Yukon Sun offered the observation that “Indians are dying off” in spectacular fashion and went on to cite “horrors beyond description among diseased natives.”

“Seeing Red” also looked to today’s writers for their musings on Aboriginal topics, including the writings of Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

“Wente expresses deep faith in an ideology that you might simply refer to as Canadian liberal pluralism of the latter twentieth century.”

The authors quote Wente as writing “People are inherently tribal, and are inherently inclined to believe they are exploited…The job of civic society is to overcome these tribal resentments and replace them with a set of values and aspirations that are shared.” Wente goes on to state “my own fantasy is of a multiracial society, where we all become pretty much indistinguishable through integration, assimilation and intermarriage. (Imagine how much better looking we would be.)”

The authors state “Wente presents the case for assimilation as an article of faith, that assimilation is necessary because it is tautologically, inevitable.”

“Wente’s columns rely on every imaginable alleged Native shortcoming,” say the authors of Seeing Red, “from sexual depravity to financial corruption, thievery to alcoholism, poor parenting to childish behavior, receiving special rights to reverse racism against whites, inherent violence to being stuck in dying cultures without being smart enough to realize it.”

The conclusion of the authors is that “overt racism has existed in newspaper coverage of 100 or even 50 years ago,” and even in “contemporary newspapers, the same patterns of racism and subjugation continues to dominate how Aboriginal peoples continue to be seen within Canadian newspapers.”

The authors argue that as a result of press content and pre-existing reader bias, the “news constitutes a kind of national curriculum, which emerges organically, as if nothing were more natural. In short, as curriculum news images do not present new material so much as they simply reinforce the status quo.”