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Idle No More coverage is a story half told [column]


By Richard Wagamese, Windspeaker Columnist








As a career journalist going on 34 years now, I’m endlessly fascinated by how the media handles Native stories. While I am primarily an author of books now, I’m still in newspapers and on the radio every week somewhere in Canada. Freelancing is a privilege that comes with name recognition. After three decades and a handful of awards I’m afforded the luxury of picking and choosing my spots. But I’m still a working journalist.

That being as it is, I get a chance to monitor stories. By that I mean, because I am not chained to a news desk and committed to daily deadlines anymore I actually get to follow stories as they happen, get covered and die their gradual deaths. It’s as educational as being on the job. Especially when it comes to Native stories.

Take the whole Idle No More event. I call it an event because it blossomed so spontaneously across the country. As a First Nations person I was fascinated and heartened to see the collective spirit and voice of our youth and women rise to challenge wrong. It was a glorious 1960s-ish explosion of righteous protest. As a story it was a remarkable opportunity for media to educate Canadians on Aboriginal issues. Largely, they never took it.

Instead, the media focused on unrest and that’s only half the story. Empowerment, the bigger part of it, was left to, well, idle. Sure the flash mobs and the round dances were covered and organizers and spokespeople were interviewed. But only with the focus on cause. Not effect. And it is the ongoing effect of Idle No More that is the real story.

Now that the whole hunger strike and meeting clamour has eddied and died, Idle No More has become Idle Again in the eyes of mainstream media. But as a working news story that’s giving very short shrift. The biggest part of the Aboriginal demographic is under the age of 25. They are the driving force behind the movement. It means that the future of Native protest in Canada is alive, well and empowered, but no one is writing about it.

Native people have more post-secondary graduates than at any time in Canada’s history. We have more advanced degree holders. We are employed professionally and in positions of upper level decision making. Our political views, while deemed radical by the unenlightened, are educated, deliberate and refined both by history and circumstance. Behind the banners and barricades stands the bellwether of Canada’s history.

At the same time, we have disproportionately larger numbers of people in dire and ongoing states of poverty than any other group. We still face harrowing rates of societal ills that are always reaffirmed by accredited numbers. The nature of our lives on reserves, remote communities and urban settings has not changed significantly in decades. But those stories, given the spotlight by Idle No More, are still not being told either.

The spirituality and staunch cultural pride that was demonstrated so wonderfully did not appear overnight. Aboriginal people have clung to those foundational elements of their being despite everything. The mechanics and the motions of history and politics have never diminished them. What Idle No More did was allow Canadians to see the living power in them and the resilience Aboriginal people glean from them.

But stories of ongoing spiritual and cultural power do not sell newspapers or attract advertisers to radio or television. Instead, those stories, so eloquent in their depiction of the reality of nations of people are allowed to languish and go untold.

I want to know where the next Attawapiskat is. Everyone understands that they are out there but we are not told about them until they explode in headlines. To my mind, that’s shoddy journalism. I have a right to know when my neighbours are suffering. Simply allowing that part of this national story to remain hidden is just plain wrong.

Further, I want to know how Aboriginal people are continuing to forge the power of the movement without the propulsive effect of crisis. I want to know who the upcoming generation of leaders are and to be introduced to their thinking. I want to know how the movement that was ignited by Stephen Harper’s blatant disregard of all things Aboriginal sees its value in Canada’s common future. Those kinds of stories are nowhere to be found.
In journalism there’s a term called a follow. It means the story, or stories, that arise from the original. To write a follow a journalist allows prominent stories to continue on in the public eye. There are a ton of relevant and important stories behind Idle No More that are not being followed. That is not good journalism.

Canadians need to know the stories behind the stories. We await their forthcoming.