It's Past Time For Indigenous Writers To Get a Seat at the Table

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It’s Past Time For Indigenous Writers To Get a Seat at the Table

What it was like being one of the first Indigenous reporters to work at the Toronto Star.

Jasmine

Indigenous journalist and Torontoist contributer Jasmine Kabatay scans the pages of the Toronto Star. Photo by Kabatay

As a young, Indigenous journalist, just starting out in this chaotic world of news, it made me angry, disappointed, and frustrated to see how the appropriation prize mess unfolded the way it did. But really, I wasn’t all that surprised.

In j-school, I was the only Indigenous person and it was made clear to me by many of my professors and classmates. They didn’t make me feel like an outsider, and I was included and welcomed by my peers, but every so often I would hear a racist joke at my expense. It made me suspicious about working with some of my fellow students, and wondered how some of them actually saw me. But I pushed through and persisted, because that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.

There was a diverse mix of people in the program, which was great and definitely gave me different perspectives, but I learned very little, if anything, to do with Indigenous peoples, be it a case study or even an example in class.

Throughout my journey so far in journalism, I have had very unique opportunities. I’ve worked for both an Indigenous newspaper and a major Canadian daily.

Working with Wawatay News in Thunder Bay, covering communities in northwestern Ontario, everything I did was completely focused on and for Indigenous peoples, with Indigenous people running the paper. The paper is even available in Anishinaabe, Cree and Oji-Cree languages. I was only there for six weeks, but in those six weeks, I learned more about covering Indigenous communities than the three years I spent in journalism school.

The stories were small and community-focused, but within that community it meant everything to have their stories told. Each person I interviewed, regardless of the story or context, told me how much it meant to them that I was there, writing about it, stories that are so often glossed over by other media, or overshadowed by other events.

Fast forward to when I landed an internship for an Indigenous reporter at the Toronto Star. The moment I walked into that newsroom it was abundantly clear to me that the majority of the faces were white. Everyone was respectful and encouraging, and it was clear that they were very happy to have an Indigenous reporter join their newsroom.

But according to people who had been there for 20 years or more, besides one other person, I was the only other Indigenous person to work as a reporter at the Star. 

And the lack of diversity in media has been increasingly apparent, especially this month.

When Hal Niedzviecki resigned from the Writer’s Union of Canada magazine amid backlash following his editorial titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” in an issue dedicated to the work of Indigenous writers, he unwittingly sparked a long-overdue national debate.

In it he explained that he “doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation” and encouraged white writers to “write what you don’t know” and to “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with.” That set off a firestorm of controversy, that kept burning on Twitter for days.

After his resignation, a group of high profile journalists and executives from Canada’s major media outlets—including Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, National Post, and CBC—started a Twitter thread in the middle of the night in some kind of solidarity with Niedzviecki to raise money for an actual “Cultural Appropriation Prize.” Tweets started coming in from these powerful newsroom gatekeepers with several thousand dollars being pledged.

For young journalists, the list of names represented many of our future employers. Is this how they really feel? 

We still have a long way to go towards reconciliation, and as Indigenous people we have to keep painfully explaining to people WHY cultural appropriation is insulting to us, and will continue to bother us. 

As Shree Paradkar at the Star so eloquently explains, “Put simply, appropriation occurs when a dominant group uses the art, cultural or religious symbols, ideas and expressions from long-marginalized groups for its own benefit or enrichment.”

A key aspect of this is colonization, because cultural appropriation is always done without that culture’s permission or any understanding of the deeper meanings and history behind the appropriated item.

White people still wear headdresses to music festivals. Major sports teams still have cartoonish mascots of my people. And year after year, Indigenous people must extend their emotional labour to explain WHY these things are so offensive.

And after the outrage, these incidents are often followed by the same, familiar public apology: it will never happen again. But it always does.

If there were more Indigenous peoples in newsrooms across the country, how would that changed the coverage of issues impacting Indigenous communities? I immediately think of the reporting, or lack of reporting, on youth suicide, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the many boil water advisories. 

Something the CBC‘s Connie Walker said in an interview with Flare last October still haunts me: “I remember pitching my first MMIW story 10 years ago, when a girl I knew at home had gone missing, and there wasn’t a lot of interest. Now, national conversations are happening.”

Maybe things would be different. Maybe more Indigenous women would be alive today.

As upsetting as these past couple weeks have been, there have been strong Indigenous journalists who have perfectly expressed the profound pain at having so much stolen from us.

On the May 15 episode of Metro Morning, Jesse Wente pointed to the way forward, “These things can’t happen again. This absorbs so much energy, it causes so much pain in our community, to have to re-argue for our value as human beings.”

We’re at a time where Indigenous voices are no longer silent. Social media has awoken an entire generation. They are rising up and they are unapologetic. Young Indigenous writers and artists are finding new platforms to make sure their voices and stories are heard. They are fighting back and holding people accountable for their actions.

And one thing is for certain: we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

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