One Truth at a Time: Bringing Indigenous history to Canada's media.
I wanted to please my dad, but I had no idea what I would study until my grade 11 teacher, Ken Stunnell, suggested journalism, since I liked to write and debate politics.
Around that time, in 1990, a Quebec town called Oka became infamous for an armed 78-day stand-off. After Oka announced plans to expand a 9-hole golf course onto the reservation of Kanehsatake on top of a graveyard, the Mohawks blocked the road. The dispute pitted 800 armed soldiers against 28 Mohawk warriors, 16 women, and six children. To avoid further violence, the Mohawks--accepting that they would be arrested--walked out.
In a 1995 incident known as Ipperwash, 35 Ojibway men, women, and children occupied an abandoned military base in Ontario. The land had been seized from their community during World War II with a promise to return it. Instead, it was being turned over to the province. Police shot and killed a man whom they claimed was armed. The media--not one of whom had been present at the raid--believed the police. Only years later was their lie exposed.
That same year, there was a dispute between a farmer and some Secwepemc traditional people near Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia. For years a sacred ceremony called the Sundance had been held on disputed land. Yet this time conflict arose. During a 31-day standoff, police fired 77,000 rounds of ammunition at 20 Secwepemc people. The media wasn't there, but that did not stop them from writing op-eds.
For the most part the media portrayed the Indigenous people as angry warriors threatening an otherwise peaceful Canada. Rarely were the children and women shown. Rarely was the full history of the dispute told. It made me angry.
I believe journalism is a force for good and critical to democracy. I just didn't think it worked in Canada. Canadians were very good at calling out the legacy of racism and colonialism in other countries. They just couldn't see it at home.
The documentary "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance" by Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin convinced me that history was key to proving the truth. The problem was Canadians didn't know Indigenous history. I changed to a double major, journalism and history.
My First Nation, Pikwakanagan, invited me to a graduation ceremony at the Gym/ Bingo Hall. Few kids in our community finished high school, much less university, and the celebration was meant to encourage more youths to graduate. That year, 1998, I remember there being only three of us. The chief shook our hands and asked each of us to speak about why we'd chosen university. The first graduate had studied law, the second social work. They would help their people win back stolen land and help them heal.
Nothing I could say about a journalism degree could compare to that. So instead I spoke about the history courses I had taken. I promised to write a history that would tell the truth about our people, so that all people will know it. This earned approving nods.
Most of the recommendations in the 1996 report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples were ignored, but a very important one came to be: the creation of an Indigenous television station.
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) launched its newsroom in 2000. For me, that was serendipity. Perhaps fate. I was just finishing my M.A. in history and looking for work. Most of the staff were under 30. Our news director, Dan David, a Mohawk from Kanehsatake, told us: we needed to learn fast and get this right. If we failed, our people would never have another chance at a newsroom of our own.
Over the years, APTN's newsroom changed Canada's political and media landscape. We covered a series of standoffs over land. We wrote stories about missing Indigenous women, residential school survivors, broken treaties, dilapidated housing, youth suicide, and moldy schools. Back in 2000, the minister of Indian Affairs would not speak to us, not even in a scrum. I was hired to lead the APTN newsroom in 2012. We gave our people a way to communicate with each other. We forced Indigenous journalism into Canada's media landscape. It happened word by word, story by story, one truth at a time.
In 2016, for the first time in history, a prime minister did a sit-down interview with Indigenous media. A few months earlier Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report, including a call for media to do a better job, and for universities to teach Indigenous history. For many years Canadians asked: what do Indigenous peoples want? For the first time we have a word: "reconciliation."
I believe reconciliation will come but first we need truth. That is why I do what I do. It is a promise I made many years ago in a bingo hall at my graduation ceremony. I write the truth about my people, so that all people will know it.
Karyn Pugliese is a 2020 Nieman Fellow
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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