Authentic Indigenous voices needed in mainstream media

Some, but not all Canadians know about our country’s residential schools and the dark phase of Indigenous history that resulted from colonialism. Two Indigenous authors Michelle Good and Waubgeshig Rice feel the persistent lack of awareness and knowledge of Indigenous issues reflect the structural problems in mainstream media and education.

As part of UBC’s “Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Fingerprints in the 21st-Century” lecture series, they will discuss the media’s failure in reconciliation and the importance of authentic Indigenous voices in publishing via an online Zoom presentation on Mar. 9.

Good, of Cree ancestry, is the author of Five Little Indians – a story about the traumas and struggles of five residential school survivors. The book won the 2018 HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize. A passionate advocate for residential school survivors, she says her objective in the lecture series is to explain clearly what the term “colonial fingerprints” means and how residential schools served as a key implement in the colonial toolkit.

“The thing that people really need to understand – this is not just experienced on an individual basis but on a collective basis too,” says Good. “The broader harm is that it has disrupted the collectiveness of our communities and the impact is to destroy the capacity of Indigenous people to be self-sustaining.”

Structural issues in media

Michelle Good, Indigenous author. | Photo by Kent Wong Photography

“The problem with Canada with Indigenous awareness is that Canadians didn’t learn the proper history of this country in school. The education system failed everybody. You also have uneducated people in the media to perpetuate some stereotypes,” Rice explains.

Rice, from Wasauksing First Nation, has worked as a journalist for a variety of news outlets including CBC News for the bulk of his career. He is also a published author with a national bestseller novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow.

“When I was working in media, my biggest frustration was always the stereotype that persisted – they are deep-seated – the Indigenous substance abusers, the Indigenous victims or perpetrators. There are also vibrant and viable Indigenous communities across the country, people living their lives and doing everyday things,” he says.

Rice believes the lack of Indigenous representation at management and executive levels in the media is the biggest structural issue.

“It is great to have Indigenous people out there creating work that non-Indigenous people can learn more about, but until we get more people in those key decision-making roles, there won’t be that much effective change,” he states.

Good concurs, adding that the structure of the print media is in contrary to the Indigenous oral traditions and there are very few Indigenous-owned or operated publishing houses. She also thinks the media is predisposed to support the colonial perception of Indigenous people.

Effecting change

Moreover, Good believes the issues are systematic, and there is not sufficient motivation to change the system. She cites that out of the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Calls to action since 2015, only 10 have been completed and each of them is a one-off according to her.

“We have to see whether there is goodwill to address systematic racism. If they are going to treat people in an equitable way, they have to change the whole structure,” she says.

Rice is more hopeful. He says he has seen some improvements over the course of his career, particularly within the last few years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“You do see more wide-spread efforts on behalf of all media to cover Indigenous issues in a proper way,” he says, “but it is not just covering the issues, it is about getting regular Indigenous people as your interviewees on a news story. That is one thing that needs to happen.”

Both writers also believe in the power of storytelling to effect real change and raise Indigenous awareness.

“All we do is a response to colonialism; people don’t necessarily understand that. With fiction, I try to show those meaningful interpersonal relationships between Indigenous characters, what they are doing for each other in response to that and how they can potentially look to the future and are more equipped to control their destiny. I can create a destiny through my story that some Indigenous readers can get inspired by,” says Rice.

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