You didn’t have to look hard to find racist comments and biased coverage on the Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike over the past couple of months. Christie Blatchford’s racist column in the National Post on December 27, 2012, referred to Chief Spence’s fast as “hideous puffery and horse manure.” A week later, it was Jeffrey Simpson’s column “Too many first nations people live in a dream palace,” in The Globe and Mail on January 5, 2013. Neither column surprised me, nor were they unique with respect to reporting about Indigenous issues and our peoples in the mainstream media. As a writer and an academic, I felt a responsibility to intervene in the conversation that was taking place. As though Indigenous Peoples had left the room, mainstream media voices continued in their attempts to discredit Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike action.
Chief Spence’s 44-day hunger strike might have just ended, but the fight for Indigenous nationhood, sovereignty and a fair and just relationship with Canada has not.
With the intention of correcting the misconceptions spread through mainstream media about Chief Spence’s strike, I wrote a piece in mid-January for the blog dividednomore (www.dividednomore.ca) to explain the cultural significance of Chief Spence’s fast. The title of the post was “Fish Broth & Fasting,” and it was well received by the readership of that blog. A few days later, the Huffington Post contacted me and asked to re-post it. I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I knew this offer presented an opportunity to reach a large Canadian audience not accessible to me with the original post. But on the other hand, I knew Huffington Post allows a substantial amount of racist comments on its site, and I suspected it would sensationalize my article’s title. Finally, after lengthy discussions among friends in the Idle No More movement, we agreed the benefits of reaching a larger audience outweighed the risks of sensationalism and racist comments. So I gave the Post permission to run my piece on their site.
Their new title for my piece? “Think Chief Spence Is on a ‘Liquid Diet’? I Think You’re Ignorant.”
The title was written by a HuffPost blog editor and published without my permission. Apparently, the article had to be in the realm of accusation rather than respectful dialogue for consumption in the mainstream media. Herein lies one of the challenges with the media representation of the Idle No More movement—Indigenous Peoples have little agency to represent themselves within mainstream media, which has boxed our peoples inside the confines of the same recycled stereotypes it insists upon invoking.
And that challenge hasn’t stopped us; in fact, it has only served to inspire us further.
With few exceptions (and the HuffPost is one of them because they regularly re-blog Indigenous voices), the mainstream media reports Indigenous issues through the lens of the colonial ideology that permeates every aspect of Canadian culture. Since the beginnings of Idle No More, they have consistently chosen to exaggerate and manufacture controversy and crisis, rather than to create open dialogue. They’ve promoted fear over understanding and have amplified potential divisions as a way of destabilizing the movement. Worse, a few networks (including Sun News) have even promoted Indigenous protestors as “terrorists” and questioned if Idle No More is a rise in a “more fundamentalist view of First Nations politics.”
Once the movement started to take hold, as with other social movements involving people of colour or women, racism and misogyny were used to discredit it, with columns like Christie Blatchford’s leading the way.