What Ignorance Makes Us Miss

Recently, I had the privilege of being hired to present some media relations practices and techniques to an important advocacy group for native bands in our region. And I came away with almost as much information as I gave.

Journalists in Canada generally do our native people a disservice. This isn’t new and its reasons run deep, from racism to story fatigue, to cultural misunderstandings on both sides. There have been many stories covered over the years but the recent situation at Shoal Lake should have us screaming from the rooftops about human rights. The community of people who were moved there by the federal government a century ago and promised a water treatment plant, must take a ferry to the mainland to buy potable water in Kenora, which they lug home. More than 15 years ago, the feds scrapped a plan to build a plant because they said it cost too much. They’ve been in talks to have a road built but progress is slow. A couple of weeks ago, their ferry broke down leaving them with enough water for just a few days.

They have been under a boil water advisory for 17 years.

This is Canada? I’d argue that anywhere else in this country, a boil water advisory for 17 days would have people up in arms and screaming for a solution. It sickens me and what’s worse is, as I admitted to the group at the boardroom table last week, I didn’t even know if the ferry had been fixed because no one is covering the story. Turns out it had not, but was repaired in the week that followed.

Shoal Lake made news for the first few days and then everyone went away and covered the Royal baby, the PC leadership convention, protests of a sex-ed curriculum that dares to call body parts what they are, and so on. Meanwhile, men, women, children, babies and elders are in pretty terrible conditions.

And that’s just one case. Last year’s evacuation of native people from flooding in Kashechewan cost $21-million. That’s much more than the estimate of a water purification centre for Shoal Lake. And those people are being flown out again as I write this. Discussions about moving the community to a more hospitable terrain began in 2006. Way to kick it into high gear, government.

Someone recently said, Canadians treat our native people the way Americans treat black people. Racism is alive and well and living among us. Someone in journalism also said, we should cover aboriginal affairs the way we cover foreign affairs. You assign someone to learn the language and customs and stay on that beat.

There’s wisdom in that sentiment because the cultural differences run deep. I could potentially offend someone and not even know it. Prompting an elder to rush a story, would be one of those instances. Elders are revered in aboriginal communities and if they share their wisdom with you, you’re expected to listen. Deadlines and top-hour newscasts don’t mesh well with taking one’s time.

Journalism students, my media colleagues and I would be wise to become familiar with the website, RIIC – Reporting in Indigenous Communities. While the attendees to my little talk last week seemed receptive to learning about our deadlines and workloads, the least we can do is meet them halfway. And as Shoal Lake residents move into their 18th year without drinkable tap water, it truly is the least we can do.

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