my coloured tv

What tribe are you from?

A colleague told me recently that the appearance on local TV reporter with braids changed his life. You know, the reporter was a real Indian – or NDN if you prefer.  Not some movie character or actor with a wig in a TV drama. Not as some dude on the street being interviewed about the weather. This was a TV reporter with braids on the 6 o’clock news. My colleague said the image changed his view of the world, its opportunities, and led to his decision to become a journalist.

I have no doubt this happened because until the moment he said it, my memories had faded about that time in Canadian journalism and my own influences. This was when the images over the tube were almost exclusively mayonnaise and white bread. We described TV back then as almost exclusively “male, pale and stale.”  Newspapers were much worse than TV newsrooms and probably still are. Radio was only a bit more colour- and gender-blind but not by much. This was the way things had been for decades and those in charge saw little reason to change.

A conference on diversity in the news media during the 1970s likened the media’s failure to accurately reflect the quickly changing complexion of Canadian society back to us as “a distorted mirror.” One can and should argue that the mirror is still warped. The Canadian news media transmits a distorted image -hideously so with Indigenous peoples. Now, thanks to the Internet and streaming video, those distortions have gone global.

Other journalists that I’ve met frequently talk about Canadian journalism and broadcasting during the 70s and 80s as “a golden age”. It makes me wonder what kind of drugs they were taking. The only gold might be in the rewards handed to a select few trusted not to embarrass the government, diminish stakeholder profits, or upset the status quo too much. For most of us, edging toward the majority in some places, this “golden age” was a terrible joke. And we were the punchline.

In NDN country, journalism and the journalist was not to be trusted back then. Things were similar in Black, Brown and Asian neighbourhoods. There were exceptions although Indigenous peoples could count them without taking off their socks. Bernelda Wheeler, Myra Cree, Brian Maracle, Leslie Kohsed-Currie, Doug Cuthand, for example. Myra Cree came from my community but I didn’t know about her until after she left Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service. There were others, of course.

They were remarkable because they survived for so long in sometimes unwelcome newsrooms. The system, whether at CBC or the Globe and Mail and for whatever reason, tried to get them to stop acting and thinking like NDNs. Bless them one and all for refusing their pre-determined roles as mannequins in the media’s storefront windows.

Many of us  broke into the business via radio. We found it easier because the audience never knew the colour of our ideas unless we confessed. For Bernelda, Leslie and Brian that was never a question because they worked on one of the longest running CBC Radio programs. Our Native Land got bumped around the schedule, had its budget cut over and over, went from Toronto to Winnipeg and finally to Ottawa. It was an unwanted bastard child before the CBC finally put the bugger out of its misery during the program’s 25th anniversary.

That’s right!  Our Native Land was a national radio program for a quarter century, during most of that so-called “golden age”. The CBC held no celebration for this remarkable milestone in Canadian broadcasting history. Nope. The CBC quietly killed the show – and reamed me out for using that word. They preferred the term “mainstreaming”. In response to an avalanche of listener demands to reverse its decision, the CBC promised its national and regional radio programs would instead devote serious attention to “native issues”. Who was kidding who?

We knew most reporters avoided the “hoods” in cities like Winnipeg, Regina or Vancouver and their equivalents across the country. On reserves, reporters arrived in protective cocoons when circumstances made avoidance difficult. Those circumstances were usually about death, individual or group, or horror stories about living conditions. The question unspoken except among the reporters themselves: Why do they choose to live like that? The unspoken judgement: Because they want to. So the fly-in, fly-out coverage was superficial, judgemental, prejudiced, and ultimately about keeping the status quo instead of challenging it. Their news reports were a safety valve that relieved explosive pressure until the next time. The distortion served governments and their policies well but resulted in tattered trust for journalism and the journalist in our communities.

Into this pessimistic climate, a colleague watches TV news one evening and sees an NDN with braids. A simple thing. But it affects my colleague in a profound way. It was unexpected. Inspirational. The braids weren’t an overtly political statement but we know that just being born Indian is political. Of course, the backstory is interesting. This reporter was hired by local TV to produce a story about Indians in Manitoba. He did, and his story won an award. CBC then snatched him up but felt he wasn’t ready for prime time. One day, a producer approached a friend of mine, quietly. Would she ask the man to cut his braids so they could put him on-the-air?

My friend came from the Caribbean. At the time, a wonderful big Afro framed her lovely brown face. She confessed that she was stunned, appalled, insulted. She wondered whether this producer – a nice person – would’ve asked her to cut her Afro, whiten her skin, change her accent or prevented her from reporting on-camera otherwise? It may sound ludicrous today but these attitudes were everywhere including every newsroom back then. That British accent might be welcomed but woe to Dwight Wiley’s Caribbean accent on the CBC Radio News. How many times and in how many ways were we told to never dress like or sound like but especially never think or act like an NDN?

Why were my colleague and I talking about this? Well, it began with a discussion about the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. We both worked there at one time. We were discussing APTN’s impact on Canadian culture, racial attitudes and how much things have changed or stayed the same. Broad subjects narrowed down to specific examples and a definite question. When was the last time you saw a real NDN on APTN news?

You know what I mean. Why does every journalist on APTN news look and sound like everyone on the CBC, CTV and every other pale network in the land? Why do they seem to feel that to be TV journalists,  they must slap on some hip-hop or suit-&-tie version of acceptable? When was the last time you saw an APTN reporter or host with braids, a ribbon shirt, a jingle dress, a tail, an amauti or anything even slightly Indigenous?



Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Indigenous peoples, journalism

6 responses to “my coloured tv

  1. What I would like to see would be our people taking back our names. I see names like Jian Ghomeshi, Sonali Karnick and more…

  2. mgoogoo

    I’m not so much concerned about the APTN National News reporters mostly looking white. I’m really concerned about the non-aboriginal people in senior positions in that newsroom deciding what is interesting in OUR communities. It’s probably the reason why I just don’t pay attention to the news show anymore. None of the stories really pertain to an aboriginal person like me. The news show is becoming irrelevant to the audience it’s trying to attract.

    I scan the wires everyday for aboriginal news, seeing what mainstream media is reporting about us and our communities. From that, I can predict what will lead the aptn National News show that night. What can I assume from this? It’s only news in aboriginal country if the mainstream media (CBC, CTV, Global, National Post, Globe and Mail, etc.) cover it first. There is rarely any original and enterprising reporting on the news show anymore – or at least anything that would interest me.

    Take a look at the staff page here:
    Three out of the five producers listed here are white, including the “National Assignment Editor.” I’m not convinced a non-aboriginal person who has never experienced life as an aboriginal is able to determine for someone like ME what’s interesting in our aboriginal communities. Non-aboriginal producers should NOT be the gatekeepers of news in OUR communities.

    There was a time when APTN National Newsroom was filled with mostly aboriginal reporters and producers. I was part of that era in the newsroom. I recall the objectives we all set out when we jointed the network – we were going to tell news stories that matter to OUR communities. Mainstream media was not going to set the agenda and the tone for our news show.

    It’s sad to see that in the past seven years, most of the original news team (including myself) did not remain with the network. Look at what has happened in our absence. There are fewer and fewer aboriginal journalists working there anymore. With the cutbacks happening at other networks (i.e. CBC), I only see more non-aboriginal journalists knocking on aptn’s doors for jobs.

    I think APTN should take this opportunity to find a way to recruit, train and RETAIN aboriginal journalists. It’s a worthwhile investment.

  3. I hired a Ukrainian journalist for a part-time reporting job at APTN News. She’d come from Kiev and knew little about Indigenous peoples, treaties, Canadian colonialism, and so on. Why? Because she walked into the newsroom with fresh eyes and asked questions that all of the NDNs took for granted. You hear it all the time: Everybody knows. It’s shorthand for why should I explain this. Everybody knows.

    She knew nothing and asked about everything. Bill C-31? The Indian Act? What’s a 6-point-one? What are Métis? I encouraged her to keep asking. I felt that she was an example of what we – as a network – should have been doing. Educating.

    I have no problem with people of another pigment working at APTN if they’re genuinely wanting to learn instead of preach or impose. I share your concern about too many and top-down influences at APTN. But those are the same concerns I had when I worked at CBC, TVO and SABC. It wasn’t the numbers but the mindsets and attitudes that had me gnashing my teeth.

    Good to hear from you.

  4. mgoogoo

    One the reasons I joined APTN way back in 2000 is because I was sick and tired of working for white editors in mainstream media outlets here in Nova Scotia who kept telling me issues and events in aboriginal communities out here were not interesting enough for their readers/audience. I wrote about my experience in this column for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2006:

    APTN News, in the early days, offered reporters like myself that wonderful and rare opportunity to tell our stories. We didn’t have to educate our producers on the issues everyday because they already knew. For me, it was finally a chance to tell our stories without a non-aboriginal editor/producer questioning my fairness/objectivity just because I was an aboriginal journalist covering an aboriginal issue or event.

    In the beginning, APTN News was a different work environment. It was fun and I got a chance to work with great people who went through the same experience I did working in mainstream media. However, that newsroom has changed drastically since 2005. I’m not sure what the current newsroom staff is going through with mostly non-aboriginal producers running the show. All I see is the finished product at the end of each workday (that’s if I remember to record the show). From what I see, the show doesn’t really interest me anymore.

    That’s my two-cents for now.

  5. I remember those earlier times at APTN well and with deep fondness. I felt much the same way, as though a heavy yoke had been lifted from my shoulders.

    I was cornered once by a francophone producer working at CBC in Toronto. He ranted against my role as national native affairs broadcaster for CBC Radio when – heavens – wasn’t I was a card-carrying Mohawk! How could I possibly be objective? He felt this was a violation of CBC journalistic policy. Guilt by race.

    What can one say to an imbecile who can’t see the double-standard? He was francophone from Québec producing programs for the French language arm of CBC Radio. But by dint of his race, he could be objective. he could also be objective about Indigenous peoples and issues. Innocent by race.

    This idiot created an oppressive cloud that hung over me for a time until I realized that he wasn’t any better than the bigots I ran into on construction jobs in Syracuse, or in bars in Regina, or in committee rooms on Parliament Hill. Once I understood that, nothing he said had any validity. His words and attitudes held no power, and could have no influence on the way I might feel about myself.

    I also realized that for every clown like him, there were a lot of others who were supportive and encouraging. I was still very much alone, as you were during at same time in Toronto. But I didn’t feel so alone or let jerks like that bother me anymore. Not as much, anyway.

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