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?

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