Category Archives: Africa

changing lenses

I try not to have a lot of regrets. Things happen. Move on, if possible. Leave it behind. A former love suggested that only I could be responsible for my  happiness. She’s a former love so she must have taken her own advice.SABC News

But there are things that continue to gnaw even these many years later. This is one of them. It started out as most ideas like this – half-baked. It bounced around the back of my skull for months, maybe years. By the time I pried that slippery thing out and inflicted it upon others, I was in a position to take it from germ to proposal. Whether my immediate audience was able – or even willing – to understand is another matter. I should probably have considered that beforehand.

So what was this big idea? Simple, I thought in saner moments; bloody genius, after a few beers or tokes. Why do we accept the way that the world is structured? Why do we operate as though this is the only way that things should work? If the information is there, and we have the ability to interpret and use that information as we see fit, or as we should see fit… Then why don’t APTN Newswe? Why do we accept a status quo or a model or a system that really has not worked too well for us? Don’t we have a duty to try to either fix the damn thing? Or scrap it? Start over?

Now, in most things, such as engineering, airplane construction, putting a new roof on the house, I’d agree wholeheartedly to just leave things as they are. Don’t screw around. I don’t want that plane or roof falling with me or on me. But some things don’t work, fail continuously, inflict damage and/or pain, and it just doesn’t make sense that it keeps going on and on and on.

My big idea had to do with culture. News. Journalism. Writing. (Bet you thought it’d be the Indian Act or Indian Affairs, eh?) For years, I’d worked in mainstream journalism and became an advocate – if not acolyte and born-again missionary – for western journalism methods and standards. I believed in public broadcasting and public service journalism; that the bottom line should be informing people and protecting democratic rights not entertaining people for cheap eyeballs to keep stockholders happy. My problem? Even public broadcasting didn’t seem to work or to satisfy me.

My qualms took shape in South Africa in the late 90s. I’d gone to help some friends try to transform the SA Broadcasting Corp from an apartheid apologist and mouthpiece, maybe even spy, into something responsible to all of the people, and dedicated to changing the world for the better of everyone. Hah! Silly me. It’d be easier to get an intelligent policy out of Indian Affairs! (Oops, I really, really tried to leave Indian Affairs out of this post. Me bad.)

The problem with the SABC, as I learned to see it (with the help of former SA exiles who returned to fight the good fight in the corridors of the news department) was its culture. We could train people – producers, editors, reporters, camera people, etc. We could help them revise policies and procedures. We could mentor and nudge, encourage and suggest. We could even develop new shows for them. But that old culture of obedience and subservience to power and authority was engrained in the wood and paint, polluted the water and air in that monstrosity called Auckland Park.

So, after a few years, I became convinced that we were not freeing minds as much as showing experts at camouflage how to become better chameleons. It wouldn’t matter after awhile whether our trainees served the Broederbund or the ANC since they had been trained for so long to blend into the background and survive.

Now that’s a huge over-simplification and tarring with a massive brush. I came to admire and regard with awe a number of SABC journalists. Brave, sharp as hell, curious, modest, caring, worried about their country and their fellow South Africans – all at the same time. They had all of the qualities that the best journalists  embrace and personify. They somehow survived the old masters and I worried how they’d deal with the newer ones.

Survival, after all, is not for the faint-hearted or the polite in places like South Africa or many other places on earth. It’s easy for foreign devils like myself to helicopter in with fancy ideas about how the world should be. But then we’d go home and those people we grew to love and respect would have to find the gumption to speak truth in the face of power.

A typical day and another workshop, this time in Durban with a group of newspaper journalists. Some write for richer, established, formerly White dailies and others for poorer, newer Black papers hoping to capture the huge readership in the townships. They did essentially the same kinds of stories and used the most of the same news sources. The only real differences were in pay scales, the names of their papers, and sometimes the owners.

Asked to identify their target audiences, the reporters gave strangely similar replies. It turned out that they were all going after the same top 10% of the population – the same target readership during apartheid. Things have changed, I asked, and shouldn’t their target audiences change as well? Certainly the Black newspapers should be explaining the world from a township perspective if they wanted to become relevant to that readership? Silly me, they replied, didn’t I know that Blacks didn’t have money? That money powered the engines? That most township Blacks couldn’t or didn’t read?

So one of the lessons I learned, and they taught me many, was that the owners of most of their newspapers weren’t that interested in serving the majority of poor, poorly educated Blacks. They talked change but didn’t walk it. Informing the Black populations about this thing called democracy, informing them of and protecting their rights, advocating on their behalf, explaining their world in terms that they could relate to and understand, got in the way of profit. That’s when it struck me that things weren’t much different with Indigenous reporting back home in Canada.

But… and here’s the regret… they taught me so much that I wanted to bring home to Canada. Their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and the way that they saw through all of the bullshit excuses, euphemisms, and justifications inspired me. Now, to put it all to good use, I thought to myself. So I came back to Canada, and got THAT job – the one  I’d probably been preparing myself for during all those years kicking around places like the CBC.

So there I was; top news guy at my not-yet and still-to-be-built national TV news operation. I’d be the one picking the journalists. I’d be the one providing a vision for a world of Indigenous journalism that had yet to be articulated let alone made real with sound and pictures. Holy shit! Now what was that big idea that kept rustling around back there? I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was no matter how hard I tried.

I’m scrambling to get material ready for our first-ever news department group hug, bitch-slap, sucker punch, condolence, forgiveness, argument, blame and name, correcting, and agenda-setting meeting. What is it I really want to do? There are lots of things that must be done. A pile of things that can be put on hold or bumped up in priority. But if I could only remember what it was that I really…. Then it hit. Got it! The memory flooded back in full 16-bit colour.

What if we changed the cultural lenses by which we – native, Indian, Métis, Inuk, Indigenous – journalists did things? Why, I asked myself, do we seem to arrange our newsroom beats or areas of responsibilities to mirror government departments or business sectors without an apparent thought? We just do it.

We create beats for reporters to cover Health (Health Canada, provincial depts of health), politics (Indian Affairs, prov depts of native affairs, Aboriginal political organizations, etc), housing (CMHC, Indian Affairs, etc), education (Indian Affairs – again!, prov depts of ed, school boards), etc, etc, ad nauseum. Just like in that Harry Potter movie, I looked into the thing I feared (or hated) the most, waved my wand, and uttered the incantation: Ridikulus!

I walked into that meeting with those journalists, editors, and producers at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and said: Why don’t we chuck the usual beat system and try something new? Why don’t we define how we – as Indigenous peoples coming from Indigenous cultures and communities across Canada – are going to cover stories so they make sense to our peoples, our nations, our communities? (sound of crickets… shuffling of chairs… a pen falls off the conference room table way down there…)

What are going to do instead, someone asked. Good question, I answered right back! What, I asked the wall of blank faces in front of me, if we redefine and reclassify stories along the lines of things that our folks, our main audiences, think is important to their lives?

First step is to ask ourselves this question: How do we define the most important things in our lives? (more sound of crickets… more shuffling of chairs… I swear a pen is thrown across the conference room way down there…)

Eventually, with a lot of hard work, I’ve dragged out a flip chart full of things that don’t look anything like the standard, mainstream news media’s beat system. We identify a whole bunch of things that are common and central to the lives of our Indigenous audiences. Take the following:

  1. Family and extended family, Mothers and children, Elders, Young adults, Men. (In other words, people.)
  2. Community, Society, Culture, Language, Work, Justice, Resources, Learning, Governance. (Things that serve or are there for to provide to people.)
  3. Foreign governments (like that damn Indian Affairs department), Outside cultures, Foreign laws, Foreign rulers. (Things that oppress people)

The list wasn’t all my invention – it came from the group as well. I thought it was brilliant. Revolutionary. Remarkably intelligent and sensible. Why don’t we – as the Indigenous news organization – tell stories from our perspectives, using our own values, and shaped to suit our audiences needs.  Wow! Double holy shit!

Some of the folks looked at that list in horror, and at me with not a little fear that I’d completely lost my freaking marbles. The faces of some, okay maybe one or two, beamed as though struck by a celestial light. I wish I could have pointed to something that already existed to help everyone understand that what we were talking about was a cultural lens. We were talking about replacing the foreign lens that dominated mainstream news about Indigenous peoples, with a much more appropriate Indigenous lens.

At least, we might end up with stories that would be a lot more relevant to the peoples and nations that we had identified as our core audiences.

Now the beauty of such sessions is that they eventually end. Bitch-slaps are forgotten if not forgiven. Friends go their separate ways to never speak to each other again. Red hot overnight romances fizzle out in the  old light of a new dawn. Then people settle back into familiar places and routines, like that one producer who  went back to writing poetry or playing solitaire when she could’ve been producing some kick-ass stuff about Pickton.

The experiment went ahead more in fits than in starts. They tried. They really did. But they didn’t have it in them to continue down this road for long. Eventually, they just slipped back into the old and familiar same old.

What did I learn about the whole damn thing?

Revolutions suck.

But what other choice do we have?



Filed under Africa, Canada, Indigenous peoples, journalism, South Africa

recycled trash

The title comes from a post by David Africa at a blog called Thought Leader, a forum set up by the Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper. Africa’s post is about a new book that covers recent South African history; from the 1970s thru the 80s and into the early 90’s.

Here’s Africa’s summary:

Anthea Jeffery commits 634 pages to a study of the “people’s war” in the South African context in an attempt to debunk what she claims to be a false conception of how the ANC gained power, the nature of the political violence that characterised South Africa from the 1980s up to 1994, and a special attempt to whitewash the Inkatha Freedom Party from its role in fomenting and carrying out large-scale violence against black South Africans. Jeffery, acclaimed for her “meticulous and objective approach”, manages to rewrite history and in the process expose a fraud of monumental proportions: one in which the ANC, internal political opposition, the media, liberal organisations (except her beloved SA Institute of Race Relations of course) connived to effect the overthrow of the apartheid government, destroy the democratic black opposition (aka Inkatha) and establish itself as the supreme political movement in South Africa. And of course the Russians plotted the whole thing (…)

Why my interest in this post, in this period of history, in what was taking place in South Africa? For one thing, it parallels my own development as a political animal. During this time, I worked in the States. I had eggs thrown at me because I had long hair. I was subject to the draft. I could have been sent to

It was also a time when civil rights workers were attacked and murdered for registering Black Americans for the vote. I was shocked when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, race riots exploded, and armoured personnel carriers brought National Guard troops into our neighbourhood. The difference between right and wrong, the abuse of power by governments, how I saw and understood Canada’s Indian policies and how that translated into everyday life back home, began to crystalize in my mind.

I returned to Canada to learn about a place called Kenora, about ropes in theatres designating the Whites only section, was warned not to walk on the “White side of the street” in a northern Ontario town, began to draw my own or learn about the parallels between South Africa’s apartheid system and the Indian Act system, Bantu education and Native Education policy in Canada, as well as the mindless monolithic bureaucracies that kept such abominations to human rights chugging along. I also became familiar with the movements to overthrow or dismantle both.

So go read David Africa’s post. Then read the comments following it. Interesting because you’ll learn that the anti-apartheid movement wasn’t only about the ANC, that some Black organizations actively supported the National Party and fought against the ANC for reasons of their own, that the modern type of warfare that we see today deliberately includes civilian casualties and has roots in the anti-colonial wars from Vietnam on thru various African wars.

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Filed under Africa, journalism, South Africa, writing

worth looking

I don’t often point people toward blogs. StageLeft, Rob Schmidt’s Newspaper Rock (and Blue Corn Comics) come to mind. Add this site to my short list of “must see” blogs.


Praxis: Allan Lissner's blog

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Africa, Canada, Climate Change, Environment, human rights, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous rights, photojournalism

ladies and gents, djimon hounsou

With an excellent primer written by Binyavanga Wainaina (a really good writer and journalist) on how NOT to write about Africa (which BTW is not a country).

Quiet on the set…. a-a-a-and action!

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Filed under Africa, humour, journalism

i come not to praise

Before I begin, let me clarify that Phil Fontaine is a nice person. That has nothing to do with his record as a politician, his life as an Indian Affairs administrator, his past as a survivor of residential schools. He is the sum of many parts.

People tend to get a bit misty, though, when a long timer like him takes the final bow, isn’t pushed but steps off the stage lightly under his own power, wanders off to other pursuits. They also tend to overlook some of the things that really bugged them when he was around. It may be human nature but to look only at the good and ignore other sides of the ledger is a missed opportunity. Thus, at least with the mainstream media, this is how it’s been with Phil Fontaine during his last days at the Assembly of First Nations.

White reporters, and they are the ones that matter here, measure Fontaine by different yardsticks than those used by Indigenous reporters. Mainstream reporters look at Fontaine and the AFN from a dominant society perspective. They can’t help it. That’s where they live. It determines their viewpoint.

Here’s an even bigger over-simplification. They measure Fontaine’s success or failure in terms of how well he was liked, understood by, managed to get along with those institutions and the people in their world. That’s the white world. That includes Parliament, government agencies, and federal and provincial politicians.

Indigenous reporters, certainly not all of them, should look at Fontaine’s list of accomplishments and measure them from other perspectives. How well did Fontaine champion their peoples’ causes, stand with them when it mattered most, hold true to his promises to them or to the principles he asked them to believe in? Because for the most part, the Canadian Parliament isn’t theirs, federal and provincial departments are antagonistic to their rights, and white politicians… Well, where to begin?

I noted a list of things that both Fontaine and the mainstream media checked off as his major successes. They include the Indian Residential Schools settlement, the national apology on residential schools by the Prime Minister, and the appointment of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also heard Fontaine on CBC Radio add to that list one of his pet projects: devolution of the Department of Indian Affairs. More on that last one a bit later. First, let’s examine those first three.

The Residential Schools settlement wasn’t Fontaine’s. It was a class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of survivors. Fontaine may be a survivor but to give him all the credit denies all of those poor bastards who decided against all odds and every nightmare to hire lawyers and take on the federal government and the churches. AFN and Fontaine may have helped, but the survivors fought for years almost all by themselves. The federal government and the churches cut an out-of-court settlement because they did not want to face those survivors in court. They had ripped apart the souls and families of Indigenous peoples across Canada, consigned them and their children’s children to living hells. The federal government and those churches cut their losses because the survivors held a mirror up to Canada, and Canadians were disgusted by what they saw.

Everything else flowed from that out-of-court settlement. The appointment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s national apology were part of that out-of-court settlement. White reporters tend to overlook that and attribute it all to Fontaine and the AFN while ignoring the survivors and their often lonely fight for dignity, and for all of those who died along the way. Fontaine helped – but it was their victory. No one should ever take any of that away from them.

Now, about the last point: “devolution” of Indian Affairs.

First, just what does that mean? According to Fontaine, it was one of his big successes in Manitoba. It was something he hoped to export throughout the country. It meant at various times dismantling Indian Affairs, taking over Indian Affairs, Indians managing Indian Affairs. There were a lot of people who supported Fontaine and this plan. But, practically, stripped of rhetoric and hyperbole, what did Fontaine’s big success – and there may be a few forensic accountants who might disagree – really mean?

To some it meant getting rid of the white man lording over Indians. It meant putting people in charge for a change, people who really knew the communities and the problems. Enough with some know-nothing bureaucrat in Ottawa nickle-&-diming programs that might improve lives. Of course, that went beyond wishful thinking and deep into Twilight Zone territory.

Indian Affairs, the Indian Act, the reserve system – they’re all part of Canada’s system of internal federal colonies. We are not in a post-colonial Canada. Canada has colonies and Indians are colonized peoples. Canada may have imposed Canadian citizenship (no one asked), imposed enfranchisement (connotes stripping of rights to Indians), and recognized “existing Aboriginal rights” in the Canadian constitution (staples the Indian Act to the foreheads of each and every Indian in Canada). But that changes little in the lives of Indigenous peoples because the system remains firmly in place.

European kingdoms asserted colonial powers over Indigenous peoples on other continents, imposed their own versions of government, institutions, beliefs and displaced the Indigenous versions in order to “civilize” the savage often in the most uncivilized ways. But that was just an excuse, a way to rationalize brutal behaviour and minimize guilt. Stripped of the patriotic and heroic versions, also taught in Canadian history classes, it was actually all about land and resources. It might have been furs and lumber way back when, or oil and uranium today, but it’s still the same system at work.

It wasn’t as though Fontaine didn’t have examples when he came up with his idea of devolution of Indian Affairs. While in South Africa, if he had bothered to ask, he would have learned that both the British and the Boer tried to undermine the anti-apartheid leadership by offering to devolve the Department of Bantu Affairs. It was more efficient, and effective to create “Bantu homelands” such as Ciskei or Transkei, and hand over local administration to Blacks. Toward the end, they even proposed that “coloureds” elect their own MPs to sit in a separate “coloured Parliament.”

It didn’t work: not because a few would compromise their principles and support these initiatives. It didn’t work because the vast majority of those oppressed by apartheid laws understood that it was cosmetic change only, a set of lies and illusions. They understood that the whole system of laws and policies that was apartheid would remain, only now under Black or coloured management.

Essentially, that is what Fontaine was proposing in Manitoba, and hoped to achieve with the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. What Fontaine proposed as “devolution” would not dismantle the Indian Act system. It would merely replace white management with a red one while keeping the system firmly intact.

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Africa, Canada, Canadian politics, human rights, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous rights, journalism, racism, South Africa

why dawg rules

Few others notice and then publicize

the Dr. is in

the Dr. is in

abuses of privilege or power and violations of the rights of Canadians as consistently and accurately as the good Doctor.

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Filed under Africa, Canada, Canadian politics, human rights, racism

ach, shame – again

Zap! Zuma.

Zap! Zuma.

First, they pulled it in April, just before South Africa’s elections because… someone complained it wasn’t balanced. Now, they’ve pulled it again, because “due process with regards to consultation has not been concluded,” according to an incomprehensible spokesperson at the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

“It” is a documentary on political satire that was produced by the SABC current affairs program, Special Assignment. The real beef, it seems, is with Zapiro.

“Zapiro” is the nom-de-lume of editorial cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro. Yes, he’s the one who attached a shower head on Jacob Zuma’s bald pate. He installed that bathroom ornament in honour of El Presidente’s bizarre precautions after having sex with a woman who was HIV-positive. The former head of SA’s AIDS awareness effort didn’t slip a rubber on his ducky – he took a shower instead. Oy!

Enough about Zuma and the shower head though. It’s been retired, for the time being. No, Zapiro is on someone’s sh*tlist. The SABC apparently deems Zapiro not-ready-for-prime-time. Perhaps because Zap’s also he’s being sued by The Zoom ™ for another cartoon.

In the cartoon, Zapiro portrayed Zuma unbuckling his belt, while “Lady Justice” is held down by Zuma allies Julius Malema, Gwede Mantashe, Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi.

Mantashe eggs Zuma on: “Go for it, boss!”

While Zuma’s allies claimed the cartoon was intended to project the ANC president as a rapist — even though Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006 — Shapiro said the central meaning of the cartoon was “incredibly clear”.

“It showed Jacob Zuma, with the help of his political allies, threatening and intimidating the judiciary to try to manipulate the courts for him to be exonerated and escape going on trial [for corruption], thus paving the way for Zuma to become president,” said Zapiro.

He said he used Lady Justice to represent the South African judicial system, adding that the figure is recognised as a symbol of justice the world over.

The documentary also features material from the Z-News satire, which was produced by Zapiro and shows Zuma trying to flee from the National Prosecuting Authority and axed president Thabo Mbeki in drag, singing I Will Survive.

I hope this isn’t a sign that South African’s are prepared to let humourless idiots ruin things for them. They let that happen once before. Remember?

Please, please, please don’t let them dull your tongues because it’s one of the things I love most about your country.

Ummm… Let me rephrase that….


Filed under Africa, art, journalism, South Africa