Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River in Labrador, in February 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Journalists covering Indigenous Peoples in renewable energy should focus on context and truth, not click-bait

We rely on the news media to help us understand the world. But news media does not provide unbiased windows. This bias has been shown to be a problem for Indigenous Peoples around the world. For example, Brad Clark of Royal Roads University has said that TV news coverage of First Nations, Métis and Inuit alternates between imagery of invisibility and hyper-visibility — resulting in the marginalization of Indigenous voices in Canada.

In their book Seeing Red, Mark Anderson and Carmen Robertson take readers through more than 150 years of Canadian journalism. They explain that although racist narratives are becoming less blatant over time, “colonial stereotypes have endured [and even flourished] in the press.” It is said that the idea of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples will be a fleeting one until the media stops “construct(ing) them in demeaning unidimensional ways.”

Click here for more articles in our ongoing series about the TRC Calls to Action.

In more recent examples, Les Couchi of Nipissing First Nation writes about how portrayals of “savage, unruly, drunk and lazy [‘Indians’]” leads to prejudices across powerful boardrooms and government offices. Hayden King, Anishinaabe scholar of Indigenous Politics at Ryerson University, writes that the general approach of 20th century newspapers was to paint Indigenous Peoples as “savages to be mocked, excused or contained … .”

Move to renewable energy: A justice challenge

The move to renewable energy in colonialized nations has been called a dual energy justice challenge by political scientist Julie MacArthur and sociologist Steve Matthewman of the University of Auckland. In efforts to combat climate change and build renewable energy, those involved — including journalists — must be mindful not to re-write a history of exploitation of Indigenous territories and Peoples.

Accounts show that large-scale hydro — especially Site C in British Columbia and Muskrat Falls in Labrador — brings with it local health risks and threats to Truth and Reconciliation efforts. These more recent developments mirror other massive hydro projects in the James Bay Cree and the Northern Manitoba First Nations regions, which have long caused irreparable environmental damage and dispossession.

The protests, lawsuits and general opposition that emerges from these large-scale, so-called “clean” energy projects stem from unfair processes of development that align with a history of the extractive industry across Canada. It is no surprise then that such developments — in South American contexts — have been labelled a form of [low] carbon colonialism by geographers Mary Finley-Brook and Curtis Thomas.

Labrador artist Stan Nochasak attends a Muskrat Falls demonstration on the steps of the Confederation Building in St. John’s, N.L., on Oct. 25, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Paul Daly

Analysis of news media stories

I am part of a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars engaged in research for “A Shared Future.” We collected news stories from 2008-17. We then analyzed the portrayals of Indigenous communities’ involvement in renewable energy projects across Canada. We focused our analysis, published in Energy Research and Social Science, on the many people that are leading or are strongly impacted by these transitions.

The symbol for the collaboration, A Shared Future research program: four elements teaching from Algonquin Elder Barbara Dumont-Hill. (Illustration by Simon Brascou)

So how did mainstream news media portray Indigenous Peoples through stories about renewable energy projects? There’s some good and some bad news.

Across the six media outlets we examined (CBC, APTN, Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Toronto Star), there were examples of excellent articles which included Indigenous perspectives, histories and cultural context. This was especially so with regard to content produced by APTN, but there were examples from the other news organizations as well. Providing these contexts may help audiences understand the views and actions of Indigenous Nations.

For example, stories answered key questions like: Why did Treaty 8 First Nations in British Columbia organize protests in response to the Site C dam? Why are issues of sustainability and self-sufficiency so important to members of T'Sou-ke Nation and Six Nations of the Grand River?

We also found problems. One was that many writers used quotes from both Indigenous leadership (both formal and informal), next to non-Indigenous folks in positions of power (think energy utilities, provincial governments).

In almost every case, the journalist who may have been attempting to balance the article with both sides began with quotes from Indigenous peoples, before turning to those framed as having technical, policy or applied expertise on the topic — often non-Indigenous peoples. While this can be seen a technique in journalism to front-load a story with top-heavy facts, knowing that not all readers read beyond the headline or first paragraph, what we saw was the final word given to non-Indigenous peoples.

As a result, readers may be left with the feeling that Indigenous views can be extinguished by western reason or science. Are reporters speaking to those in positions of power last, or otherwise giving them the last word? Such a practice could open avenues for responding to and “answering” concerns brought forth by Indigenous Peoples.

What can journalists, media outlets and universities do?

For journalists, media producers and academic institutions, we recognize the road map provided by the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. Specifically, we point to Calls to Action No. 84 and No. 86.

Call No. 84 demands that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation restore funding for Indigenous programming and increase access for Indigenous Peoples to work in and lead at the news organization. Call No. 86 is broader and arguably more important. It puts forward the requirement that all journalism students in Canada be educated on the history of Indigenous Peoples, government relations, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and treaty rights.

The Site C Dam location is seen along the Peace River in Fort St. John, B.C., in April 2017. At that time, a United Nations committee on eliminating discrimination warned Canada that continued construction of the Site C hydro dam in British Columbia may violate international agreements. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Too often, the news stories published over the past decade about Indigenous Peoples’ involvement in renewable energy told the stories of these two powerful forces — government and industry — ignoring UNDRIP and neglecting to include reporting on Aboriginal and treaty rights to advance all forms of energy development without the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Nations.

In simple terms, free, prior and informed consent is the principle that Indigenous Peoples should have a voice in how, or even if, a project affecting them moves forward. It holds promise to help in reconciliation in Canada, and should be treated as an essential governing principle for developments of all types moving forward.

Muskrat Falls dam opponents hold a rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Eight years ago, the University of British Columbia set an example in offering journalism students a course called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. By 2017, Wilfred Laurier University, Kwantlen Polytechnic and Carleton University made courses on Indigenous studies mandatory for all students of their journalism programs. Meanwhile, Ryerson University has created a course called Reporting on Indigenous Issues and first-year journalism students are required to complete a module that includes Indigenous histories and the challenges of reconciliation.

Many other universities that offer journalism degrees lag behind in terms of implementing Call No. 86.

Without such education, it becomes easy to skip the Truth in Truth and Reconciliation and focus on the click-bait of headlines and leave out the context.

Renewable energy development is urgently needed to address climate change. Add to that the economic benefits that come from a global clean energy transition and it’s easy to see why people may want to skip the truth-telling: it is uncomfortable and may interfere with the bottom line. But it is part of the hard work of reconciliation.

Renewable energy in Canada — from Muskrat Falls and Tobique First Nation’s $50 million investment in a wind farm in the east, to the solar panels on Skidegate’s heritage centre in the west, to the range of renewable energy projects in the North — exists and is shaped by a complex colonial history and an even more complex colonial present. These are facts that all Canadians must be educated about, and the media has an important role in reporting this reality.

Notes from A SHARED Future: Inaugural Team Meeting, March 2017.

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This is a corrected version of a story originally published on Jan. 22, 2020. The earlier story said a UBC course is called Reporting in Aboriginal Communities instead of Reporting in Indigenous Communities.

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