The spring issue of Write, a literary magazine published by the Writer’s Union of Canada, was supposed to celebrate works by Indigenous writers. However, as is often the case when Indigenous writing is published, a media firestorm quickly redirected the public’s attention elsewhere.
Editor-in-Chief Hal Niedzviecki came under fire for his editorial in the magazine, where he wrote that he does not believe in cultural appropriation and that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” Consequently, Indigenous writers featured in the magazine expressed their deep disappointment that such a piece was featured in an issue intended to celebrate their communities’ works. Niedzviecki has since apologized and resigned from his post, calling his lack of foresight “tone-deaf.”
The negative attention Niedzviecki received then prompted some of the biggest names in Canada to jump to his defence. Prominent editors and writers at the largest media organizations in Canada eagerly voiced their support for the hypothetical “appropriation prize” that Niedzviecki suggested be awarded to authors who write about peoples with whom they have nothing in common. A pot of money jokingly pledged to the cause even emerged on Twitter.
The Niedzviecki case and the subsequent media support in his favour are telling reminders that there is sore disregard for Indigenous perspectives in Canadian media, and that the industry must make more room for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories.
Niedzviecki apparently intended to argue that Indigenous peoples, continually suffering the effects of cultural genocide, are rediscovering their voice by writing narratives outside their own cultures. Statements in his piece seem to align with this position: Niedzviecki mentions the importance of finding the “right measures of respect, learning, and true telling,” and that “if we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes, readers will know.”
Yet opening a magazine issue devoted to Indigenous writing with the line “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation” penned by its Editor-in-Chief hardly approaches the bounds of appropriate editorial decision-making.
Clarification is in order, because Niedzviecki seems to imply that protecting writers from cultural appropriation presents an obstacle to creativity within the Canadian literary community by limiting the scope of what one can write about. However, appropriation is not ‘writing what you don’t know’ — it’s taking the customs of another culture and denying their origins, profiting off them as if they were your own.
We also cannot ignore the topicality with which cultural appropriation is frequently approached in popular discussion; however nearsighted Niedzviecki was, framing his piece in terms of appropriation was unmistakably meant to stir the pot.
Niedzviecki ought to have known better. The fact that he did not is unsurprising.
In a piece for Global News, Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie writes of “a persistent notion that continuing to exploit Indigenous people is an inherent right.” Gimmicky replicas of traditional artefacts and tasteless Halloween costumes demonstrate the world continuing to distort Indigenous culture for profit and entertainment. And this instance is hardly the first time Indigenous perspectives have taken a back seat to provocative writing by powerful people.
[pullquote-default]An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.”[/pullquote-default]
The Canadian media has time and time again been complicit in this process. An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.” When Indigenous people do make headlines, writers often play on stereotypes about criminality and alcoholism, never mind that scholars have repeatedly confirmed the connection between social issues within Indigenous communities and Canada’s colonial past.
The role of culture in this process cannot be understated. For First Nations people, preserving culture can be virtually analogous with preserving Indigenous knowledge, identity, and self-determination. Social and cultural dislocation has in fact been cited as one of the causes of higher rates of self-harm and suicide among Indigenous peoples compared to the non-Indigenous population.
The media, in turn, has a vital role to play in shaping public opinion and choosing what stories are told. Wilful blindness to the potential consequences of what is published, in a context where too few Canadians know enough about our country’s colonial history, can be toxic to Indigenous communities.
Editorials like Niedzviecki’s are important to take seriously because of their potential reach. A Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) project on Ontarian media coverage of Indigenous issues revealed that editorials and opinion columns made up a substantial portion of the heightened negative coverage that occurred in response to ‘Idle No More’ protests. McCue believes that senior opinion writers in city newsrooms are influential in setting the tone when Indigenous communities are covered.
It consequently becomes difficult to stomach the idea of an “appropriation prize,” to turn a blind eye to white and well-paid media executives placing bids on what is essentially a continuation of Canada’s colonial legacy. Calling out the Canadian media on its lack of diversity is hardly an overreaction, yet few in the industry seem willing to confront the problem head-on.
Only two extensive surveys on diversity in Canadian newspapers have ever been conducted. The most recent one, in 2006, found that minorities were vastly underrepresented in newsrooms at all levels of circulation. Smaller-scale studies have since confirmed these findings, yet news outlets have not budged. In 2016, CANADALAND attempted to collect data about diversity in Canadian newspapers and was met with radio silence; with only three papers willing to contribute, the prospect of publishing systematic data was deemed a lost cause.
[pullquote-features]It is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.[/pullquote-features]
Indigenous narratives in particular continue to be sorely underrepresented in Canadian media. JHR surveyed over two million stories across 171 Canadian publications from 2010–2013, finding that Indigenous stories made up a cumulative average of only 0.28 per cent.
Part of the reason for this, it appears, is that many journalists do not attempt to seek out Indigenous sources to contribute to their stories. Others, not understanding Indigenous issues, avoid the topic entirely. In turn, media executives in charge of daily news agendas hesitate to cover Indigenous issues due to a reluctance to raise the “same old stories.” That would be well and good if enough were being done to try and change the status quo — which hasn’t happened since the first European ship landed on Canadian soil.
The Canadian Journalism Project’s J-Source has also investigated this issue. Of the 125 columnists they surveyed in 2016, only 5 regional columnists were Indigenous, and there were no Indigenous columnists at the national level. This is compared to 50 regional and 14 national columnists who identified under no equity criteria — none of whom were Indigenous people, visible minorities, women, LGBTQ persons, or persons with a disability.
Supporting Indigenous writing — as Write tried and Niedzviecki dismally failed to do — is one step toward progress. Indigenous communities have much to contribute to the Canadian media landscape, and given their lived experiences, it is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.
This is not to say that white columnists can’t write about colonialism, and certainly not that Indigenous writers should be pigeonholed into doing so. But considering the scarcity of Indigenous perspectives in the mainstream media and the pressing need to cover communities’ stories in a timely and respectful manner, newspapers should try harder to make room.
Fortunately, some have got the right idea. JHR has launched a mentorship program for Indigenous journalists in Northern Ontario, as well as a scholarship and internship program to help interested Indigenous students break into the field. In 2015, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded the Don McGillivray Award, a prestigious journalistic honour, to McCue and the rest of his team at the CBC for their coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Simultaneously, progress on media diversity is painfully slow, and the appropriation prize debacle is a notable setback. Respecting Indigenous narratives, publishing Indigenous authors, and collaborating with Indigenous organizations should be top priorities, both in the broader media community and locally at The Varsity. Media outlets must make concrete commitments if they seriously intend to confront this issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear that all of them do.