Book Club: What There There by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

Storytelling and the enlightening power of art: Orange’s debut novel is a call to action

Book Club: What <i>There There</i> by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

The title of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is derived from Gertrude Stein’s memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography. Upon seeing that her childhood home had vanished, Stein famously remarked: “There is no there there.”

As one of Orange’s characters observes, this feeling of despair and loss is not unfamiliar to Indigenous people. The novel’s title is perhaps better interpreted as defiant sarcasm rather than as a soothing sentiment, for the characters in There There seldom find stablilty and comfort.

During the mid-twentieth century, the United States government instated an “Indian termination policy,” which was intended to terminate tribal life and assimilate Indigenous populations into urban society. The policy forced them to move out of reservations and into American cities to find employment as full tax-paying citizens.

The Indigenous people who ultimately emerged in cities, however, were not mainstream Americans as had been imagined, but what Orange calls “urban Indians,” who had arrived there by their own volition. This is where There There, Orange’s story of modernity and tradition, of innocence and guilt, and of hurting and healing, begins.

“Massacre as Prologue” is the title of one section of There There’s introduction, as Orange proposes that the history of violence against Indigenous people in the Americas serves not only as a prologue to his novel, but to life itself as an “urban Indian.” Each of the novel’s character carries the burden of hundreds of years of subjugation.

Another character is a mother who teaches her daughters about their heritage by taking them to a protest off the shore of San Francisco. She reminds the reader of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, when Indigenous activists camped out on the island for 19 months in a fight to reclaim their land and their rights.

Orange’s tragic stories of addiction, homelessness, and domestic abuse should be a testament to the fact that this fight is not over. While the novel focuses on Indigenous populations in the United States, its themes and diverse cast of characters speak volumes about Indigenous life and history all over the world.

On Indigenous identity, Orange writes about the importance of names and labels. He refers to the “blood quantum” laws which came to widely define membership to Indigenous tribes — many of which had not previously implemented such definitions — in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Some tribes still follow these membership laws. In Canada, the Indian Act grants status to individuals generationally, historically excluding Métis and Inuit peoples. In There There, Orange insists that these complicated labels and legislations can be dehumanizing, reducing Indigenous identity to “undoable math” and “insignificant remainders.”

Through Orange’s brilliant ability to write both intimately and expansively, connecting people, places, histories, and emotions, There There paints a remarkably extensive portrait of urban Indigenous life.

In Canada, the number of Indigenous people living in urban centres has been steadily growing. In fact, it was recently uncovered by Our Health Counts (OHC), a research project aiming to shed light on health and social inequalities experienced by urban Indigenous people, that data published by Statistics Canada on urban Indigenous populations has been misreported.

The OHC study of Ottawa found that the Inuit population in the city is four times larger than reported by Statistics Canada. The OHC also found that there are three to four times more Indigenous adults in Toronto than estimated by Statistics Canada in 2011.

This is all to say that there are more stories to tell — more than we think, and probably far more than we will ever know. In this view, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tommy Orange’s debut novel is that it demonstrates the enlightening power of art.

Another part of the novel’s courage is its ability to uncompromisingly confront grim realities, as violence and trauma infiltrate the lives of Orange’s characters, particularly women.

Between 1984 and 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,017 cases of murdered Indigenous women and 164 cases of missing Indigenous women, of which 225 are unsolved. In There There, a female character recalls seeing a post “about women up in Canada” — referring, of course, to this crisis.

However, as Orange highlights in the novel, “it’s not just in Canada, it’s all over. There’s a secret war on women going on in the world. Secret even to us. Secret even though we know it.”

Indeed, the crisis is global. 

A 2008 report from the US Department of Justice found that “some counties have rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women that are over ten times the national average.”

As part of a move to thrust this issue into the spotlight, the junior US Senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp found that 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women were reported in the United States to the National Crime Information Centre in 2016, and in July 2017, Indigenous women in Alice Springs, Australia marched in the streets to raise awareness about the violence against women plaguing their community. 

There There is a call to action. It is a call for storytelling, if not for one’s own sake, then in honour of those who are silenced and who have been silenced from telling their own stories.

CIUT radio: the voice for everyone who doesn’t complain

U of T radio station’s treatment of host Jamaias DaCosta reveals faulty policies and anti-Indigenous sentiment

CIUT radio: the voice for everyone who doesn’t complain

Earlier in March, The Varsity reported on allegations made by Jamaias DaCosta, an Indigenous CIUT radio host who was suspended in February. DaCosta claimed that CIUT had mishandled her sexual harassment complaint and suspended her for criticizing the radio station on the air.

According to DaCosta, an unnamed CIUT host, “behaved inappropriately toward her, including touching her, coming into the studio drunk, and calling her names like ‘sugar.’”

DaCosta also claims that CIUT repeatedly violated her confidentiality, first by sharing her name in an email with the accused to thank them for their patience during the investigation, and again when she was named as the complainant in the case during the CIUT Board of Directors meeting in January.

The accused in DaCosta’s sexual harassment case has since been suspended. DaCosta herself was suspended after criticizing the station and media coverage of Colten Boushie’s death and the trial of his killer, and the media coverage of Tina Fontaine’s death.

CIUT’s behavior in this situation is unacceptable, and the station’s staff have offered no apology to DaCosta or even any kind of satisfactory explanation for their actions.

First, they violated DaCosta’s privacy by sharing her name with the Board of Directors and with the person she is accusing of sexual harassment in the first place. Then, they offered half-hearted excuses as to why this happened.

Finally, they gave contradictory explanations about the reasons for DaCosta’s suspension from the station — all of which ironically seem to centre on the fact that DaCosta was criticizing how the media, CIUT included, treats Indigenous people.

When CIUT President Steve Fruitman was asked about DaCosta’s complaints, he stated, “There’s been no breach from our side. No members have seen our agendas. No members have seen our minutes.”

Essentially, Fruitman seems to be admitting that he showed DaCosta’s complaint to the Board with her name revealed as the accuser, but with the excuse that the members haven’t seen the agendas or minutes.

Either Fruitman is saying the Board’s minutes and agendas are not accessible to members, showing a lack of transparency on the part of the board, or he is admitting that DaCosta’s name and complaint were, in fact, made available to the members, but that they haven’t seen it. Fruitman’s dismissal of DaCosta’s concerns is also flippant, and seems to suggest he doesn’t take them very seriously.

Further criticisms can be directed at CIUT’s failure to enforce their sexual harassment policy in the case of DaCosta’s complaint. The policy states that investigations should be wrapped up in a timely manner — preferably around a month — yet DaCosta’s complaint has been ongoing since November 2017.

Fruitman stated that the station acted immediately in response to DaCosta’s complaint, but offered no explanation for the delay.

It should also be noted that CIUT’s policy itself might be in need of review due to its age — Fruitman suggested that most of CIUT’s policies, including this one, date back to 1988. While Fruitman did acknowledge that parts of the policy needed to be improved, he also stated that most of CIUT’s policies “are good for almost forever… They’re just basic rules we’ve always had, since 1988.”

Any policy dealing with a sensitive issue like sexual harassment probably will not be good for ‘almost forever,’ and clearly the policy could be improved, or at least needs to come with more teeth in terms of enforcement, as it has been months since the initial complaint and little has been resolved.

CIUT’s decision to suspend DaCosta is also unacceptable. The supposed reasoning behind DaCosta’s suspension was that she discussed the trial of Boushie’s killer on air.

In an email to DaCosta, station manager Ken Stowar stated, “The comment [that DaCosta made] was such that CIUT-FM could be held criminally responsible for interfering with the rights of an individual for a fair trial.”

Setting aside the issue of whether DaCosta could in fact be charged under the Criminal Code for her comments, which remains unclear, it is problematic in principle that she as an Indigenous person was censored, for daring to speak critically about how the criminal justice system handled the deaths of Boushie and of Fontaine, both Indigenous youths.

However, it turns out that the real reason DaCosta was suspended, according to her suspension email, was due to “disparaging comments made on air and online… about CIUT and its board of directors.”

On the same show that she made her comments about Boushie, DaCosta also noted that while CIUT presents itself as a “safe space,” it does not actually function as one, and is thus not fulfilling its role as a community radio station.

The official suspension email DaCosta received from CIUT, unlike the one sent to her by Stowar, did not mention her comments about Boushie’s killer at all.  

The lesson here, for DaCosta and for everyone watching this case, is that criticism of student media, or even commentary on current events, is unacceptable if it goes against the ideals of the media organization. As someone who expresses my opinion in student media on a regular basis, I am particularly appalled by these actions.

Student media, like all media, needs to be held accountable. There are already so few spaces for Indigenous students to express their opinions in a public forum, and CIUT is seemingly taking away one of them because DaCosta has criticized the station.

CIUT’s treatment of DaCosta’s sexual harassment complaint is one example of many. In January, a crowdsourced survey from The Professor is In revealed at least 16 instances of sexual harassment at U of T, mostly among graduate students being harassed by professors. The results of this survey arguably represent only a sample of a larger body of complaints, many of which never see the light of day.

When victims of sexual harassment see cases like DaCosta’s, still governed by a policy that hasn’t been updated since the 80s and that isn’t properly enforced, it’s no wonder that they may be reluctant to come forward.

If CIUT is so proud of its policies, including those on sexual harassment, it needs to actually enforce them. And if things go wrong, the correct response is to offer an apology to the victims — a genuine one — instead of making vague excuses and suspending them for expressing their opinions.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

A long and important history precedes Confederation

Re: “‘150 for Whom?’ tackles anti-racism on Canada’s sesquicentennial”

A long and important history precedes Confederation

Even months after Canada’s 150th birthday, it is vital for us, as Canadians, to ask ourselves what exactly we celebrated and whom we silenced in the process. The symposium held at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education earlier this month, titled “150 for Whom, Canada? Colonialism and Indigeneity across Lands,” shone a light on the stories of the Indigenous peoples that have occupied land in Canada for thousands of years, stories that are far too often left unheard.

For me, Canada 150 brings mixed emotions. As the child of immigrants, I am thankful to have been brought up in a country that allows me to pursue many more opportunities than I would otherwise have been able to access. But I am also acutely aware of the fact that I am living an incredibly privileged life on land that was violently stolen from others. Canada has been built upon the bodies of Indigenous people, and this is something that should never be forgotten.

There is not enough being done to educate students about the Indigenous history of this country, especially in Ontario. I grew up in Manitoba, which has a much larger Indigenous population, and there was more of an emphasis in schools to teach students about the atrocities of colonialism and the legacy of residential schools — albeit still not to the extent that these lessons should be taught. In the era of missing and murdered Indigenous women, more work is needed to educate Canadians about ongoing colonial violence affecting Indigenous people today, and to urge us not to misconstrue Canadian history as something that started a mere 150 years ago.

 

Yasaman Mohaddes is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Sociology.

Op-ed: Reconciliation at Massey College

An Indigenous Junior Fellow shares her story

Op-ed: Reconciliation at Massey College

A few years ago I was approached by a lovely, incredibly talented graduate student through my role on the Native Students Association (NSA) here at the University of Toronto. We were walking through Queen’s Park on a brisk fall afternoon after a class we shared that combined undergrads and grads. I was the infectiously optimistic undergrad who had big dreams and a million projects on the go to work towards positive changes for First Nations in Canada — notably, our youth. As a mature student, I was elated at the countless possibilities for collaborations, projects, student groups, and jobs available within the university community. My plan was to try to advocate my cause in as many forums as possible.

As we swayed through the park with no urgency or regard for time, the student told me about the Walter Gordon Symposium being organized at Massey College. The theme was reconciliation through policy with respect to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action. The committee wanted to consult with Indigenous student groups on campus and have members join them in their work. Though I had never been to Massey College, I agreed to go meet the committee and hear more about the project.

Once I got past the gatekeeper, I was mesmerized by the land and space hidden behind the outer walls. A quaint water bed lay still collecting Mother Nature’s brightly hued leaves, benches lined the courtyard yearning for company, and best of all, I was warmly greeted by the few faces I saw. ‘Not bad at all,’ I thought to myself when I approached this tiny doorway in the left corner that led me into what they called the round room. The room was impressive. The walls echoed with secrets that whispered softly. I could feel the presence of some very interesting stories being told here. I looked around and found the smiling face of my friend, who eagerly invited me to sit next to her.

It was here in this fateful moment that I was introduced to Massey College. From that day, I have built meaningful relationships with some of the kindest, smartest, and warmest group of students — Junior Fellows — I have met so far. Through my collaboration on the symposium, I learned more about this community.

The committee, and notably, their fiercely organized and extremely dedicated Chair, delivered a great symposium filled with meaningful and engaging topics, which gave birth to new ideas and the urgency for change and action on this idea of reconciliation. This word has been used loosely since the TRC, but here, I felt it was dissected and given context; more importantly, feasible steps and actions were discussed in order to begin the process.

The best part of this process was the ability to work with a man that I highly respect due to the outstanding changes he is a part of within our First Nations in Ontario: the Regional Chief Isadore Day. The symposium began with an address from Day that took place in the upper library at Massey College, and was loaded with facts about the Treaties with First Nations and its very complex history, along with some contemporary examples of where we are today. The room was filled to the brim, every chair was occupied, and the walls were lined with an attentive audience. At the end of the symposium, I left feeling very hopeful that the audience was inspired to take action and gained a greater understanding of the complex issues facing First Nations in Canada.

After some time had passed, my new friends had approached me to apply to become a Junior Fellow. I was invited to meet the Dean and Head of Massey Hugh Segal for lunch. During lunch, they warmly welcomed me to join the community, approaching me with humility and honesty. These attributes deeply affect me as an Indigenous woman because they are embodied in the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers and a foundation for the governance of the NSA. That lunch was key to my engagement in the college’s community.

I have witnessed and participated in the diversity of Massey College through orientation events, high tables, low tables, lunches, and of course meaningful conversations. I am now a second-year Junior Fellow, and though my experience at Massey has been very pleasant, this is only one story — a story from a student who has faced tremendous adversity at an institution that has caused my family great pain.

My mother is a residential school survivor. When we speak of her experience, she always tells that the Creator has a plan for us all: through the dark times there is always light and a purpose. I am still avidly working on my purpose, and I face challenges and barriers daily. When I feel lost, my mother tells me a story and my Elders tell me stories; through that gift, I wanted to share mine with you.

What happened to the Junior Fellow who experienced racism at the College recently is terribly sad and incredibly painful. I still bear the scars of inappropriate remarks and outright hateful speech. I know how damaging it can be. We are a community, and that community has the responsibility to create safe and inviting spaces for all. Moving forward, I hope that my story is mirrored by new faces and of course encouraged by the Senior Fellows. Miigwech — until next time.

 

Audrey Rochette is a second-year Junior Fellow at Massey College. She is the Crane and Governance Leader of the Native Students Association.

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

While the group purports to be in favour of protecting free speech for all, recent events demonstrate they are only concerned with doing so for certain people

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

Picture this: a group of people have come together to organize a demonstration. They are interrupted by a second group of people, who try to stop them because they feel that the demonstration is offensive to their beliefs. In this situation, you’d think that a group like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — who claim, according to their website, to support “every person’s right to free speech” — would jump to the defence of the individuals whose right to protest was being threatened.

SSFS is a “non-partisan” group that wishes to uphold “personal freedom of expression, conscience, and belief,” and “political freedom in expressing beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints.” Their mantra was put to the test when SSFS found themselves in a controversy relating to an incident in Halifax that occurred earlier this month.

On July 1, a group of Indigenous activists held a mourning ceremony in front of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city of Halifax. The Indigenous group staged a protest in reference to Cornwallis’ unrestrained violence and persecution of the Mi’kmaq people. During one part of the ceremony, dozens of people gathered around the statue to watch Chief Grizzly Mamma shave her head in an act of mourning — an especially symbolic act as Cornwallis infamously issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

As this happened, however, a group of five men approached the group with the intention to disrupt or interrupt the ceremony. The so-called “Halifax Five” identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media. The group identifies themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They hold that “The West is the Best” and oppose feminism.

McInnes himself is no role model; one of his claims to fame is an extremely offensive video rant published in March of 2017, in which he stated he was “becoming anti-Semitic.” This video was praised by white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

Not only was the Halifax Five incident horribly disappointing in light of Canada’s colonial past, it also meant drawing a great deal of attention away from what the activists were actually trying to say. Canadians need to learn how to acknowledge the violent colonial actions of well-respected figures like Cornwallis, but instead of opening up a dialogue about Halifax’s past and Cornwallis’ actions, media attention on the Proud Boys and the fallout from the incident drew the public’s eyes away from the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The exact nature of what the Halifax Five did and said isn’t precisely clear. Some reports characterized their actions as a disruption of the Indigenous protest, while others, including SSFS, seemed to say that the news reports were skewed with left-leaning bias. Perhaps the Proud Boys perceive criticism of Cornwallis and the actions undertaken against Indigenous people under colonial rule to be offensive to their belief that “The West is the Best.” Had the Halifax Five held some type of pro-Cornwallis demonstration the next day, or even restricted their disagreement to the internet or to a different place away from the ceremony, this would be a different conversation. It is clear, however, that the Proud Boys sought to at the very least interrupt the ceremony by singing, waving a flag, and ultimately making a scene that disrupted the proceedings.  

In light of this, one could argue that the actions of the Proud Boys ought to at least trigger conversations about the rights of the Indigenous group to protest peacefully and express their views freely. Accordingly, you might expect that SSFS would decry the attempt of the Proud Boys to try to suppress the free expression of the Indigenous protesters — but the exact opposite happened. On July 15, SSFS took the side of the Halifax Five and organized a rally in their support at Queen’s Park.  

SSFS might argue that they only intended to express support for the right of the Proud Boys and the Halifax Five to organize peacefully. This is indeed what the rally itself seemed to be about, and would certainly align with SSFS’s stated philosophy. According to SSFS member and rally organizer Simon Capobianco, “The major purpose [of the rally] was… to defend the Constitutional rights of the Halifax five… One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the charter is the right to freedom of assembly, and… [the military members] were in a public space, they were assembling peacefully.”

However, this seemingly noble purpose is misguided, and potentially reveals the true motivations behind the actions the group has taken in favour of free speech. Capobianco’s statement is somewhat confusing, considering that you could very easily say the same of the Indigenous activists — they were also assembling peacefully, and were well within their right to do so. In the past, SSFS has even decried interruptions of their own proceedings, such as when the Toronto Action Forum, an event co-hosted on campus by SSFS and Generation Screwed on February 4, was interrupted and ultimately halted by protestsWhy would they jump to defend the disruption posed by the Proud Boys, but condemn the protests in response to their own events?

It should also be noted that while there was thankfully no violence as a result of the confrontation between the Halifax Five and the Indigenous activists, back in April, the Proud Boys announced the formation of a “military division” to be headed by Kyle Chapman, who had been released from jail the previous month on suspicion of a felony assault with a deadly weapon.

What makes things worse is the fact that much of the focus of this rally has been on the presence of white supremacist Paul Fromm and SSFS’s ever-shifting explanations and apologies for his presence. Though SSFS’s claim to fame is supporting free expression regardless of the content of the messages, in this case, they appeared to waver in their stance. First, they made a statement on Facebook claiming that they did not know what Fromm looked like and hadn’t been aware that he was attending the rally. The statement was later deleted from their Facebook page, and replaced with a YouTube apology, after receiving numerous negative comments from skeptics.  

Let’s give SSFS the benefit of the doubt and say that they really didn’t know Fromm was there, or at least that they did not intend for him to be there and do not in any way endorse his views. At the least, the fact that SSFS jumped to backtrack when faced with a real-life white supremacist demonstrates some serious inconsistencies in their logic. In their initial post, SSFS stated that “if we had been aware of Paul Fromm’s identity and affiliations at the time of the rally… we would have prevented him from using our megaphone.”

This particular statement seems at odds with the group’s alleged commitment to the importance of free and unbridled speech, regardless of the nature of the messages — does this mean that SSFS is recognizing the danger of giving a platform to white supremacists and other hateful people and groups?

If you’re keeping score, here’s the deal: Indigenous activists chose to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to protest a statue of a man who ordered many acts of violence to be committed against the Mi’kmaq people after founding a city on territory that hadn’t been ceded. They held a protest and a mourning ceremony for Indigenous people who had been hurt or killed. The activists were interrupted by five men connected to a “pro-Western” chauvinist group with a paramilitary branch founded by a far-right, possible anti-Semite. Finally, SSFS, a “non-partisan” student group, decided to hold a rally supporting those five men in their brave quest to interrupt an Indigenous ceremony — and a notorious white supremacist just happened to show up and speak. SSFS then apologized for his presence.

What’s perhaps most ironic about this whole thing was that, in the apology video, SSFS president Marilyn Jang also apologized for holding the rally at the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, saying it was “an extremely unthoughtful choice of venue for any rally… Memorials should solely be seen as a symbol of remembrance and a way to honour the fallen.” I agree: it seems like memorials and memorial ceremonies are inappropriate places to espouse political ideologies. Surely this logic should also apply to the activists memorializing fallen Indigenous folks as well?

SSFS has always argued that their only goal is to support freedom of speech, regardless of political affiliation. But this incident seems to prove that the group is cherry-picking whose rights to support — and that everyone else needs to step back and, well, be quiet.

Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

What happened with Write magazine should prompt media outlets to prioritize Indigenous peoples in their coverage

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

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 VarsityMedia outlets must make concrete commitments if they seriously intend to confront this issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear that all of them do.

U of T Truth and Reconciliation steering committee releases interim report

No formal recommendations made yet on how to implement "Calls to Action"

U of T Truth and Reconciliation steering committee releases interim report

The Steering Committee for the U of T Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its interim report on July 7.

The report states the primary work of the Committee is to “make recommendations regarding how the University community can implement the TRC Calls to Action, in alignment with the University of Toronto’s mandate and mission.”

No formal recommendations have been made yet; the report describes the committee’s work thus far, including the creation of working groups and “Indigenous-themed programs and initiatives across the University of Toronto.” These university-wide initiatives include scholarships, bursaries, and awards specifically given to Indigenous students, and bolstering the Transitional Year Programme, which aids Indigenous students in gaining access to resources at the university.

The report includes an analysis of each faculty of the university. It outlines the resources and initiatives offered in relation to Indigenous presence and understanding, specifically in the areas of recruitment and admissions, curriculum, and community outreach.

In January, the committee was tasked to deliver recommendations on how to implement the Truth and Conciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. The committee’s mandate includes reviewing how to build a stronger Indigenous presence on all three campuses. This can be accomplished through: further admission of Indigenous students and the provision of aid for those students; the active hiring of more Indigenous employees, staff, and faculty; or the inclusion of Indigenous content in all university programs and the “enhancement of existing Indigenous-focused courses and academic programs.”

The committee’s final report is expected to provide a more specific outline of the university’s mandate in working with Indigenous partners — such as First Nations House and the Indigenous Studies program — to ensure that the university does its part in implementing recommendations that reflect the intention of the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s final report.