I had put this blog aside with the intention of focussing on fiction and writing that was not current events and news related. The recent passing of Elijah Harper, the Cree man who stood up to the powers that be and changed history in Canada reminded me that our story is not always being told honestly by those whose profession is based upon sharing fact.
The journalists, the storytellers of record, have ignored Native People at best. At worst they have been eager allies in historical and cultural genocide. It is said that journalists write the first draft of history. Other voices must be heard. Our voices must be heard.
When I came to the profession, I came as a convert. I had attended journalism school with the idea that it would be a good place to get the background required to work in advertising. I hadn't given the profession any thought.
I had a job the previous summer in building where an Advertising Agency was leasing space. The guy that worked there had a Mickey Mouse watch and all the walls were covered with images from some of the big campaigns they had done in the city. A grown man wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. It sure seemed like a better way to make a living than filing papers or swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad. I was going to be a Mad Man.
I decided that the Program in Journalism for Native People would be a place where I could get the writing and production background required to get a step up in the field of advertising. Instead, I met Native People from all over the country who had come to the University of Western Ontario in London, ON with the singular goal of telling the stories of their people. They wanted to tell the stories of their communities and their families and their histories. Their own lives and their struggles. Their truth. A light switched on. I looked at myself and the things I had seen and heard and experienced. I had stories to tell.
I never thought it strange that the Masters of Journalism students were using computers and the students at the Program were using typewriters. Manual typewriters with carbon paper. It wasn't the tools. It was always about the stories. I thought they were learning the same thing. Give voice to the people. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comforted. Just the facts, ma'am.
At CBC Radio in Winnipeg, I had a first real time lesson in how the media operates in Canada. We were witness to the rise of the nations against South Africa and the outpouring of protest to end this totalitarian state. Racism and Fascism upheld by constitution and brutally, horrifically enforced. It was a story of great historical importance a lesson to all humanity about what is right and wrong and it was unfolding before our eyes.
I had heard at the time that there may be a connection to the regime in South Africa and Canada. That in fact the South Africans had built the Apartheid system following the lead of the reserve system and The Indian Act legislations right here in Canada. A local angle on a big international story. I also thought that this was our job. We tell the story as honestly as we can so that our audience, our fellow man, can not simply judge but hopefully learn.
I remember the looks, the venom in some responses and harsher silent disdain. Being told that this was an out right lie and had no basis in fact let alone truth. I was 23 at the time. Still unsure and trying to keep my head above water inside the Mother Corp. I didn't push back, but I knew that the reaction suggested that the truth was being denied perhaps ignored. (The story has never been fully investigated to my knowledge and it is an important event in defining Canada. See links below)
I have always been skeptical of the media since those early days and it has served me well. There are numerous other smaller examples but most significant is the reaction of the Canadian media to Elijah Harper and the death of the Meech Lake Accord.
The Meech Lake Accord was negotiated to bring Quebec into the Canadian Constitution. The province refused to sign the Constitution of 1982, which brought the constitution to Canada from England.
The Meech Lake Accord provided no consideration for the Native Peoples of Canada. The negotiations for the Meech Lake Accord were so drawn out the deal required unanimous support from all the provinces. In Manitoba this meant that all Members of the Legislative Assembly had to provide a yes vote in order for the Accord to live. Elijah Harper was an MLA. He said, "No". The Meech Lake Accord died on the floor of the Manitoba Legislature.
In the days that followed, the debate raged over who was responsible for the death of the Meech Lake Accord. It was unsettling. The facts seemed straight forward. The media seemed to be scrabbling together, in an unspoken and determined manner, to denounce and deny that Elijah Harper, A Cree Man had single handledly crushed all their machinations.
If Newfoundland would have done this and the Supreme Court that and on and on. There were all these things that could have happened but didn't that caused the thing that did happen to happen. I felt like Will Farrell's character from the movie Zoolander, "I feel like I'm taking Crazy Pills." Although the reference was yet to exist.
We chugged along with the newspaper. Nativebeat, the Beat of a Different Drum. It was all passion and faithful to the cause.
That fall my wife and I were invited to "The Gathering of the Giants." It was a fundraiser for the UWO Master's in Journalism Program and it brought together all the greats in Canadian broadcasting. Shelly and I along with other young alumni from the Masters Program were going to ask each of the Greats some questions on stage and then have dinner with them.
I had never driven into Toronto before. I had no idea what rush hour traffic was. I didn't know it wasn't an hour. We were too late.
Dean Peter Desberats interviews our Giants instead.(I still feel bad for Peter about that. He worked as hard anyone I know to give something back to Native People. He sincerely believed that journalism was the key to changing things for the better. There are many of us who owe our entry into the profession to Dean Desberats.)
My wife was going to sit with Barbara Frum and I with another Giant. We would both have to explain our lateness and have dinner in the company of those who dream to one day be a Giant or those who want to sit at the table with a Giant.
Lloyd Robinson, Barbara Frum and a whole bunch of Peters - Mansbridge, Gzowski, Jennings
And I'm sitting with someone I do not know. I have done no research what so ever. That wasn't bad journalism. That was life. We are giving everything we have to publish Nativebeat, I am working at CBC in Toronto, we have 5 kids and a sixth on the way. When I was told I didn't need to do any research. I did none.
I explain my lateness. He seems understanding and we begin to chat about the evening. "It's too bad that you didn't arrive in time to do the interview. What questions would you have asked?" I tell him that I would have asked the same questions. He's puzzled, he thought all the young journalists would do their own research and craft their own questions. I told him that was my understanding. I explained that two weeks before the event we are sent a list of questions and told to stay on script. He seems perturbed. I agree it's not in keeping with the profession.
He soon adjusts and then asks, "What would you have asked me, if it was up to you."
I can't say at this time how quickly I responded. It could have been whipsmart, I don't recall. I do know that it was the question that had me puzzled.
"Why doesn't the media acknowledge that Elijah Harper killed the Meech Lake Accord?" I did not know at the time whether the Giant I had sat with had written anything about the Meech Lake Accord. All I know is that he took great offence to my question. He came back with stern force. My question was a direct attack on the credibility, the integrity of the whole room.
He went with the Wells Defensive. "We don't know what would have happened in Newfoundland with the Clyde Wells government..." That kind of thing.
I responded with the response I had prepared. "But we are journalists. All we have are the facts. Not what could have happened. The facts are. Elijah Harper said "No" and the Meech Lake Accord died."
He never spoke to me for the rest of the night. My wife was also ignored, but her lateness was a big enough sin at the Frum table.
In the morning of Elijah Harper's death, I watched the media coverage closely, in early reporting he was described as "key player" and "played a role" in the death of the Meech Lake Accord. As the day moved along it soon began to change and an expression closer to the truth emerged. "His vote killed the Meech Lake Accord", reported the Winnipeg Free Press. It was important that the fact is stated as simple as that in a newspaper of record.
It was acknowledged. It would have been nice if his place in history was more reasonably accepted and openly discussed during his lifetime. Although, I suspect that he did not seem to hold much concern in that regard. In the statement released by the family the focus was on his interfaith work.
"He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word. He will have a place in Canadian history, forever, for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding."
Elijah Harper showed the world that one person can stand up against the government and the media and all the forces at their disposal and single handedly change the course of history. That is a fact.
LINK SOUTH AFRICA - CANADA CONNECTION
Canada's Long History with South Africa
"It is not often realized that Cape Town was one of Canada’s first foreign missions, being established in 1906, and a pre–World War One veterinary research program between the Canadian Department of Agriculture and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute was Canada’s first international cooperation program. We were allies during the First and Second World Wars, engaging in joint training initiatives as part of the Commonwealth’s efforts." - Keeping the Dream Alive