Recent criticism of a high-profile story about Inuit artists should remind Canadian journalists to go the extra mile when covering the Indigenous
On a Tuesday evening last month, Catherine Porter, the New York Times’ Canada bureau chief, posted a seemingly innocuous Twitter thread about her latest story: a lengthy feature interspersed with photographs about art and poverty in Cape Dorset, a coastal village on Nunavut’s Baffin Island.
Almost immediately, the criticisms began.
“I am gutted by how bad this article is, and that I ever welcomed the author into my house,” Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril quickly wrote on Twitter in response. “She arrived in the north having no idea what to even write about, and I gave her a bazillion ideas. Instead she chose to reinforce stereotypes.”
Porter’s original 22-part Twitter thread accompanying her story got 344 likes; Arnaquq-Baril’s sharp reply threat got nearly 7,000. Soon, a chorus of journalists and readers alike joined in, sympathizing with those in Nunavut who had been chronicled by Porter and pointing out flaws in the New York Times’ reporting methods.
“She could have done so much more with the money she spent on this parachute-journalism,” freelance journalist Bex vanKoot tweeted to Porter. “Step aside and let @NYT publish an Inuit writer to tell their own story,” former National Post intern Caitrin Pilkington added.
Their concerns were that Porter failed to include appropriate context and discuss why Cape Dorset, a majority-Indigenous town in a majority-Indigenous territory, faces the issues that it does.
“What [Porter] reports isn’t factually incorrect, but her understanding of it is lacking,” said Jessica Davey-Quantick, a senior editor at Yellowknife-based Up Here magazine. “For instance, she references the number of people in subsidized or social housing in Nunavut. And with a southern understanding of what that means, when she reports that, visions of welfare dances in readers’ brains.
“The reality, however, is that that’s the norm in Nunavut; many communities are almost entirely ‘social housing,’” Davey-Quantick said, adding that in her experience reporting in communities across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, she has often had to remember to ask the “dumb questions” and ensure she’s not falling into “easy tropes” when interviewing.
“Did they come across as intelligent, knowledgeable, passionate,” Davey-Quantick asks of Porter’s sources in Cape Dorset, “or was she painting a picture of the wide-eyed ‘Indian’ grateful to be ‘discovered’ by white experts?”
For Davey-Quantick, who is white and originally from a small town in Ontario, moving to and reporting in the North has been an ongoing learning curve. “I still make mistakes, but I try to learn and do my best to represent the people who share their stories with me with dignity, respect and compassion,” she said, adding that when in doubt, she falls back on the guidance of Indigenous journalists.
Earlier this month, the U.S.-based Native American Journalists Association called on the New York Times to conduct a formal audit into how Porter’s story came to be published. In a statement, the NAJA said that the story is “harmful to Inuit and needs to be addressed” and requested that the Times suspend its coverage of Indigenous stories until its in-house policies are reviewed.
The Ryersonian contacted Porter for comment. She was unavailable for an interview.
In 2011, CBC reporter and radio host Duncan McCue created the Reporting in Indigenous Communities database, an online guide and checklist for Canadian journalists — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — that covers best practices at the desk, in the field and on air.
“I don’t think you can, or should be, a reporter in Canada without having a base level of cultural knowledge of Indigenous communities,” said McCue, who is Anishinaabe and a member of southern Ontario’s Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.
“Whether or not you’re covering the Indigenous ‘beat,’ at some point in your career, you’ll come across Indigenous subjects and Indigenous people. And you should know how to operate in a respectful way.”
In 2016, the Ryerson School of Journalism invited McCue to be the university’s Rogers visiting journalist and “develop new approaches and educational strategies for reporting Indigenous stories and issues,” the school said in a statement at the time. During his tenure at Ryerson, McCue has advised several journalism professors in a move to reform the RSJ’s curriculum by including more Indigenous-focused content.
That year, McCue also assisted in the establishment of Ryerson’s first dedicated course on Indigenous reporting — a goal outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 86th Call to Action:
“We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”
“The more important approach the school has taken is to try and make sure that we’re embedding [Indigenous] information and history and context into all of our courses,” said journalism professor Joyce Smith, who teaches the Reporting on Indigenous Issues class at Ryerson.
Geared towards third- and fourth-year J-school students, Smith’s class has been taught online since the 2016-2017 school year. It aims to help students “report on Indigenous issues, developing their cross-platform skills as well as networks of knowledge,” according to the official course description. “Key will be the development of relationships with Indigenous communities.”
Ryerson is just one of several Canadian journalism schools that have implemented dedicated courses on Indigenous reporting in the years since the TRC published its Calls to Action. Others include Carleton University, the University of King’s College in Halifax and St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
“I am not Indigenous, but I feel personally very strongly that we as Canadians have to do our part in trying to make things better,” said Smith, who added that in the upcoming Winter 2020 semester, her Indigenous reporting course will be taught in-person for the first time.
In the eight years since McCue published the Reporting in Indigenous Communities guide, he says he has seen some positive change in Canada’s mainstream media coverage of Indigenous issues, including the creation of CBC Indigenous and increase in scholarships available for aspiring Indigenous reporters.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go,” McCue said, adding that Indigenous Canadians — especially community elders — may be skeptical of non-Indigenous journalists who come to report on them.
“There’s also a really long history of outsiders coming into Indigenous communities and taking things away, whether it is children or art objects or sacred knowledge — journalists are just the latest,” McCue said. “That can be preserved not as storytelling, but as story taking.
“I argue that it’s really important when we’re dealing with Indigenous communities that we slow down a bit. There’s a benefit in slow journalism and making sure that we approach communities respectfully.”