How we write about Indigenous news matters
Last week, I had the opportunity to connect with a reporter from the London Free Press to talk about critical initiatives coming to London that will help address homelessness in our city – particularly for the most vulnerable populations. The published article, “Help on the way for aboriginal homeless”, probably looks like an accurate and balanced piece of reporting to most people in London. Through Indigenous eyes though, there are key contexts missing, and in some ways this article contributes to outdated stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and Nations – stereotypes we need to continue to call out and address.
I came to this conversation as an Indigenous woman with the lived experiences of colonization and homelessness, and from the lens of my work with the Mayor’s Poverty Panel.
As an Indigenous woman, sitting down with a reporter is never an easy thing to do. Too often, well-meaning reporters simply lack the education or context to the stories we are trying to tell them. We spend more time in an interview educating about the histories of colonization, oppression, and racism, and how these histories colour the message we are trying to convey.
Sometimes no matter how on-message we are in an interview, the most critical pieces of information get missed, because a journalist may not have the lens to hear it.
This is not the fault of individual journalists, but signals a broader problem with the education journalists have access to, and how they are equipped to enter into Indigenous communities to tell our stories.
The article completely sidesteps racism as a social determinant of health and a barrier for Indigenous peoples seeking affordable housing – despite the lengths I went to trying to convey this key message.
Through the engagement sessions of the poverty panel, I’ve heard over and over again that race, not income, employment, or education is one of the biggest barriers Indigenous peoples face in London to accessing housing. While we absolutely need funding for programs and initiatives, money alone will not solve this city’s race problem. And mark my words, we do in fact have a race problem. When Indigenous peoples tell us again and again about rental ads stating “no natives” – we have to accept that we have a bigger problem than money can fix.
Additionally, the idea of help being “on the way” for Indigenous peoples further perpetuates the myth that as Indigenous peoples, we are dependent on our colonizers. We do not need to be saved. What we need are partners at the table who will help us address racism, colonialism, and the legacies of government-sponsored assimilation policies.
It is by no means my intention to slap the author of this article on the wrist. I sincerely hope we can work together again on future stories. What I’d like to highlight is a systemic problem with Indigenous storytelling in the Canadian media.
My intent here is to challenge all journalists to thoroughly commit to education on Indigenous history and colonization – and on more than a surface historical level.
This is the role you have to play in reconciliation – and as story tellers – this role couldn’t be more important.
Stories are how we define our identity together as settlers and Indigenous peoples, and how we create a shared history together moving forward. Let’s start telling these stories in the right way.
Vanessa Ambtman-Smith is a member of the Mayor’s Poverty Panel and lives in London with her husband and two young children.