Covering aboriginal issues: Tips from TRC commissioner Marie Wilson


Staff Reporter

February 23, 2016

TRC commissioner and former journalist Marie Wilson delivers this year’s 2016 Atkinson lecture on covering aboriginal issues at the Ryerson School of Journalism. [Ilina Ghosh]

Journalists must embrace their role as educators when reporting on indigenous issues and recognize how their work shapes perceptions, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson said during this year’s Atkinson lecture at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

In her address, Wilson drew upon lessons she learned over many years as a CBC journalist and, more recently, the six and a half years she spent as one of three TRC commissioners.

“Recognize the extraordinary value of the space you have been given – your column inches, your air time, your video frames, your Twitter characters, your hashtags,”  she urged the journalism students, professors and professionals in the audience.

“Use your spaces well, as teachers. Despite all the new and emerging technologies, despite all the fracturing of journalistic audiences, you are still teaching in some of the biggest classrooms in the world. And the people you are serving are still learning, one person at a time.”

The TRC investigated Canadian residential schools, which for more than a century, forcibly removed generations of aboriginal children from their communities. Established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s mandate was also to educate the public about the residential school system and help its survivors heal.

The TRC heard from more than 6,750 witnesses and issued 94 calls to action, including three directly related to media and journalists.  It called upon the federal government to restore and increase funding to the CBC/Radio-Canada so that it can reflect the diverse cultures, languages and perspectives of Aboriginal Peoples; it called upon the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network to support reconciliation; and it called upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to make it mandatory for students to learn about aboriginal history.

Wilson outlined a list of best practices for journalists covering indigenous people and issues. She said, for instance, that it is essential for journalists to recognize the significance of the residential schools when reporting on the victims, the survivors, the TRC or its calls to action.

“Recognize the enormity of what happened in those schools and the question that helps people grasp the enormity: ‘what if it was my child? What if it was you?’”  she said.

“Recognize the enormity of the settlement agreement, the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history. Think of how many things that we report on that are historic, that are precedent setting, and yet [this,] we underplay it, we mostly don’t know it. I am told by legal experts… that it’s actually the largest collective reparation package in the history of the world.”


Wilson says listening patiently and understanding Aboriginal history are important when covering Aboriginal issues. [Ilina Ghosh]
Wilson says listening patiently and understanding aboriginal history are important when covering related issues. [Ilina Ghosh]

Wilson also urged journalists to:

Build trust by learning and respecting the rules and practices of each indigenous community

Wilson drew upon her TRC experience to illustrate what’s involved in building trust: “We held hearings in every region of the country, in all its indigenous diversity. We needed to respect particular protocols of where we were. We needed to know how to acknowledge the place and the elders. We needed to know how to introduce ourselves and by what relationships that were important to the gathering.”

It is also important to explain the process to people and how their words will be used, she added.

“We needed to explain the role of everyone in the room, the part that they would play, how it would work, what it was for, where their words would go… and most importantly, why they should trust [us] with their story.”

Explain the context

Providing background and context for issues is necessary to tell a complete and accurate story, Wilson says.

“Far too often we see, hear and read stories that start in the middle, move around in the middle and end in the middle. Context makes all the difference” when it comes to combatting the many misconceptions that surround issues affecting indigenous people, she said.

“Many journalists in this country still have not grasped [what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is.] We hear the word commission and we go into automatic pilot, saying ‘Oh I understand commissions, governments make commissions.’”

In fact, she reminded the audience, the TRC was a hard-won victory for “the victims who fought their way through the legal structures of our country and then fought the parties around the negotiating table for an out-of-court agreement to have a truth and reconciliation commission.”

Listen patiently

Wilson said that listening patiently, despite deadlines, is essential to the practice of good journalism.

“I assure you that if you can’t do that, you’ll miss the heart of the story,” she warned.

As a commissioner, she said she worked to create a safe space for victims to tell their stories and urged journalists to do the same: “We had to listen with our hearts and we had to make it safe for people to speak from theirs.

“All the adults and elders who came to speak to us, they were children when the things they told us about happened to them, [but] often they would even switch their verb tense from past to present: ‘I don’t want to be here. I want my mum and dad. I want to go home and I can’t go home. Why can’t they treat us with kindness instead of… [as]cattle,’” she recalled.

Find something good to balance all the darkness

Find positive stories in addition to the painful stories, Wilson said.

“We made a point of always including cultural celebrations and made sure we had lifted [up our moods] by the time we left at the end of the day. [We recognized] those things that had not been destroyed, that were in resurrection, in resurgence, that were being reclaimed and re-celebrated.”

Work with your team and fight for what you know

While it is important to work with others in your newsroom, “fight for what you know and especially what you know to be important,” Wilson told the audience. “Everyone has their gifts and everyone has their expertise and do not let yours be drowned out by someone who has worked in a place longer or who has a higher rank.”

She said this played out at the TRC when commissioners were deciding on the calls to action: “It was not a hard push, but I was the one who fought for those calls related to journalism because I know what I know about journalism… and its power.”

Learn your history

Wilson says journalists reporting on indigenous issues need to understand the past to write about the present.

“Know your history and if you don’t know it and have not been taught it… which is the case sadly for most Canadians in this country – learn it. Remedial learning is not bad learning,” she said.

Journalists need to know about colonial treaties, modern day treaties, and settlement agreements and also familiarize themselves with the TRC report and its calls to action, she said, because “you need to know those things to understand the foundation of Canada.”

Get the facts straight

“At the end of the commission, we still didn’t have some of the basics right in the reporting about the commission,” Wilson said, pointing to an editorial published by the Globe and Mail days after the TRC released its calls to action. While the editorial was supportive of the commission’s report and urged the government to improve the conditions of Canada’s indigenous population, it also suggested then-prime minister Stephen Harper created the TRC.

Yet as Wilson pointed out, “in fact, that is not true, not in the proper context and not in spirit.”

“[The Harper government] should not get to claim the credit of establishing the commission that it and some of the Catholic entities resisted,” Wilson said. “So it’s critically important that you honour that very first rule of journalism, get it right.”

Stay vigilant

“Don’t get tired of the issue just because you’ve told it once,” Wilson said. “Find fresh angles, new perspectives and… unheard voices.”

The media must hold governments accountable when it comes to their promises and look at past stories with a new lens of reconciliation, she added.

“Go outside of your subject matter expertise, beyond your comfort zone… Give everyone a chance to speak, not just the noisy ones who are flapping their arms. Notice the quiet ones in the corners of our country,” Wilson said.

“Tell stories more than once, as many times as it takes for people to begin to understand.”


Wilson’s presentation can be viewed here.