Heading North: Sandie Benitah embarks on three week program on First Nation reserve

When I applied to be CTV’s pick for a placement with the organization Journalists For Human Rights, I was quick to say I wanted to come to Northern Ontario and spend time with Indigenous peoples in their communities.


Many (in fact, too many) asked me why I had chosen to spend time close to home when I could have done the three-week mentorship program in Africa or the Middle East.


My answer is a simple one.

Sandie boards the plane
Sandie Benitah boards a small plane in Sioux Lookout. Photo credit: Kimberley Stinson


I’m a journalist living in Toronto where there is a significant Indigenous community and I don’t know a damn thing about it. If I’m going to report on local news for a living, I need and want to be educated with context and depth. And the fact is, a 2013 study by JHR found less than one per cent (0.5) of headlines we see in Canada’s mainstream media are about issues related to these communities even though they are one of the fastest growing communities in our country.


The questions I want to explore while I am here are not so simple, I imagine: who, what, when, where and mostly importantly, why and how. The issues and history here are incredibly complex yet they are key to understanding Canada’s identity and political strategies.


With a federal election weeks away and the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and its conclusion that seven generations of Indigenous people have suffered a “cultural genocide” in this country, I hope this community will want to talk.


The toughest part about the next three weeks is not being able to report on stories in the traditional sense. My job will actually be to help Indigenous reporters living in remote communities tell their own stories so that they don’t have to rely on a mainstream journalist who has been on their reserve only for a nano-second to relay their truth.


Though it will be tough, it’s a premise I wholeheartedly agree with and respect.


I don’t know their truth and as a white woman who has grown up relatively problem-free, I never will. But I hope to come closer to it as I spend time with people in their communities and they allow me to watch and listen. I feel privileged and honoured just to have this opportunity.


Though I won’t tell their stories for them, I will be blogging about my experience in Northern Ontario, first at a fly-in community called Sandy Lake First Nations and then in Sioux Lookout where I will be teaching a social media workshop on the Lac Seul reserve. I will blog about what I see and of course, what I don’t see.

I hope what I learn here will give me enough context to move forward. When I come home, I’d like to spend time in Indigenous communities to hear what Toronto’s own have to say about their experience and what they expect from our municipal, provincial and federal governments.


I’m told that unlike urban centres, voter turnout within the Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario is unusually high. In Sandy Lake, 84 per cent of 673 eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2011 federal election.


Remote communities and the treatment of Indigenous peoples will be topics you will hear all parties talk about. It will be interesting to see how the effects of the campaign trickle down here and how the reaction flows back upstream. And most of all, how journalists in First Nations communities manage it all.

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