Grassy Narrows community newsroom holds politicians to account

By Elizabeth McSheffrey

On Monday, a team of local reporters in Grassy Narrows published four news stories within two hours, using shared laptops in a classroom with intermittent Internet access.

I phrase it this way because I’m impressed — in the midst of resource challenges and a steep uphill learning curve, the participants in my media skills program have learned to report on tight deadlines, in a news cycle similar to your average weekly community newspaper.

It’s been just over a month since I launched the program at the First Nation’s Ontario Works office, and I’ll be honest, I put a lot of pressure on those who attend. Most of the classmates are new to writing, and some are new to working with computers altogether.

But with two, three-hour classes per week, we’ve sped through the basics of interviewing, hard news writing, journalism ethics, photography and website design. Together, we even built a community news site for Grassy Narrows — — which we update weekly with the latest news and events.

The participants in this program, while apprehensive at first, have risen marvelously to the occasion. They’re pitching story ideas and sharing interesting news articles they’ve read outside of class. Over five weeks, our numbers have grown from two individuals to a rotation of 12.

Their skills were put to the test for the first time last week when Grassy Narrows received a surprise visit from federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and the NDP critic for Indigenous youth, Charlie Angus, on Sept. 24. We found out in the first 10 minutes of class that they would be stopping by, and unanimously decided to cut our lunch short so we could scrum them outside the Minnowsaywin Building, a community meeting space.

Jagmeet Singh and Community Trainnes
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus take a selfie with local reporters in Grassy Narrows during a visit to the community on Mon. Sept. 24, 2018. Together, they chatted about how to clean up mercury in the First Nation’s land and water system, and ways to ensure that the local school is adequately resourced. Photo by Steve Land.

During their visit, Mr. Singh and Mr. Angus spoke with Chief and Council about the mercury contamination that has plagued the First Nation since the early 1960s. He also spoke with school officials about the staffing needs that weren’t being met as a result of inadequate federal funding.

In response to questions from our reporting class during the scrum, Mr. Singh made the following promise:

“One of the big things we heard is that there’s been some commitments at the provincial level, but there’s been no commitment at the federal level to actually do anything to clean up the mercury.

“And what we need is a commitment, and so I would, if I was prime minister, make that commitment. Let’s put federal dollars into cleaning up the water, protecting the environment and giving the people the justice they deserve in this land.”

Mr. Singh further decried the inequality in education funding between non-Indigenous and Indigenous children, and asserted that the federal government has an “even higher responsibility” in Grassy Narrows, where up to 80 per cent of children face additional learning barriers as a result of physical, behavioural and cognitive symptoms from mercury poisoning.

After a few quick selfies, quotes in hand, we rushed back to the newsroom at Ontario Works to scribble up the story. We talked at length about the significance of having such a promise documented on the record by the community.

Freddie Meeseewaypetung interviews Jagmeet Singh
Freddie Meeseewaypetung interviews federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and NDP critic for Indigenous Youth Charlie Angus on the steps of the Minnowsaywin Buliding in Grassy Narrows on Mon. Sept. 24, 2018. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey

If Mr. Singh is elected prime minister in 2019, they agreed that their work could be used to hold his feet to the fire on commitments made to the people of Grassy Narrows that very day.

Read the article, written by Arnold Pahpasay, Geraldine Fobister, Kenny Scott, Darius Pahpasay, and Freddie Meeseewaypetung here:

Mr. Singh’s visit bore fruit for my class: photos from the event, taken by one of the participants in the media skills program, Steve Land, were published by the Lake of the Woods Enterprise newspaper and Q104 radio station in Kenora, Ont.. A photo of all the class participants and Mr. Singh was used in a national news release distributed by the NDP.

 A photo of the media skills program Steve Land was published in the Lake of the Woods Enterprise on Thurs. Sept. 27, 2018.
A photo of the media skills program participants and federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh taken by Steve Land was published in the Lake of the Woods Enterprise on Thurs. Sept. 27, 2018.

Mr. Singh and Mr. Angus further used testimony collected during their visit to press Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directly during Question Period in the House of Commons on mercury justice for Grassy Narrows on Sept. 27.

In response, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott reiterated the federal government’s support for Grassy Narrows and its upcoming mercury treatment centre. She also vowed to “immediately” look into the reason that special education funding for the school in Grassy Narrows has recently been cut.

Watch the exchange here:

And read it here:

In addition to these achievements, I think the experience armed reporters in the media skills program with the confidence needed to write stories, conduct interviews and publish their own work. This was their first reporting rodeo, and I’m proud to say they seized the opportunity and ran with it.

Mr. Singh is not the first politician to make promises to Grassy Narrows, nor will he be the last. But with regular community reporting that raises the voices of the people here, and serves as a documented record of what’s been said, perhaps in the future, it will be more difficult for governments to leave such promises unkept.

Community journalism training is an integral part of JHR’s larger Indigenous Reporters Program. In-community training in Ontario is generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

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