Re-righting the Narrative

By Ara Sauvage, Community Journalism Trainer

“2 Empower Creativity Thru Media” by one of the participants at an Intro to Media Workshop in Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation, Ontario

The title of my thesis for my honours BA in Religion was “The Myth of Myth and Native Mythology.” I started off with a quote from Oglala Lakota leader Black Elk, who said the First Nations knew the one true god and prayed to it continuously. This was a thinly veiled response to the colonizers’ belief that the First Nations were heathens who didn’t know god, because it seemed completely unlike their Christian “God”. Black Elk was addressing the original assumption that had dehumanized the First Nations, which is at the crux of the stereotypes that led to the current situation of the First Peoples of the “Americas”.

The purpose of my thesis was to rewrite the narrative on the pejorative use of the term “Native Mythology” to refer to the religion of the original peoples. At the time, what the First Nations were doing spiritually was seen and written about academically as a “primitive” religion based on fantastical myths that could not possibly be true. Basically, toeing the line of the early colonizers’ reasoning that the original people didn’t know “God” ergo it was ok to see them as less-than-equal to others.

At the required meeting with the Dean of my program, where I proposed my thesis topic, it was dismissed with a wave of her hand, almost as if I had blown smoke in her face. Then she virtually pat me on the head with a condescending voice and advised me to compare and contrast two myths instead.

Somewhat irked by her response but completely undeterred, instead I broke down the purpose of, and examined what was being transmitted in, a myth, and the mediums in which it was being transmitted. In essence, I pointed out the Western cultural assumptions and double standards that were being used to relegate the spirituality of the First Nations as “primitive”.

That was in 1998.  

Over the past couple of months in my position as a journalism trainer, I have been asked why I’m here and what I’m doing too many times to count. My response has usually been somewhat long-winded and wordy, centering around the mission of JHR, empowering community members to share their human rights stories so that the rest of the world knows and can hold authorities accountable. I talk about how representation matters and I emphasize that we, as First Nations, are the only ones who can speak of the socio-cultural context of the issues that affect us. I talk about how getting our stories out there will help bring about change for the better. And, of course, I let them know that I am not here as a journalist to write about their stories, as they are not my stories to share.

I have wondered if I’m being too wordy in my explanation, as it seems people lose interest while I’m talking. I’ve realized that at its core, I am here to help community members take control of the First Nations narrative that has been based on the assumptions and stereotypes that have been propagated since long before I wrote my thesis – and long before Sir John A. MacDonald regularly publicly referred to the First Nations as “savages” and “problems” that needed to be eliminated. Wrestling control of the narrative is not an easy task when you take into account that a mere 21 years ago, even the academics were still caught up in perpetuating the colonial narrative and stereotypes.

Change doesn’t happen overnight though, so I’m here to help them use all the forms of media at their disposal to be part of rewriting the narrative.

My latest workshops provide an introduction to media primarily for younger millennials who have their high school diploma but are unemployed and unsure of what career paths they want to pursue. While none had originally expressed an interest in journalism, the objective of the workshops is for them to learn about career opportunities within media through classroom style learning mixed with hands-on practice and mini-projects. I, of course, hope that some may want to delve further into journalism once this round of workshops is done. I mostly hope they will want to be part of the narrative through any form of media that works for them. They don’t have to be journalists to post their thoughts, photos and videos on social media, they don’t have to be journalists to create works of art that people will take photos or videos of and share on social media, all of which can affect change.

So, when asked why I am here, my reply has morphed. I find myself talking in quotes and 140 characters because my long-winded-wordiness doesn’t hit the mark. I keep it real and get straight to the point.

I repeat JHR’s slogan and explain how mobilizing media can change lives; that the pen is mightier than the sword; that only they can tell their stories; and that those who hold the power are controlling the First Nations narrative.  

And then, I cite Canadian federal Justice Michel Shore reportedly telling “the gallery non-Indigenous people were harmed more than Indigenous survivors by the Sixties Scoop and other historic events because they caused non-Indigenous people to lose their reverence for the land and nature” at the hearing settlement for survivors of the Sixties Scoop in 2018.

I point out that this Judge, who is a representative of the federal government that apologized for the horrors of the Residential School System 11 years ago, the same government that is supposedly committed to Reconciliation after admitting the error of their ways in trying to eliminate the so-called “Indian Problem”, is now trying to rewrite the narrative so that the First Nations didn’t suffer as much harm as the non-Natives. This, even though the government now knows of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse that came with the Residential Schools and adoption of First Nations children into non-Native families, and of the cultural genocide it committed through these “historic events”.

And I point out that even though they appoint and pay the judges, no one within the government will publicly comment on what the Canadian Judiciary Council (CJC)  does or does not do. And as the CJC has refused to look into or respond to any of the legally filed complaints against Justice Shore, I take it to mean they agree with what he said.

I also share part of  Stephen Harper’s apology from 2008 on behalf of the Canadian Government for the Residential School system, which encompasses the very definition of colonialism, then share what Harper said at the G20 summit just over a year later: that Canada has no history of colonialism.  

My explanation is still a bit long-winded at times, but it does get, and keep, their interest. They know better than anyone about living with the day-to-day realities of the intergenerational trauma of the Residential School System and the Sixties Scoop. They know they have suffered more than Justice Shore and the non-Natives because they know they experience the reality of Canada’s history of colonialism every single day.

And I know I have no desire to be like the dean who once tried to stifle me. So, who knows if any of them will want to pursue journalism at the end of these workshops. The fact that they are coming to the workshops, that they are experimenting with different mediums and sharing their results is pretty awesome. They are also processing what the media is reporting on, and the different ways they can take part in the narrative. And who knows what change that will have in the long run.

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