By Brandon MacLeod, Community Journalism Trainer
According to our speech notes there were still two sentences to be said.
But it was clear the truth in need of being spoken that evening had already been shared in an eloquent and powerful way. As I stood on stage next to her, Pam Chookomoolin, a freelance journalist, writer, photographer, and storyteller from Peawanuck, Ont., as well as a former Indigenous Reporters Program (IRP) trainee, had more than 350 people standing, cheering. Her words about family, the land, trauma, and inspiration had many in tears, showing their support for the truth she spoke at Journalists For Human Rights’ 2016 Night For Rights gala in Toronto.
Night For Rights is an annual fundraiser put on by JHR to celebrate furthering the cause for human rights, journalism, and empowerment around the world. This year’s celebration put the spotlight on IRP, showcasing the training and mentorship work that’s being done in First Nation communities across northern Ontario, as well as in-newsroom education on how to be a better journalist regarding coverage of Indigenous people, progress and issues.
Only two years into the program and we are seeing the positive effects in-community training can bring to new Indigenous journalists. The program can help new trainees see the value in their talents and skills. The same talents and skills used to develop and tell their own stories, and break the oppressive and colonial sentiment that settlers ought to tell the stories of Canada.
Studies and anecdotal evidence of Indigenous representation in Canadian media, such as JHR’s Buried Voices reports, demonstrate what many of us already know: Indigenous voices have indeed been buried, pushed down, devalued for decades upon decades, leaving the storytelling about Indigenous communities up to outsiders. And it’s these stories that often misrepresent Indigenous people, use a negative tone, and in many cases just get it plain wrong.
But, perhaps we are at a turning point. Things are changing. Slowly. Gradually. They are. The truth is coming out. Reconciliation is on the table, and has been accepted by many as the beginning of a new relationship in Canada, between descendants of the First Peoples of this land, and descendants of newcomers, settlers – those that through individual actions and systematic policy have for generations imposed heartache, pain, and suffering on an entire population of Indigenous people.
But, as mentioned, we are at a new place, a new time. And while the present state is nowhere near perfect and there are certainly tough times ahead, the sharing of truth and the start of reconciliation is underway.
For many, this may mean a new beginning. But for all of us who have benefitted from privilege and positions of power because of who we are or who we are not, it should mean a time to stop talking, start listening, and sincerely caring.
There are voices out there that have stayed silent much too long. Voices that have been kept quiet, kept in the dark.
It’s time to listen. The perspectives of Indigenous people have been part of the history of this land and are here to stay. They deserve the respect and appreciation that has for far too long been lacking in Canada.
Reconciliation also means sharing, coming together. The Indigenous Reporters Program is not about imposing a strict set of rules and educational boundaries on a community or individuals from the outside, but rather it is about sharing knowledge, perspectives, talents and skills.
It is about empowering one’s self to find in journalism, storytelling, and art, the paths toward sharing the stories that need to be told. While journalism is just one such path, it is a path that has many trails branching from it and at each end are more stories to be told. And with each story more power is returned to the hands of people that have been for far too long undermined by systems imposed on them from the outside.
In my two years with IRP, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with so many bright, talented, and inspiring individuals. From the aforementioned Pam, to Sam, Kayla, James, Gilbert, Mary Anne, LaRhonda, Dawn, Loreen, Caren, Cherish, Catherine, Edward, Candace, Georgette, Brandon, Gerald, Faith, Madeline and so many more. Many attracted to the idea of journalism, others have a penchant for creative writing and art. But for each of us, those few moments, days, or months shared together brought new light to both our lives in ways that will last a lifetime.
For Pam and I, after working together for more than a year and a half, through training, mentoring and even co-writing, we were invited to take part in and speak at this year’s Night For Rights gala. It was a night to remember, a night that let both of us feel the work we’ve put in is making a difference and is something to build on.
A busy mother-of-two, Pam found the time to dedicate herself to something new – training with the Indigenous Reporters Program. Her writing, interviews and photography have been shared throughout Ontario, and others reaching across Canada. She took her inborn talents, and her drive to better herself, her family, and her community, and did just that. Her stories are truth about life in the north, sincere depictions of her present perspectives on family, culture, environment, and history, and her hopes for the future.
But more than that, Pam has broken through the surface and is seeing further beyond. She is increasingly inspired by her own thoughts and the people and circumstances that surround her, near and far.
When she got up on stage that night, there was no fear, there was no hesitation, there was just the desire to speak truth to the people in front of her. And the power of her words brought them to their feet and put tears to their eyes.
“By training one journalist in a northern community through this program, the potential for hearing voices of a nation through their own perspectives becomes a reality,” said Pam. “There are over 1.4 million Indigenous people in Canada. When you empower them with a tool such as journalism can you imagine the stories that will be unlocked? Their struggles, their achievements, their history, their future. When these stories are shared there is hope in our country to learn, understand and become aware of indigenous issues.”
That is truth and reconciliation to me.
For more on the Indigenous Reporters Program, watch the program that aired at Night for Rights!