I was hopeful about Indigenous issues being included in the English-language leadership debate: I anticipated a tough question that knocked the leaders off their game, forced them to take a position, held them to account.
Well, that didn’t happen.
That’s my polite way of saying that the debate’s so-called Indigenous segment was a disaster.
The segment was not a discussion of “Indigenous issues” — it was about pipelines and SNC-Lavalin.
SNC-Lavalin is not an Indigenous issue, even if it did lead to the demotion and departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The Métis and Inuit were not even mentioned.
And the Bloc Québécois and People’s Party of Canada leaders spent most of their time ignoring Indigenous issues, choosing instead to argue about provincial rights.
Finally, one meaningful question came from an Indigenous woman in the audience who asked about implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ calls for justice, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
Each leader was given 40 seconds to answer.
It was laughable, but not one bit funny.
The thing is: this mattered.
Politically, we’ve been building steam, getting more access to decision-makers, opening up democracy for Indigenous peoples. And this debate set that back.
If the federal leaders can opt for a forum where they respond to soft questions in 40-second soundbites, why would they sit down for more punishing interviews with Indigenous media?
APTN is not going to give up. During these last 10 days of the election campaign, APTN News, with some help from our journalist colleagues at The Discourse, will chase down the candidates to answer as many of your questions as possible.
APTN almost didn’t need to step up in this way.
I want to share the story behind why the Indigenous segment wasn’t moderated by an Indigenous journalist, because it tells us a lot about where we’re at with reconciliation in this country’s politics and media.
APTN pushed for an Indigenous journalist to moderate.
On the day of the debate Canadaland broke the behind-the-scenes scandal: APTN’s request for an Indigenous moderator was turned down.
Instead a CBC producer made an offer. APTN could have a reporter at the debate if they held a microphone for an audience member while the audience member asked a question.
APTN‘s Executive Director of News and Current Affairs Cheryl McKenzie dismissed the offer as an insult, saying her reporters are not “human mic stands.”
Damn right they are not mic stands.
Full disclosure: I worked at APTN, most recently in McKenzie’s role.
APTN reporters compete with the best. They’ve won more awards per capita than any other newsroom. They have fewer resources to work with, yet they’ve set the agenda for Indigenous news in Canada for 20 years.
They earned their place in the industry through talent and hard work.
Perhaps the reconciliation question that needs to be asked is not only for the political candidates, but also for the media involved.
But this matters beyond the insult from competing media, beyond the discrimination. There’s a bigger picture here.
APTN has been building momentum, pushing forward Indigenous inclusion in Canadian democracy. Last election, for the first time, it secured meaningful interviews with three out of the then-four national parties.
When the mainstream media rushed thoughtlessly into that space by pushing Indigenous reporters out of the leadership debate, they damaged the momentum APTN was building.
Perhaps it was a mistake for APTN to ask for a seat at the table in the English-language debate. APTN was built to be an outlier. When Indigenous people could not get mainstream media to take them seriously, they built a newsroom of their own.
Maybe this is the institutional change we need in Canada right now. Not inclusion, but our own institutions. Until inclusion is meaningful.
Next election let’s hope for a separate debate on Indigenous issues, organized and moderated by independent Indigenous media.
In the meantime, tell us what questions you want us to put to the politicians, and APTN will keep working hard, as the outliers that they are, to put your perspective on the agenda.
Set The Agenda is a collaborative journalism project between The Discourse, APTN and Hearken with support from partners including Inspirit Foundation and the Facebook Journalism Project. Support for the project does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.