Oct. 21, 2011 — INK
REGINA—Eight years ago, academic Mark Anderson was asked to review a book on how newspapers in the United States had portrayed aboriginal people in the early 1800s. As he sifted through the research, a seed was planted in his head—one that took until this October to bloom.
“In the course of preparing the review, I wondered, ‘What has been done in Canada on this topic?’ and discovered to my deep surprise, considering how central aboriginal issues seem to be in public discourse in the country, that nothing had been done,” said Anderson, a history professor at Luther College.
Motivated by curiosity, Anderson teamed up with Carmen Robertson, a fellow University of Regina professor, and took on the task of researching the way aboriginals have been portrayed in Canadian media throughout history. The pair started doing the research themselves, obtained a federal grant, and hired research assistants. On Oct. 18, the book Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers was launched.
“With no false modesty, it is groundbreaking,” said Anderson. “And we had a sense of that going in—we realized it was an opportunity but we also had a responsibility to do it right . . . and the evidence is pretty overwhelming.”
The research is based on a survey of 42 local, regional, and national Canadian daily newspapers from 1869 to the present. The authors look at how the newspapers covered historic events like the North-West Rebellion, Bended Elbow standoff, and the Oka crisis to assess how Canada’s press has represented aboriginal people through the decades.
Their findings are worthwhile—showing that the Canadian media has played a role in perpetuating the public view of aboriginal inferiority.
“People were ready to get up and fist fight over things like trade policy with the U.S., how the railroad should be, and how Rupert’s Land should be purchased, but with respect to aboriginal people, they basically spoke with one voice,” said Anderson.
“Canada is a colonial country and it’s still alive and well. And as we found, certainly alive and well in the press,” added Robertson.
The authors concluded that today’s coverage of aboriginal affairs in Canadian media is shockingly similar to what it was 140 years ago—the coverage takes a back-seat to other news, and aboriginal people in the media are commonly associated with things like death, crime, poverty and disease.
“A lot of people would say to us, ‘Oh, (racism) was bad in the old days but it’s not bad anymore, right?’ And we would say, ‘Well actually the evidence doesn’t support that at all,’” said Anderson, who argues the evidence suggests perceptions of aboriginal inferiority are as strong now as ever.
Keith Carlson, professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, says the book is an important contribution in a country where we assume that each generation’s portrayal of aboriginal people is better than the last.
“This is important work. There are authors who have done similar sorts of things but nobody has done a nationwide survey of aboriginal people and how they are portrayed (through the Canadian media). And that makes this really different and really interesting,” said Carlson.
With no intention of blaming the media for the perpetuation of aboriginal stereotypes in Canada, the authors say the research speaks for itself.
“There’s a lot of research that demonstrates the public audience gets a great deal of what they know from the press, and it’s also true with aboriginal people,” said Anderson.
“It doesn’t mean that we think journalists are bad people or racist; there is just a kind of structure and a series of norms operating in journalism that help continue to perpetuate the myth of aboriginal inferiority.”
Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers book launch was held at Luther College on Oct.18.