The National Media and the AFN’s “Angry Indians”

It’s an auspicious week for the Assembly of First Nations. The AFN’s Annual General Assembly will either re-elect Shawn Atleo as National Chief or select one of seven challengers to lead the organization through the next three years.

Today’s vote is the culmination of a relatively short and mostly unexciting campaign, yet it is one that has nonetheless caught the attention of some in the national media, in particular, the two Johns: John Ibbiston of the Globe and Mail and John Ivison of the National Post. Each have filed a number of stories. Interestingly, both writers share a remarkable and disappointing similarity: a very apparent tendency to cast the field of candidates as angry, ungrateful militants.

Rather than mask some kind of agenda, Ibbiston’s inaugural AFN-related piece (“Shawn Atleo appears unchallenged in push for native-education reform”) on June 18 perhaps demonstrates the writer’s lack of qualifications to report on First Nations politics. The Globe veteran illustrated this sophomoric understanding when he confidently asserted that, “barring an unexpected last-minute challenger, Shawn Atleo will be acclaimed for a second three-year stint as National Chief to the Assembly of First Nations.” Not only was Ibbitson very poorly informed at the time of his assessment that Atleo would go “unchallenged,” but the field vying for the National Chief position actually became the largest in the organization’s history.

Ibbitson’s second article (“Native leaders risk missing their moment of greatest influence”) a month later was an outright endorsement of Atleo and marked the beginning of this trend. For Ibbitson, Atleo was the wise decision because his opponents are “militant.” More than that, Ibbitson employed some awkward demographic analysis (the First Nations population will flat-line at some point and increasing immigrant populations will have little ‘guilt’ to compel justice for first peoples) as a veiled warning to Chiefs that they should “bear in mind a future of steadily diminishing influence as they choose the next leader of their Assembly.”

While Ibbiston’s third piece (“Atleo’s second term as AFN chief hinges on 250 votes”) on July 18 largely offered an overview of the AFN Annual General Assembly’s Day One proceedings, as well as some soft predictions on voting, he yet again managed to frame Atleo’s challengers as “determined to set Canada’s native people on a more emphatic path of confrontation with the federal government,” and “(speaking) repeatedly about colonization, occupation, victimization.” In these latter two articles, National Chief contenders Gabriel, Kelly, Nelson, et al. continue to be cast as angry, perhaps wrongfully so. In that sense, they are unappreciative as well.

The National Post coverage has been equally problematic. Leading it has been John Ivison, who has won few fans over the past week. At the end of Day One’s proceedings, he joked to the Toronto Star’s Tanya Talaga via Twitter, “my security detail should have arrived by [the morning], leaving me plenty of time to don my body armour before entering the breach.” Ivison’s remark is an apparent reference to the general disdain accumulating among Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Ojibwe peoples for his reporting of the leadership contest, candidates and commentators alike, calling his writing “right-wing propaganda” and “ignorant.”

Like Ibbitson, Ivison is squarely in the Atleo camp. In “The fight for the soul of the AFN” (July 16), Ivison notes that “only in native politics could securing the Prime Minister’s undivided attention for a day, and hooking hundreds of millions of dollars at a time of austerity, be considered a sellout.” Moreover, and not unlike Ibbitson, Ivision depicts many if not all of Atleo’s seven challengers as radicals who discuss issues like sovereignty, which he deems to be “only a recipe for gridlock.” This perspective encourages two assumptions; firstly, the notion that Dene, Cree and Cayuga peoples are currently well treated, and secondly, that only those issues that the federal government is interested in talking about actually matter.

While Ivison happily provides candidates his advice, he has tremendous difficulty listening to them in turn. Following his July 16 column, leadership candidate and professor Pam Palmater criticized the writer for twisting her words and the facts; subsequently, in his July 18 piece, “Candidates talk of anger and injustice,” Ivison persisted with his theme. Quoting candidate Bill Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people.”

Ivison then goes on to use the sentiment as a way of framing the candidates as threatening to Canadians. But, in fact, Ivison cut Erasmus off. Had he included the full quote from Erasmus,

“I’ve travelled across this country and what I’ve seen more than anything is anger. We have angry people but we have to contain that anger. It’s not the way (forward) [emphasis mine]”

one would readily see that the speaker’s full intent and implication are very different from what Ivision would have his readers imagine. Clearly, the foundation of Ivison’s entire article is built on a butchered quote, one originally pleading for reconciliation, not confrontation.

But it would seem what Erasmus actually said — what any of the candidates actually said — doesn’t really matter to Ibbitson or Ivison. Investigating the anger that does exist in any earnest way (as opposed to excusing it) or covering the candidates’ many expressions of love and hope and sadness (instead of solely frustration) is outside the already constructed narrative of The Angry Indian. Whether the narrative is naturally transposed onto this situation or is being exploited to strategically support Atleo is unclear. Still, a partial answer may be found in Ibbitson’s most recent column (July 18: “Native leaders ponder the path of most resistance”) where he notes “the AFN inhabits a world not easily recognized by those outside the Native community.”

In Ibbitson’s case, truer words were never written.