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Critical Media Studies: Why Reimagine?

compiled by Cate White, University of Victoria 

for Reimagining Attawapiskat, November 2016

Situating Attawapiskat & Creating Counter Stories

In 2012, the media spotlight was cast on Attawapiskat as Chief Theresa Spence took up her hunger strike on Victoria Island in Ottawa near Parliament Hill.  This hunger strike became an iconic part of the Idle No More movement and put Chief Spence’s body on the frontlines of the fight for decolonization in Canada. Despite this moment in the spotlight, Canadian media has been reporting on Attawapiskat since at least the early 1980s. Based on an analysis of 385 Canadian mainstream media articles, the first headline to reference Attawapiskat reports that “Judges carry court into remote villages: Natives' honesty is key to justice in North” (Cruickshank, Globe and Mail). This 1984 article featured different Canadian judges speaking about how hard it is to “bring justice” to Northern indigenous communities such as Attawapiskat because they are “so isolated” and need to “evolve.” Unfortunately, this suspicious neocolonial attitude of an unevolved and isolated community has not changed much in the reporting over the last thirty years.  In the last ten years, the mainstream Canadian media has focused on Attawapiskat as a crisis zone, reporting on its “deplorable conditions” and framing it as “troubled community” that needs outside financial intervention.  This portrayal of a culturally isolated community in constant crisis has contributed to the overall suspicion that Attawapiskat is financially irresponsible and accountable for its own abject poverty and lack of housing.  Based on analysis of hundreds of Canadian mainstream media articles (i.e. Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Calgary Herald, etc.) that have referenced Attawapiskat from the past thirty years, it is evident that a discursive structure has formed around the idea of Attawapiskat as a cultural isolate that is financially irresponsible and constantly in a self-inflicted crisis.


Cultural Isolate and “Third World” Politics

The concept of a “cultural isolate” was produced by the early anthropological neocolonial method of observing cultures that have not yet been “modernized.”  The cultural isolate therefore relies on a comparison between those who are modern and colonial and those who are savage and primal.  This notion of isolation is also embedded into the way Canadian anthropologists, artists, and politicians have represented the North (i.e. Nanook of the North, Flaherty 1922). The discourse of the northern cultural isolate versus the modernized south is evident in the current mainstream reporting surrounding Attawapiskat.  In relation to its geographical location, articles spend paragraphs describing the frigid temperatures and the lack of roads leading to the community.  This isolation is then specifically related to the idea of “natives” in that it is described as “native isolation” (Simpson, Globe and Mail 2011) and a “remote native community” (Nguyen, Times Colonist 2012). This discourse of isolation is further related to the constant description of Attawapiskat as “Canada’s version of Third World” (Ross, Toronto Star 2011), isolating the issues in Attawapiskat from the rest of Canada as “Third World problems, First World Ignorance” (Allouse, Toronto Star 2011). The discourse of Attawapiskat as a condition of the “Third World” removes it from the systemic issue of Canadian neocolonialism and roots the problem as a place-based issue rooted in Attawapiskat’s inability to control and manage itself.  This shifting of blame onto the community becomes even more apparent in the discourses of economic accountability.


Blame, Shame, and Economic Accountability

Headlines such as “Aboriginals Must Solve their Own Problems” (Yaffe, Calgary Herald 2011) root the “blame” of Attawapiskat’s poverty as the irresponsibility of the community. The framing of economic value and benefits by the media focuses on extraction, with the nearby De Beers diamond mine framed as a clear source of income that the community is not capitalizing upon. Further, the colonial attitude of displacement is evidenced by several editorials that blame the people of Attawapiskat for staying in their community despite its poor living conditions. Headlines such as “Aboriginal Statistics Reveal life is better off reserve” (Milke, Calgary Herald 2011) allude to the idea that Attawapiskat residents have a choice to leave their community and that their lives would be much better through more displacement.  This discursive power of blame and shame is not only entrenched in the mainstream media reporting on Attawapiskat, but also within the way public officials discuss the issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s claim that “$90 million” (a figure that was repeated over 40 times in the 385 articles) was invested into Attawapiskat sparked a media debate with citizen letters and editorials asking where that “taxpayer” money went.  This “$90 million” figure shifted the overall conversation away from systemic understandings of colonial injustice and towards financial accountability and transparency. This discursive structure of financial accountability legitimized PM Stephen Harper’s decision to appoint a third-party financial advisor to the reserve as a response to the Chief’s declaration of a “state of emergency” over a “housing crisis.”


Crisis and State of Emergency

Attawapiskat has declared several crises and states of emergency over the last decade based on housing, suicide, and other public health issues. This emergency discourse is evident from within the community; however, much of the outside mainstream media controls the way that the accountability for these crises are presented to the Canadian public. Through the third world/cultural isolate discourse as well as the financial/economic accountability discourse, the issues in Attawapiskat are separated from any notion of systemic colonial injustice or intergenerational trauma. Therefore, when a crisis is declared it is understood to be self-inflicted and separate from the Canadian government’s responsibility and broader settler-colonial context. Moreover, this community is only ever portrayed as “in crisis” (the word crisis is found 135 times in the 385 articles) and in an “emergency” (emergency is found 117 times in the 385 articles).  There is rarely an opportunity to present the full story and truth of Attawapiskat, told by the people who live on the land.  Challenging these dominant perspectives provides the motivation behind Reimagining Attawapiskat.

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