On March 25, 2013, the front page of the Toronto edition of 24 Hours, a free daily newspaper, featured a photo of a cheerleader performing during a tryout. That photo was about nine times the size of a little box to the top-right entitled, ‘Pushing the feds for funding’. The article, printed on page 9, indicated that critics of Thursday’s federal budget expressed disappointment that no new funding was provided for First Nations education. The government has instead formulated a workfare program which will trade social assistance for compulsory work. Unlike the extra education funding, this new initiative won’t be delayed.
On March 25th, all major Canadian news organizations were discussing the anticipated arrival of about 300 Nishiyuu walkers, the original 7 Cree youth having trekked 1,600 km (1,000 miles) from Northern Quebec to the nation’s capital to offer support for the Idle No More movement and to highlight the issues facing First Nations communities. Surely Canada’s most disadvantaged peoples, who are facing an unprecedented and unrelenting attack on their sovereignty and rights, deserve more attention than a cheerleader tryout. Covering the Journey of the Nishiyuu would have been a relatively neutral task, politically speaking; how can anyone struggle to justify commending a band of young people who’ve completed such a harrowing journey, and whose positive message inspires admiration, pride and hope for many Canadians, including non-aboriginals?
Perhaps 24 Hours intended to cover the story the following day. After all, the Nishiyuu walkers were expected to arrive in Ottawa sometime in the afternoon, greeted by 2,000 excited fans (according to the RCMP’s count). Although the mainstream media has been accused of underreporting on Idle No More by failing to assign major coverage or providing insufficient context, or by misrepresenting the movement and its prominent figures, this was most certainly not the case yesterday as evident by the considerable buzz the Nishiyuu generated.
But not only did the March 26 edition of 24 Hours plaster its front page with a photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper looking down at a caged panda, one of two loaned from China, there was no mention of First Nations or the Nishiyuu on the front page. The cover also features Beyonce, Dido and a financial advice piece. An article about the walkers was relegated to page 5, following segments about said pandas, Toronto transit planning and a smartphone game that attracted the negative attention of Ontario’s Premier because its aim was to have the user build a natural gas pipeline without making people sick or blowing up. As for the pandas, it bears mentioning (no pun intended) that they were offered to Canada while Harper was on a trade mission to China in February 2012, presumably as a preemptive ‘Thank You’ for signing the controversial Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA). Not unrelated to this issue in its own right, the free trade agreement has serious implications for First Nations, who have launched numerous Supreme Court cases in order to assert their constitutional rights.
So why would 24 Hours bury what other media outlets deemed to be a major story? It turns out that the newspaper is owned by Sun Media Corporation, which is infamous for its sensationalist headlines and for unleashing “straight talk” in an insensitive (at times downright ignorant) manner when discussing essentially any group of people who are not assimilated into mainstream society or value some measure of political correctness. A special brand of vitriol is reserved for their representations of aboriginal people, which has resulted in predictable clashes. It doesn’t help that Sun Media refuses to discourage or manage racist comments on their websites whereas other media sites moderate and filter them.
What about our Prime Minister, then? He was out of town, but he does use Twitter – so did he offer his congratulations to these brave young people? Nope. This is what he thought the world should know:
For Harper, pandas were a convenient distraction. Whatever methods First Nations people and their supporters leverage in the future in order to have their voices heard, remember that the person in charge of the country purposefully ignored the heroic Nishiyuu walkers and their relevance to Canadian culture and democracy. Harper’s silence does more than demonstrate his character as an individual; it confirms what most of us already know about his agenda regarding First Nations people: he doesn’t care about them. Not at all.
What he has underestimated is that the Journey of the Nishiyuu and the broader Idle No More movement are an unstoppable force. We can expect to see many more expressions of resistance and support for indigenous self-determination and unity over the coming months, as organizers ready themselves for a summer of action. The real story here isn’t about how our indigenous peoples have been abused and disregarded. It’s about how they are triumphing – and will triumph. It is because of this, and only because of this, that Canada may yet have a bright future.