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Representing Reconciliation

by Dr. Rosemary Nagy on 2013-05-03

Representing Reconciliation

By Rosemary Nagy and Emily Gillespie*

 

When the Prime Minister offered his historic apology in 2008 for Indian Residential Schools, an Environics benchmark survey found that only half of Canadians had read or heard something about the schools (Environics, 2008, p. ii).   Nevertheless, the survey found that two-thirds of Canadians believed (and four in ten strongly believed) that they had a role to play in reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, even if they had no direct experience in Indian Residential Schools themselves.  The survey also found that “Canadians generally understand the word, “reconciliation” to mean closure/forgiveness or “moving on,” awareness/understanding of the issue, improving relations between Aboriginal people and other Canadians, or making amends/apologizing” (ibid., p. iii).

Thus, despite limited knowledge and understanding of Indian Residential Schools, Canadians were, at least in 2008, favourably inclined toward reconciliation and willing to become involved.  While Canadians’ generally supportive stance toward reconciliation provides grounds for optimism, the survey also raises concern about the nature of people’s expectations and their understandings of truth and reconciliation.  Moreover, the findings make very clear the importance of the TRC’s mandate to “[p]romote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts” and to “[a]cknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences.”  But what kind of impact is the TRC having?  Is its message getting out there?  And, moreover, what kinds of messages are people receiving?

To delve into these questions, we decided to analyze media coverage of Indian Residential Schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).   The media play an important role in any democratic society, disseminating information, educating citizens, shaping public opinion, and acting as a watchdog (Bennett 2012; Hackett and Gruneau 2000).  In the specific context of truth commissions seeking to deal with legacies of injustice and abuse, we considered research from other countries that showed the important role that the media might play in shaping collective memory (or “truth”) and societal attitudes toward reconciliation (Laplante and Phenicie 2009).  Thus, we reasoned that analyzing Canadian media coverage would give us a sense of mainstream understandings of “truth and reconciliation” in the case of Indian Residential Schools.  We rely on the idea of “representation” to talk about how truth and reconciliation are being presented to the public; we are not making claims about what Canadians actually say they believe.  Nevertheless, we suggest that media representations can both shape and reflect societal understandings and attitudes.

Photo by Naomi Angel at http://tracingmemory.com/2010/07/24/toronto-star-no-truth-no-reconciliation/photo by Naomi Angel at http://tracingmemory.com/2010/07/24/toronto-star-no-truth-no-reconciliation/ 


The Relationship between Truth and Reconciliation

Without truth, there can be no reconciliation.  But how we tell the “truth” of historic injustice and abuse will naturally shape our subsequent understandings of the path toward reconciliation.  For example, survey respondents in 2008, while aware of cultural loss, were most likely to recall abuse and molestation of Aboriginal children as the main feature of Indian Residential Schools (Environics 2008, p. 14).  And, not unsurprisingly in our view, respondents subsequently also identified the provision of counseling as the best way to contribute to reconciliation (p. 26).  While we do not dispute that the healing of childhood trauma is crucially important, this is a fairly narrow vision when compared to arguments that locate the “truth” of the IRS system in colonization and genocide and understand reconciliation to also involve decolonization and long-term structural change (see Chrisjohn and Young 2006; Jung 2011; Nagy 2013).

Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young (2006) argue that the “Standard Account” frames Indian Residential Schools as a “mistake” motivated by sincere intentions on the part of Churches and state. While these organizations show “contrition” for individual instances of abuse, there is also a tendency in this account to “pathologize” survivors and to ignore the systemic contexts of colonialism, racism and the crime of genocide (ibid).  In contrast, were these systemic contexts incorporated into what Chrisjohn and Young call the “Alternate Account” of Indian Residential schools, a more profound approach to reconciliation is enabled: one that recognizes reconciliation as a “settler problem,” not “an Indian problem” (Regan 2010).  In framing the IRS in relation to the broader injustices imposed on Indigenous people by settler colonialism, reconciliation and healing subsequently necessitate changing those very conditions that continue to exist (see Episkenew 2009).

 

Media Representations

The Environics benchmark survey found that people “were most likely to cite mass media when asked how they heard about Indian residential schools,” with numbers splitting evenly between newspaper and television (p.15).  We decided to focus on the print media from the period January 2010 to December 2012.[1]  Our analysis looks at two newspapers, The Globe and Mail (G&M), a national newspaper with a readership over 700,000, and the Winnipeg Free Press (WFP), the local newspaper where the TRC is headquartered.  We selected these two newspapers in order to have a rounded sample to consider what representations are being conveyed both locally and nationally. We also imagined that coverage in the local Winnipeg context would be more invested in a certain narrative in comparison to a national paper.  Indeed, while we found that the G&M had more articles covering truth and reconciliation than the National Post (Canada’s other national newspaper) or Toronto Star (Canada’s most widely read newspaper), it was the WFP that featured op-eds by prominent persons and had far more coverage than any other mainstream newspaper.  In the end, we decided to limit our analysis to feature-length articles (500 words or more) from both newspapers, and we reviewed 14 articles in total.

 Borrowing from media and cultural studies, we used the idea of “framing” to understand how Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation are being represented.  Framing theory alerts us to the ways in which writers and editors give some aspects of a newspaper story greater meaning over others.   This is done through conscious or unconscious decisions about who or what is included in a story and how they are depicted.   We created a chart (see below) to guide our analysis, hypothesizing that framing techniques frequently deployed in the media that serve to reduce and simplify a story would align with the “Standard Account” of Indian Residential schools.  In contrast, we reasoned that the “Alternate Account” of Indian Residential Schools, that which engages truth and reconciliation more deeply, would use framing techniques based in journalism oriented toward peace, social justice and conflict resolution (see McMahon and Chow-White 2011).

 

How is the “truth” of IRS framed and represented?

Standard Account: Reductive framing

Alternate Account: Expansive framing

Individualization: the focus on a single person detracts from political and social contexts and events

Contextualization: reporting on the systemic, invisible and/or collective effects of IRS, colonialism and racism

 Fragmentation: “sketchy, dramatic capsules of information” make it difficult “to see the causes of problems, their historical significance, or the connections across issues” (Bennett 2012, p. 47)

Comprehensive reporting: connections are drawn between crisis events and the presence of historic and continuous inequalities

 Stereotyping: stories rely upon biased and sweeping characterizations of groups of people

 

 Diversifying: stereotypes are challenged and people are presented in their complexity

Dramatization: sensationalization in order to gain the reader’s attention; Aboriginal people are represented as helpless, emotional victims

Authentication: narratives of community leadership, resilience and self-determination are included; Aboriginal people are represented as having agency


Our main finding was that, taking all 14 articles as a whole, the media representation of Indian Residential Schools falls somewhere in between the Standard and Alternate accounts.  We call this the “Semi-fragmented Account” because, while the language of “mistakes” is never used, the term “genocide,” although invoked twice, is never explained and the larger colonial backdrop is barely addressed.  While some articles veered toward dramatized representations of victims of abuse (as weeping uncontrollably, for example), overall they fairly consistently drew a connection between abuse and the larger project of assimilation and/or cultural destruction.  Survivors are depicted as courageous for sharing their stories; pain is not connected to weakness or powerlessness.  Stereotypes are challenged insofar as individual and community dysfunctions are directly connected to Indian Residential Schools. Yet, at the same time, the articles’ focus on the voices of survivors and Aboriginal leaders may be interpreted as framing the IRS as an “Aboriginal issue,” and not a settler issue. (Indeed, the term “settler” never appears, which is itself significant.)

 Reconciliation is overwhelmingly framed as public education.  There is some messaging about “truth” being a “new chapter” in our history books that will subsequently enable closure, healing and moving on.  In our view, the closure narrative, which the government seems to articulate frequently, too easily alleviates settler responsibility for recognizing and dismantling colonial structures.  Some of the media representations of reconciliation challenge the closure narrative, noting that history cannot be quickly undone and that “reconciliation is a long-term project.”   But rather than focusing on structural change, they situate the next step as education. At the same, the government is held to account as needing to be involved in the process.  While public education is clearly needed, it is framed as the only necessary response.  Yet, as Paulette Regan argues, ““truth and education [are] not enough, action is also required” (2010, p.49).   Given the media’s role in circulating a “Semi-fragmented Account” of Indian Residential Schools, we fear there may be inherent limitations to what “truth” might promote vis-à-vis reconciliation.  That is, while the media may be educating Canadians by linking IRS abuse and molestation to systemic assimilation, this representation is not situated in the contexts of genocide or ongoing colonization.


Concluding Reflections

We want to emphasize that our study is a work-in-progress, and one with clear limitations. Our method of selecting articles may have filtered out articles that link Indian Residential Schools to, for example, the missing Aboriginal women, chronic gaps in quality of life between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens, or underfunding of First Nations education and child welfare.  We also have not examined the extent to which media coverage may be shaped by what the TRC delivers in its press releases, social media, events and interviews.  Yet, it is nonetheless our sense that media representations of reconciliation, while an improvement over what may have passed as “truth” fifteen years ago (i.e. the Standard Account), still fall short of challenging Canadians to think about Indian Residential Schools in expansive terms that position reconciliation as requiring decolonization.

 

Works Cited

Bennett, Lance. 2012. News: The Politics of Illusion. 9 ed. New York: Longman.

Chrisjohn, Roland D., and Sherri L. Young. 2006. Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential Schools Experience in Canada. 2 ed. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books.

Environics. 2008. 2008 National Benchmark Survey. Ottawa.

Episkenew, Jo-Ann. 2009. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous literature, public policy and healing. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.

Hackett, Robert, and Richard Gruneau. 2000. The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press. Ottawa/Aurora: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives/Garamond.

Jung, Courtney. 2011. "Canada and the Legacy of the Indian Residential Schools: Transitional Justice for Indigenous Peoples in a Non-Transitional Society." In Identities in Transition: Challenges for Transitional Justice in Divided Societies, ed. Paige Arthur. New York: Cambridge University Press. 217-250.

Laplante, Lisa J., and Kelly Phenicie. 2009. Media, Trials and Truth Commissions: Mediating Reconciliation in Peru's Transitional Justice Process. International Journal of Transitional Justice 4 (2): 207-229.

McMahon, Rob, and Peter Chow-White. 2011. New Media Encoding of Racial Reconciliation: Developing a Peace Journalism Model for the Analysis of 'Cold' Conflict. Media, Culture and Society 33 (9): 989-1007.

Nagy, Rosemary. 2013. The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. International Journal Transitional Justice 7 (1): 52-73.

Regan, Paulette. 2010. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

 

 



* Emily Gillespie has just completed her Bachelor of Arts in Gender Equality and Social Justice at Nipissing University.  This paper draws on her honours thesis, “What Truth? What Reconciliation? Media Representations of Indian Residential Schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which was supervised by Dr. Rosemary Nagy.

[1] We chose this start date to coincide with the first TRC national event in Winnipeg. We also wanted to bypass all coverage of the resignation of the TRC commissioners in 2009 and the Truth Commission’s subsequent “hiatus” year.  2010 is the “fresh start” for coverage of the second TRC. 

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