Dr.Dawg

Two solitudes: a training film

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“This is a problem, the way you communicate,” said First Nations Elder Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, to Julie Van Dusen, from CBC television. “You’re a guest here, and you don’t even know how to speak to us. You don’t even recognize the tone in your voice, in your delivery.”

Bingo.

This clip is hard to watch and harder to hear, but people should do both, and more than once. In particular, it should be viewed by any non-indigenous member of the media who wants productive face-time with First Nations people.

Let’s first recognize that the two women on the podium were genuinely exasperated. This was no false outrage, but all too real. Perhaps it behooves us to ask why, and to swallow our own discomfort as we do so.

From a non-indigenous, “white” perspective, Van Dusen’s question was what we expect of Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters at pressers: framing a context and probing for a sound-bite. I doubt that there was any malicious intent on her part, but her vast unknowing marked the boundaries of a chasm between her world-view and professional practice, and the perspectives of those with whom she was trying to engage.

The women called the presser, after all, to give expression to their own world-view, history and experience. Instead of being granted that opportunity, they were being forced into a corner, asked instead to fit themselves into a political context that, for them, was wildly irrelevant. Comparing Trudeau to Harper? What use was a question like that for First Nations women who take the historical long view, and (with FN people everywhere) are facing a government—a Liberal government—which has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting against equal services for First Nations children, and is continuing to do so?

It’s fair to assume that the women saw here a distinction without much of a difference. Indeed, as Wabano-Iahtail subsequently said, “”As far as how Justin Trudeau is doing, one of the things we have to keep in mind is we’re asking the United Nations to help us…Because your Liberal party was also responsible—every party, your every government that has been in power, there’s been a war conflict.”

But in any case, Van Dusen pressed on, and then she crossed the line. In answer to her initial question about Trudeau and Harper, another speaker mentioned the death of a young indigenous person in Thunder Bay. She was trying to bring the conversation back into her own reality by being concrete and specific. But Van Dusen wasn’t having that. “But how can [Trudeau] be blamed for that? You don’t think that anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over Stephen Harper? Talk about his record.”

The people on the podium were aghast. They had just attempted to return the exchange to their own context, and here Van Dusen was being insistent, aggressive (“Just answer the question!”), and just a touch snide as she continued to press her point. Wabano-Iahtail began to protest, but Van Dusen kept talking.

You don’t, ever, talk over an Elder when they are speaking. It’s considered profoundly offensive to do so. And she was righteously scolded for it.

Then Glen McGregor of CTV stepped in. After being told to be respectful, he repeated Van Dusen’s question calmly enough, and he got his answer. But his immediate standing up for Van Dusen, who refused to leave after being asked, was the icing on the white cake. It looked like, and it was, a closing of ranks. The presser was abruptly terminated.

Van Dusen (and McGregor) seemed blithely unaware of the numerous transgressions that they had committed. I am certain that they felt very badly treated, and they did indeed get an earful. Many, maybe most, non-indigenous folks heard nothing but angry people attacking a couple of journos who were just trying to do their jobs. But if we start with the anthropologist’s “what is happening here?” instead of simply reacting, a few constructive lessons might be learned.

We should grant that all the participants were acting in good faith. There is no reason to believe otherwise. So, what went wrong? How could such encounters be avoided next time?

This clip is an important one for those interested in the reconciliation project. It’s going to be tough. We’re the folks, after all, who need to do the reconciling, not the First Nations/Inuit/M├ętis who have borne the brunt of colonial privilege, racism and economic immiseration literally for centuries. Face-to-face encounters are an essential part of that healing process; in fact, probably the main ingredient. So, if we’re going to talk with people whose collective subject-position is so extraordinarily different from our own, shouldn’t we first learn how to do it?

Consider this a training film on how not to go about having that dialogue. But we can all learn from our mistakes. Perhaps, on the 150th anniversary of the Canadian state, we should resolve to do better. Call it a Canada Day resolution.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on July 1, 2017 11:10 AM.

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