by Ed Cowley, freelancer
The issue of the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada has cast a dark cloud of blame across the country. Media reports have brought blame and shame to churches, government, health facilities, teachers and police for their involvement in taking children from their families and forcing them to live in residential schools. There has been a lot of reporting now on the terrible treatment at these schools, including the failure to allow students to have contact with their families, inadequate food and harsh punishment for real or imagined rule-breaking. And the failure to even notify the family if a child died or to mark the grave.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one sector seems to have escaped thorough scrutiny by the media.
As a local columnist, this isn’t strictly in my lane, but it impacts everyone. There was a recent display of Morinville town council and staff wearing orange shirts and talking about what they had learned about reconciliation and their plans to engage with Alexander First Nations. It all felt very shallow. The town’s intentions were good and, for the most part, probably sincere, but it felt too much like today’s media taking a holier-than-thou approach to reporting the atrocities of yesterday.
Why aren’t reporters examining the role that media played during this tragedy? While it’s true that most of the small newspapers and electronic media have had their newsrooms gutted now by the financial downturn of the industry, that wasn’t the case pre-1980. Canada’s newspapers and broadcasters—especially the large ones—were flush with cash and growing during the era of residential schools.
Currently, there are still some large newspaper groups as well as electronic media who boast investigative and documentary journalism expertise, and don’t forget the government-funded CBC has a mob of local, regional, national and international reporters.
So why hasn’t today’s media dug up the reporters, broadcasters and publishers from the residential school era? What caused the deaths, abuses and overall disgraceful practices to remain hidden from the readers, viewers and listeners of that time? Just as I quietly receive information from town staff and residents about questionable practices of Morinville council and administration, it is inconceivable that none of the media of the day were aware of the activities going on at the residential schools. Why wasn’t it reported – repeatedly and thoroughly?
Today’s media have dug up details about the operators of the schools and hospitals—even the Pope has apologized. But none of the media giants have acknowledged their failure to perform adequately. They haven’t explained whether they were part of a cover-up or simply disinterested in the abuse and loss of life of a sector of the population. Today’s media should be displaying the same dogged investigation of the historic role of their own industry as they displayed when tracking down figures from other professions.
It is not just a matter of shaming the media of that time. If they had done a thorough job of reporting details of the actions of the politicians, the schools and hospitals at that time, would the general public have allowed such treatment to continue? Would as many children and families have been traumatized? Would children have lost their lives?