Six Nations activists made tactical mistakes in excluding the press. Photo By Kaz Novak/CP Photo
Brantford - As negotiations over contested Caledonia and other disputed lands grind on between the Six Nations and governments, so do the protests - and the development.
But are folks following this seemingly endless conflict from Toronto any closer to grasping what's going on? A panel of native and independent journalists at a forum Thursday, July 24, in Brantford's downtown say they don't think so.
Hosted by a group called Two Row Understanding Through Education (TRUE), the meeting, billed as "the story you didn't see on the 11 o'clock news," featured participants from Six Nation weeklies Tekawennake and Turtle Island News, and from radio station CKRZ.
Echoing last year's report Ipperwash And the Media by journalism prof John Miller, native reporters here say they continue to see a disturbing disconnect between what they witness during their long hours on site and what turns up in the mainstream press.
Just as journalists waited for sensational happenings before they went to Ipperwash, panellists point out that the press was also absent April 20, 2006, when protesters camping out on the contested site in Caledonia were tear-gassed, tasered and arrested.
That traumatic event caused activists to erect blockades that enraged many locals.
"Every time you saw on television the riot-gear-clad police coming into Caledonia, it was to stop the non-natives from attacking the natives," says Tekawennake reporter Jim Windle, a co-founder of TRUE. "Unfortunately, that is not what got into the mainstream."
What was seared into the national mind was a recurring TV image of black smoke billowing from tire fires. "That happened one day, the day of the OPP raid," says Windle, "but for months after on the 11 o'clock news, as soon as you hear Caledonia, up come the tire fires."
Panellists agreed that activists shared some responsibility for the distortions. "When that tire fire started," says Sandra Muse, formerly of the Teka, "the mainstream media was kept out of the reclamation site. That's where problems started, because I know as a trained reporter that you have to get the story no matter what. And if you're not allowed to get in there and interview those newsmakers, you exaggerate stuff."
And while Six Nations protesters turned their backs on the press, some local Caledonians were only too willing to talk. Windle contends that the media were less than rigorous about confirming their stories. He points to a certain Hamilton TV station. "Anybody who told a hard-luck story about how their poor children were afraid of nasty Indians got as much time on air as they wanted."
"At Teka we checked it out. I would call OPP and say, ‘Is it true that those kids at Notre Dame School are eating their lunch under their desks?' And the police would say, ‘Not that we know of.'" The principal said, ‘None of that is true.' But it was being put out there as if it was the gospel truth."
Some reporters without access to the reclamation site found real incidents to document, with some interesting players. Videographer Tom Keefer, who's followed Ontario neo-Nazi movements for over a decade, said when he began filming in Caledonia, he saw familiar faces: "White supremacists, neo-Nazis, a kind of who's who of the Canadian far right coming to Caledonia and trying to stir up trouble."
Teka reporter Erin Tully and CKRZ's Al Sault were the only media present to photograph the arrest of the "Stirling Woods Nine" on September 19, 2007. One of Tully's shots is of four police on top of protester Skyler Williams, who was being tasered. Says Tully, "He was on the ground yelling, ‘I'm not resisting arrest!'"
But in many media reports of the event, say Tully and Sault, the nine peaceful arrestees were erroneously connected to an earlier altercation that horrified both sides in which a developer sustained head injuries.
"All of the land claims that are now becoming big news are impossible to understand if people don't know the history," says Windle. And, yes, observers are going to react negatively - if the press doesn't do its job.