Ethically sharing Indigenous stories: More than principles, it’s our journalistic responsibility

Uncovering the shortcomings in mainstream media’s coverage of the Mohawk Mothers Case

Written by Jasjot Grewal, News Editor
Design by Zoe Dubin, Design Editor
Illustration by Zoe Lee, Contributor

For the past year and a half, I have reported on the ongoing dispute between the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) and McGill, regarding the university’s New Vic Project site, where concerns have been raised about potential unmarked graves. Beyond simply covering their tireless efforts, I’ve been granted the surreal opportunity to delve into a case embroiled in an information and public relations campaign by McGill. As a non-Indigenous person reporting on Indigenous stories, I grapple with the responsibility that accompanies this role and how mainstream media continues to fall short.

The Case: From Legal Action to Public Relations

This case has received extensive coverage from various news outlets throughout the litigation surrounding the New Vic Project site—whether it’s from Indigenous sources such as Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and The Eastern Door, student journalists, or Canadian mainstream media.

As the case has progressed, McGill faces increasing demands to justify its actions, which appeared inconsistent with its commitment to reconciliation and its use of student tuition to fund litigation. Representatives in the McGill Senate brought forward questions from students, compelling the university to provide answers. In response to criticism surrounding this case, McGill engaged in a public relations campaign. This included roundtable discussions with student media outlets and McGill Provost and Executive Vice-President (Academic), Christopher Manfredi, sending 11 emails since July 2023 to all students and faculty to communicate updates. On Dec. 20, 2023, Manfredi emailed students informing them of McGill’s decision to appeal Justice Gregory Moore’s Nov. 20 decision to reinstate the court-appointed archaeological panel and to clarify “salient facts.”

In recent communications, McGill administrators have redirected the conversations from the case itself to the narrative surrounding it. Manfredi even expressed concern over the misrepresentation of the New Vic Project.“For the past nearly two years, the [Project] has been frequently mischaracterized in the media and in various information campaigns. Much of what has been written and said about the [New Vic Project] is incomplete or misleading. The moment is opportune to clarify critical details,” Manfredi wrote.

However, Indigenous students, such as Leah Louttit-Bunker, U3 Arts, believe McGill has “been falsely implying that there are no unmarked graves” on the site at all through these emails. Additionally, according to Louttit-Bunker, McGill has failed to provide the Mohawk Mothers with the same level of transparent communication.

“McGill has easily communicated email updates to all members frequently, but has been failing to communicate transparently with the Mohawk Mothers,” Louttit-Bunker wrote to The Tribune. “It is disrespectful to Indigenous sovereignty and counteracts the land acknowledgements the institution gives. I think that the lack of communication and cooperation with the Mohawk Mothers shows a big ethical concern surrounding reporting on Indigenous issues.”

The Mohawk Mothers: The Burden of Misrepresentation

As the public relations campaign progresses, reporting on the case has varied greatly among different media outlets, imposing a significant burden on the Mohawk Mothers to ensure that their views and experiences are accurately represented.

Furthermore, the Mohawk Mothers have felt the weight of misinformation and mischaracterization. In an interview with The Tribune, Mohawk Mother Kwetiio expressed that she feels that a burden is placed on her when speaking to reporters about the case, as every word she says has to be well thought out before it is said. Sometimes, her words will be entirely omitted, as news outlets are unable to “fact-check” the Indigenous protocols and references that she makes.

“In the media, in all actuality, it is up to us to choose wisely what we’re going to say, so that it cannot get manipulated,” she said.

Larger media outlets tend to report on the case based on information provided in press briefings after the hearings. On the other hand, reporters from smaller outlets have closely followed the story, attended every case management hearing, and developed personal connections with the Mohawk Mothers.

Reilley Bishop-Stall, assistant professor of Canadian Art and Visual Culture at McGill, shared in a written statement to The Tribune that she feels that the coverage she has seen on the Mothers has been restricted, without significance given to the extent of history at stake.

“Reporting on this situation has, in my mind, been limited and, particularly in Montreal, should be getting more attention than it is,” Bishop-Stall wrote. “There is so much more information available and such a rich history of the site that more of the public needs to be made aware of.”

When providing case updates, big media outlets have failed to regard the information that the Mothers and assisted researchers have compiled and made openly available online that shares the incomprehensible abuse that took place at the former Allan Memorial Institute. The Institute was a research and psychiatric centre that allegedly performed psychological experimentation on unconsenting patients between 1943 and 1964. Karonhia’nó:ron, BA ’23, told //The Tribune// that it is very clear to him which outlets actively follow and engage in the story.

“It’s really interesting seeing the ways that different publications have reported on the Kahnistensera’s court case and the archaeological work happening at the New Vic. It didn’t take me long to recognize which journalists were consistently showing up to the site or the courtroom to document what’s going [on],” Karonhia’nó:ron wrote.

Canadian Mainstream Media

Along with failing to wholly and extensively report on the Mohawk Mothers, major Canadian media outlets have also shown their shortcomings when it comes to reporting on Indigenous stories. Their lack of consultation with diverse Indigenous voices has stained coverage, resulting in overgeneralizing portrayals of Indigenous peoples as one homogenous group, rather than individuals.

“I noticed that the media in general, I would say the bigger media outlets, don’t like to, first of all, make Indigenous people seem personable. It seems like they would rather just be a group of like the last four natives left on Earth,” Kwetiio explained. “I noticed that we’re never looked at like we are people. There’s no intimacy whatsoever on it, and the matter is very intimate.”

Indigenous reporting is riddled with a lack of proper investigative and empathetic journalism. As Kwetiio says, Indigenous people are “portrayed as something of the past.” Furthermore, the tendency of major outlets to only publish Indigenous stories that focus on Indigenous pain and suffering, without any care given to Indigenous life and joy, actually causes further harm to Indigenous people. Karonhia’nó:ron shared that he has been taking a break from consuming media concerning Indigenous issues as it began to weigh down on him.

“I won’t lie, I’ve been taking a break from my media consumption for the past couple of months—especially as it concerns Indigenous issues. Of course, I follow the stories concerning the Kahnistensera and my community—but in general, I’ve been scared to seek out any kind of news,” Karonhia’nó:ron wrote. “I’m scared I’ll see reporting on the Winnipeg landfill or ground searches at residential schools. Being exposed to those kinds of stories regularly really affected my mental health in the past.”

Moreover, highlighting the theme of reconciliation in every story is counterproductive. This approach reinforces settler-colonial objectives that allow institutions to falsely project validation, suggesting that they are fulfilling their anti-oppression mission, while their actions contradict that discourse.

Indigenous Papers and Student Reporting

These continuous failures from larger media outlets have illustrated the dire need for alternative media sources. The Eastern Door, a newspaper based out of Kahnawake, focuses on Indigenous people and their stories beyond community grief by providing a platform for Indigenous tradition and family stories. In 2022, they started an initiative dubbed Sharing Our Stories to allow Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) elders to recount their anecdotes, aiming to preserve Kanien’kehá:ka histories and culture. The stories—published in both Mohawk and English—are used as a teaching tool for Mohawk heritage and language.

In May 2023, Sharing Our Stories began operating as a non-profit entity, separate from The Eastern Door. Steve Bonspiel, an editor and publisher for The Eastern Door, explained the process behind finding stories in an interview with The Tribune. He emphasized how after sitting down with an Elder, listening to them share their story, and writing up the piece, it’s critical to ensure that the Elder is comfortable with the written story.

“They have to see it and agree with what’s on the paper and sign off on it. Sometimes they’re not as comfortable, sometimes they want to hold off on certain stories, and then, of course, you have to get images to go with it, old photos and whatever else. So, altogether, it’s a big process,” Bonspiel explained.

Additionally, smaller papers such as The Eastern Door often have much more personal connections to the tight-knit communities that they report on. As Bonspiel shared, journalists report on the people that they see around their community, whether it be at the grocery store or the bank. That personal touch allows reporters to carry empathy and care into their reporting.

Bonspiel also shared that he felt student journalists are in a unique position when it comes to reporting on sensitive stories, as they’re often motivated by a stronger desire to grasp the topics they cover. However, like other non-Indigenous Canadian journalists, they can still face the challenge of not understanding firsthand the Indigenous issues that they cover.

“Even if you’re a student journalist and try to find as much as possible, not necessarily inherently, not only understanding issues, because that’s a hard thing to do sometimes, but it’s also living the issues,” Bonspiel said. “Living the issues is the hard thing because I can’t impart that on you, that we live with all of these colonial institutions around us, who stole our land, never gave us money, who continue not to give us money, and continue to stonewall things like searching for graves.”

Improving Practices of Reporting on Indigeneity

With false depictions, overgeneralizations, a lack of Indigenous individuality, and institutional deceptions, Canadian reporting of Indigenous stories has not met baseline journalistic standards. So, the big question is: How does one go about reporting on Indigenous stories, especially if the reporter is not Indigenous themselves?

Journalists should start with being well-versed and knowledgeable about the story they’re approaching. That can happen through research, asking for guidance from experts in Indigenous reporting, setting up interviews, and looking beyond mere press releases from the institutions—such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Office of the Correctional Investigator, Independent Ombuds and Oversight of Federal Corrections in Canada—that actively work against Indigenous people’s interests.

“I always say you don’t have to know 500 years of history, but you better make damn sure that you know what you’re talking about, whatever the story is,” Bonspiel said.

Next, journalists must practice empathy, and they must try to grasp and follow Indigenous storytelling.

“Storytelling really varies from family to family and community to community. Personally, storytelling has been a really important aspect in teaching me things I wouldn’t normally learn in most standard classrooms. There is emotion, lived experience, and gratitude when hearing a story; stories are lessons that never leave you. My dad used to say that I’d learn more during a day spent with him than a day at school,” Louttit-Bunker said.

Moreover, journalists should have a keen attraction to the truth. As Karonhia’nó:ron explains, the Mohawk word for “news” is “iorì:wase,” which he interprets to mean “the truth going around.” Various media outlets promote different truths, presenting varying lines of evidence, which makes it difficult for readers to navigate the truth. Whether or not the truth serves as a satisfying punch-line for readers, sources and outlets must maintain their duty to report honestly. Additionally, Kwetiio hopes that reporters exercise a level of integrity to fact-check what they’re told, even from an Indigenous person, to ensure that they do not falsely depict an Indigenous community.

“When I understand that someone non-Indigenous is reporting, I would hope that a certain essence is understood that yes, we’re native and we’re talking [...] but it also needs to be investigated what we’re saying before it is printed because that influence is very strong,” Kwetiio said. “We’re in a time when many [Indigenous] people are searching for what their own ways are, and this can be a big influence on them. If they heard that another Indigenous person said something, and it’s put out there, they’re taking it at its word that journalistic integrity is used.”

Producing a factual news piece involves talking to a variety of sources. This is especially important when reporting on Indigenous stories, especially when the media frames one Indigenous person’s perspective as being the sole perspective of all Indigenous people across Canada.

“This tokenization is very harmful and creates a very black-and-white portrait of Indigenous politics and identities. Even though what I’m saying here is what I hold to be true, I can’t say the same of every Mohawk person, or every Indigenous student at McGill. We’re complex, we disagree—just like everyone else,” Karonhia’nó:ron wrote.

Most importantly, look at Indigenous stories from a lens beyond suffering. While stories about Indigenous grief deserve to be platformed, Indigenous people, especially Indigenous youth, deserve to share stories that go beyond their suffering and instead centre on themes of inspiration and happiness.

“If all you grow up hearing is stories about trauma, violence and death, it makes you wonder what your future is going to look like, or if you’ll even have one,” Karonhia’nó:ron explained.

Kwetiio added to this sentiment, stating that her history goes beyond residential schools. This lens should extend beyond media, and instead, should institutionally expand the Canadian curriculum. Kwetiio has been working alongside various women’s societies across Turtle Island that seek to expand the Canadian education system’s mandate on Indigenous history, with the atrocities of residential schools to be introduced into the curriculum. However, Kwetiio felt that her history was devised from her day-to-day experiences as well.

“I don’t want residential schools to be my sole history and culture that they learned. I want the land and the people, that these other economic and corporate systems live on, to have to learn what our ways are first. That should be what children are learning,” she said.

Reporters must learn to report on Indigenous stories with empathy and journalistic standards that involve diverse consultations, fact-checking, and expansive views of what constitutes an Indigenous story. Indigenous reporters must be encouraged, supported, and celebrated. Indigenous stories must be heard, pitched, and platformed.

Reporters must not continue to burden the very communities they purport to uplift.