Kevin Newman’s interview with Chief Theresa Spence, aired today on CTV’s “Question Period,” illustrated pretty neatly in its first few minutes all that’s been wrong with mainstream coverage of Spence’s fast, and of Idle No More.
Newman began by playing social worker to Spence, citing the Chiefs and elders who’ve told her, “You have done what you wanted to do for your people and it’s time to take care of your family.” When Spence replied that she’s still waiting for a meeting between the Chiefs, Harper and the Governor General to happen, and steered the conversation back to third-world conditions on Canadian reserves, Newman really went in for the emotional kill, albeit a bit incoherently: “I don’t know of any parent that would voluntarily deny themselves the care of a mother for any cause, however just.”
It wasn’t, of course, a question; it was an admonition.
But it wasn’t just the shamelessness of Newman’s pursuit, intended to induce guilt and/or make out Spence to be a derelict Mom, that galled; it was the fact that he was so dismissive of what she’d just told him. Fortunately, Spence was able to parry him gracefully: “If you experienced what we live, you know, as a person and as a woman and as a mother, you would do anything to protect and make your children, other people’s children, other people, in a better living condition. You would.” But for Newman her answer was just another lacuna in the conversation he’d decided to have. He might as well have been Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
And so it’s been for much of the past month, on the TV networks and in the major papers. Experienced journalists, supposedly skilled at asking questions and actually listening to the answers, rattle on. They’ve fallen in love with the sound of their own orotund voices. You only have to look at the heds on their pieces to understand the homiletic style: “Meeting with Harper won’t settle aboriginal people’s problems“; “Simplistic arguments from Theresa Spence, Idle No More could have tragic consequences for natives“; “First nations leaders need to take aim at what’s achievable“; “Unity and respect are best ways to advance native issues“; “More than protest is needed for progress“; “Sharing Canada’s resource bounty not a simple answer for First Nations.”
In the parlance of the internet, the best thing these pundits could do is STFU, at least for awhile, and hear what Spence and others are saying. Those of us who lived through the culture war around voice appropriation back in the 1980s learned, as a sort of corollary lesson to the one about not presuming to speak for other cultures, that a wonderful thing happens when you finally shut up: you become open to whole new ways of seeing the world. So it has been for me, learning from First Nations people, especially while working in theatre. But for it to happen, you really do, first, have to STFU. And then, perhaps, once you have been quiet long enough to have absorbed and understood what that other culture has to tell you, you may be ready to speak again. To converse, mind you. Not lecture. Converse.
One journalist who seems to have been listening lately is Jonathan Kay at the National Post. Mr. Kay, who did a lousy job of understanding a culture foreign to him in a book he wrote a while back, has published a long article in the Post in which he journeys to four First Nations communities on James Bay, including Attawapiskat. Of course, he comes to the unsurprising conclusion — early on, actually — that the Indians who are most successful are the ones who conduct themselves most like capitalists. He is a Post writer, after all. And we could wish that his paper had someone other than a Yale-graduated scion of Westmount to send on this cultural investigation — someone, in other words, who wasn’t starting from scratch. But for whole stretches of his piece, he actually appears to listen.
Had Kevin Newman listened to Theresa Spence, he wouldn’t have to wonder why she’s still fasting. She’s told us what she wants; she’s told us time and time again. If we’re not listening, or simply don’t want to hear, that’s hardly her fault, and the press ought to stop treating her as if it is.