let the public know the horror

I've been a journalist for thirty years. I got my first job as a reporter for a native newspaper called the New Breed in Regina in the spring of 1979.

I’ve been a journalist for thirty years. I got my first job as a reporter for a native newspaper called the New Breed in Regina in the spring of 1979. The news has taken me to radio, television, print and I’ve published a couple nonfiction books along the way, as well. Sitting at the cusp of my mid-50s it seems like an incredible journey.

But not always. See, my focus through all that time has been primarily First Nation issues. When I won a National Newspaper Award in 1991, it was for a native issues column that ran in the Calgary Herald. It was the first time an aboriginal Canadian won that award. So effectively, I’ve been a native journalist for three decades.

In that time I’ve seen and written about a plethora of things. I was there when native people sat with the prime minister and the premiers of the provinces for the first time in 1982. I witnessed a pope’s visit to a northern community. I’ve written about the birth of our first national television network, the emergence of the aboriginal category at the Juno Awards and the emergence of role models in the arts, education, science and technology.

And I’ve also covered the other side.

Over the course of thirty years, I’ve written about suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, the high rate of native incarceration, the rise of street gangs, protest, the loss of traditional languages and the effects of residential schools, among a host of other darker, more onerous topics. I’ve learned to be objectively distant or else defiantly present in my challenges and call for changes.

In that sense it hasn’t been such an incredible journey. See, when I left active journalism, the reporter’s desk for the freelancer’s, it was because I’d grown tired of writing and rewriting the same never-ending story. Sure, there were highlights, events that showed how far we’d come as people, but there were always the heartrending stories that seemed to loop over and over themselves like a bad news reel.

Sitting on my couch, watching the news this past week, it struck me how little has changed. There are still emotional, hard-hitting stories that have the power to shake me, enrage me, confound me as to how they can continue to occur given how far we’ve supposedly come. I sat near tears as the story of a young Ojibwa boy in a Manitoba First Nation community died in a house fire—a house he shared with ten others, eight of them under the age of six.

A nine-year-old girl died in a fire on the same reserve in February. The house she died in was shared by fourteen people. The footage showed dilapidated houses that were not much more than shacks that the other people of the Sandy Bay community were forced to live in. The images were stark. But I’d seen them many times before.

In early 1980, I travelled with a native politician named Murray Hamilton to visit some of his constituents in northern Saskatchewan. Their living conditions were horrendous. Plastic nailed over window frames, thirteen people crammed into a two-room shack and little or no furniture. I remembered that visit as I watched that story. I remembered the almost thirty years since, as well.

The federal government says that it’s committed some $400 million to the crisis in native housing. To the average person that sounds like a lot of money. It’s not.

There are some 640 First Nation communities across Canada. That means just over $600 thousand per community. If an average single-family sized home is 1,400 square feet and the average cost of building that home is $175 a square foot, each home costs $235,000 to build. That’s just over two homes per community. Factor in Indian Affairs administration costs, and transportation and it’s down to one.

What’s clearly needed is change. Not just from the federal government but from First Nation politicians, too. See, there’s no reason why Canadians should only be alerted to this crisis when tragedy happens. There is absolutely no reason in this age of instant communication that we shouldn’t all know about situations like Sandy Bay, across the country.

Every national aboriginal organization has a communications department but they only ever seem to be willing to do press releases when a crisis happens. After it breaks, they clamor for government action. But the fact is, all the national native organizations know about these situations and they have for years. If their funding dollars were put to efficient use and they were responsible to their people and to Canada, we’d all know about them, too.

As a journalist for thirty years, I know how powerful a force public knowledge is. It’s a shame our national native leadership doesn’t, because change, rightfully, begins with them.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at richardwagamese@yahoo.com

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