Photo: Jesse Winter

It’s no secret that the media love to sensationalize violence and conflict, but this is particularly dangerous for marginalized communities like First Nations.

“‘If it bleeds it leads’ isn’t new, and it’s not unique to Aboriginal issues,” says Duncan McCue, an Anishinaabe reporter who covers Aboriginal affairs for CBC’s The National.

“The problem, though, is when it’s focused on a racial group you end up with the concern that Indians are being painted as problem people.”

The people of Hobbema, Alberta, are well use to this attitude.

On a warm fall evening, Cadet Corps Major Trent Young barks commands and encouragement at a young cadet, Miss Kiandra, as she scrambles over the cattle gates that serve as a makeshift obstacle course outside the rundown Hobbema’s Panee Multiplex.

The pre-teen drops to the ground and crawls commando-style through a chicken wire tunnel, her feet kicking up small swirls of dust in the fading afternoon light.

“Go, go, go… good, now up to attention!” Young shouts as Kiandra wiggles out from under the obstacle and snaps crisply to attention, stopping the clock.

After, the troop marches around the front of the multiplex, stepping over trash and broken cinder blocks and past lettering spray-painted across the old, rusted bleachers. It reads “Latin Kings.”

“That’s what we have to deal with on a regular basis,” Young says. “Kids think they’re part of these gangs. They spray that stuff everywhere.”

Young’s commanding presence belies his age. The Hobbema Community Cadet Corps was started in 2005 by the RCMP with the idea of giving kids in Hobbema something to do. Just three years ago Young was a cadet himself, a soft-spoken kid with cripplingly low confidence and tempted, like many of his peers, by a life of drugs, violence and inconsequence. The cadet corps saved Young. Now, after a collapse brought on by political infighting and federal government complications, it’s Young who is saving the cadet corps. He’s barely 20 years old, and he picked up the pieces of the corps in Hobbema when no one else could.

The thing is, you’ll rarely hear about it.

The media are not strangers to Hobbema. This is the town where, in early July, five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird was shot and killed by a stray bullet while he slept. Two months later, a 23-year-old woman was gunned down outside the house next door. This year there were more than 128 articles written about Hobbema, and 104 of them referenced gangs, violence, drugs or shootings. Only three mentioned the “good news” cadet program, and almost nothing about its implosion and resurrection. The media’s focus has been mostly on the gang story.

The “problem people” label McCue mentioned is one that has persisted for decades, according to University of British Columbia sociology professor Rima Wilkes.

Wilkes studies media representation of Aboriginal communities. She says that media coverage often falls within certain “frames” or codes that serve to uphold current misconceptions of Aboriginal people.

In a study of over 400 articles that appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Vancouver Sun in 1995, Wilkes and her colleagues found that over 60 per cent of stories involving Aboriginal people and protest contained language that painted them as ‘criminal’, ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’ or ‘violent.’

So why does this keep happening?

The most immediate problem is one of journalistic time and resources, McCue says. There might be great solutions-focused stories in Aboriginal communities, but he says it’s far easier to focus on negative stories, and far cheaper to carry them out.

“Reporting on problems is easy. It’s black and white. Solutions don’t necessarily happen in a 24-hour news cycle. They’re often gray and sometimes confusing. We lose interest, so we move on to the next novel thing,” he added.

But one piece of journalism from Hobbema bucked the trend to show what was possible.

In October 2009, CBC Edmonton produced a series of news pieces and an in-depth documentary called Journey to Jamaica that followed the Hobbema cadets on an exchange to Spanish Town and highlighted the program’s impressive success. The documentary made such an impact that it lead to a debate in the House of Commons, and ultimately to $1 million over three years from the National Crime Prevention Centre, money that was supposed to help grow the program and spread it to other Aboriginal communities in the province.

“At the time I was a local news reporter, so this was really a big first for me…it really was an in-depth project,” says Briar Stewart, the CBC reporter who worked on the docs.

“From start to finish I probably got a good month and a half to work on it. For me, that was quite unheard of because I was doing a lot of local daily news.”

McCue agrees the CBC coverage was good, and more of it is needed. 

“That’s a great news story, the cadets… it was a big commitment on the part of CBC Edmonton, and it paid off, but it’s not cheap, for a media outlet to do that,” he said.

Instead, the media wait for the next event that fits into the 24-hour news cycle, whether it’s a shooting or a parade. No one is saying the media should cover up negative news, but they do have to tell the whole story so Canadians can have a full understanding of what is happening in these communities and why, says McCue.

“What’s happening in Hobbema shouldn’t be happening. Five-year-olds shouldn’t be getting shot. There are long-standing questions about where the community should be going, and the gang issues are scary to all kinds of people. And those things need to be reported… but there needs to be a balance,” he says.

There are a lot of complex social factors that contributed to the cadets’ collapse, but the only story Canadians are likely to hear is that another expensive Indian program failed.

Wilkes and McCue both agree that this missing context is a huge problem, and that it stems from a lack of basic cultural literacy on the part of many Canadians.

“I’m always kind of astounded when people say they don’t know anything about residential schools or intergenerational trauma,” McCue said “The truth is that, for Aboriginal communities, the residential schools are today. It’s now… they’re still healing. But for a lot of non-Aboriginal people, they don’t understand that.”

And, he says, reporters aren’t exempt from this cultural ignorance.

McCue is also a professor at the University of British Columbia, and teaches a new course aimed at improving reporting from indigenous communities.

“The point of the course is to try to introduce students to Aboriginal issues and reporting from these communities… and work through some of the difficulties.”

As McCue sees it, the brutal daily deadlines of the media game create a fundamental clash between Aboriginal and newsroom cultures.

“Media are, fundamentally, story takers. We go into communities, we ask people to tell their stories, we take them away and then we tell it however we damn well please,” he says.

When you combine that with Aboriginal peoples’ long history of colonial authorities taking things away, it’s no wonder you get a clash, McCue points out. It’s the media’s job to find a way to provide that context despite time limits and stringent word counts.

Incredibly, his advice boils down to two simple ideas.

“If you are a reporter, listen. And treat Aboriginal people with respect. It’s way more complicated than that, but that’s what my entire course boils down to. It’s not rocket science.”

Back at the Panee Multiplex, Trent Young sets up his cadets for drill practice. They have six new faces, for a total of 47. It’s their highest turnout in three months. It’s not the 200 they had a few years ago, but it is something.

He and a few members of his community have rescued the program from extinction, and while reporters spent the past summer writing about bloodshed and frustration, Young was working to secure the Multiplex as a new headquarters and began recruiting new cadets.

Young admires his troop, smiling again.

“You want to know what the media can do better?” he asks.

“Come, see our community. You say so much about us, come. Come dance inter-tribal at our pow-wow, come to a feast. We’ll show you the real Hobbema.”

Jesse Winter is a freelance journalist from North Bay, Ontario. He is now based in Vancouver, where  he writes about, photographs and lives as much of life as he can between bike rides.

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