Building trust and understanding context is essential to telling indigenous stories: Wilson

February 9, 2016


Journalists must “listen with their heart” when they are reporting on sensitive issues, especially when they are covering Canada’s indigenous communities, said Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson, delivering this year’s Atkinson lecture.

The independent commission was created by residential school survivors as a result of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.

For six years, Wilson and her colleagues bore witness as survivors and others affected by the violence told their difficult stories. The ability to listen patiently was a key skill, Wilson said. Only when the commissioners listened from their hearts, she said, were they were able to make it safe for people to speak from theirs.

A former CBC journalist, one of Wilson’s goals is to raise a greater awareness of residential school experiences and their impact. In her talk entitled “Truth and Reconciliation: What journalism must do,” Wilson reflected on the commission’s work and prompted the audience to honour the “critically important” first rule of journalism: Get the facts straight.

“Remedial learning is not bad. It’s still learning. Residential schools are over but their troubles are not,” said Wilson. “It’s important to know treaties and declaration to understand the foundation of Canada.”

For students like Peter Ash, a first-year journalist, the lecture was a notable awakening. “I’ve known about the past history of Canada but I didn’t know the importance of certain [indigenous] communities,” said Ash. “I think it’s a good thing that we have people like us [journalists] learning about these unfortunate situations.”

Wilson outlined several key steps for journalists covering indigenous issues and the first, she said, is learning how to build a trusting relationship. Journalists can do this by respecting protocols and learning how to acknowledge places and elders.

It is vital to keep the story alive, even if it has been told more than once, said Wilson. Finding a fresh angle and a new perspective will inevitably unveil an unlikely hero. “The story of residential schools is a huge story that is not over yet,” said Wilson. “It’s an unfolding story and there is so much more to be told about the various aspects of it and we need to pay attention to it.”

Other takeaways for the audience, comprised mostly of journalism students and faculty, included not skipping context, working well with teams and fighting for what they believe in, especially if it’s something of importance.

“All of this is about all of us, and we all have a role to play in reconciliation,” Wilson said. “We have to figure out what that role is.”