By Valerie Dittrich (RSJ ’20)
Ryerson Journalism grad Kyle Edwards remembers the joy at being accepted into the program even though he was filled with doubt about whether he could actually have a career as an Indigenous journalist.
Those are the kinds of doubts Edwards (RSJ ‘17), now a staff reporter at Maclean’s, sees reflected by many Indigenous students in Ontario, as documented in a new report on post-secondary opportunities for indigenous students.
The study, “Emerging Voices”, produced by Journalists for Human Rights, examines the access to post-secondary education for Indigenous youth in Canada and how journalism schools across the province are doing to incorporate indigenous reporting in the curriculum.
“We have to be able to tell our stories,” said Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga. “People need to be aware of them so they can understand the kind of barriers that have been put in place [for indigenous students]. It’s the way to equity.”
Talaga was part of a panel discussion to launch the report in January at the School of Journalism, along with Edwards and Duncan McCue (also the Rogers Visiting Journalist at RSJ) and the Toronto Star’s Tanya Talaga and Edwards.
Talaga said the history and languages of Indigenous cultures must be integrated into the curriculum. “It makes the kids want to learn because they see themselves reflected in the stories that they’re learning and see themselves as worthy.”
While preparing the report, JHR looked at how journalism schools were honouring one of the Calls to Action made by the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commission to integrate indigenous history and reporting into their programs.
JHR surveyed 19 Ontario postsecondary journalism programs and found 64 per cent offer courses on Indigenous topics in media -including RSJ’s Reporting on Indigenous Issues; about half are mandatory.
While the report credits journalism schools with increasing Indigenous curriculum content, it said the schools, as well as the Canadian media, are missing the voices of Indigenous journalists.
“If those exciting, diverse voices are to be developed and empowered, the leaders of journalism schools still have much work to do,” said McCue, who also teaches Reporting on Indigenous Peoples at the University of British Columbia.
He argued journalism schools need to develop strategic plans to provide more Indigenous content, engage with Indigenous communities and offer distance or e-learning education. Recruiting Indigenous students to attend college and universities is crucial to the future of Canadian journalism, he said.
The JHR report surveyed about 150 Indigenous senior high school students in Ontario about their aspirations for post-secondary education. Of the 77 per cent who said they wanted to attend either college or university, 31 per cent they would consider journalism as a career.
However, most students said a major barrier was lacking confidence and being afraid of going to school and leaving their home communities.
Edwards remembers that fear as he landed at Ryerson in 2013. “It was very scary, I have no family [in Toronto],” said Edwards. He grew up in Lake Mountain First Nation and then to Winnipeg to attend high school. “When you’re not from an urban area, your whole life changes. I really saw myself in those kids when reading the study.”
“Toronto is a big place and you can get lost into it really easily.”
Edwards stressed the importance of creating a safe space for indigenous students in post-secondary environments. “Before I had gotten the official acceptance letter, someone from the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Centre emailed me first saying, “Congrats, you got in.” If I hadn’t gotten that email, I don’t think I would have come.”