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Indigenous Reporters Program helping shape new group of storytellers in Northern Ontario

Since starting in 2013, more than 600 people have been trained and mentored
2020-01-19 Indig Reporter Program
On Dec.. 18, 2020, Kristina Nodin, 12, sits on her bed at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she created a podcast called Nshiime Voices as part of the Journalism for Human Rights Junior Reporter program. Nodin sits under a Kiashhke Zaaging Anishnaabek, or Gull Bay First Nation Flag, where her family is from and with the microphone she used to create the podcast.

This past fall, 12-year-old Kristina Nodin would rush home after school on Mondays and Thursdays, shut herself in her bedroom and climb onto her bed. There, underneath the Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek flag that hangs on her wall, she would spend the next hour learning about journalism through an online course designed to train Indigenous reporters.

A storyteller and avid reader of mystery and crime novels, she was shy and nervous at first. But the Indigenous Reporters Program (IRP) allowed her to step out of her comfort zone.

“And I think I did, more than a little bit,” she says.

Within three months, Ms. Nodin learned how to produce and host a six-episode podcast called Nshiime Voices, which means “younger sibling” in Anishinaabemowin. With the help of elder and language teacher Ira Johnson, Ms. Nodin introduces each episode of the podcast in Anishinaabemowin and ends it with a word of the week, such as paapiwin, or laughter.

She had never spoken the language before, and carefully pronounces each syllable as it’s broken down by Mr. Johnson in their audio lessons.

Ms. Nodin, an Anishinaabe youth from Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek and Whitesand First Nation living in Thunder Bay, was the youngest trainee in the Indigenous Reporters Program run by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a Canadian media development organization that trains journalists how to report on human rights and governance issues in communities.

In addition to learning Anishinaabemowin in the podcast, Ms. Nodin interviews guests she calls Indigenous changemakers, including Anishinaabe comedian and media producer Ryan McMahon and Anishinaabe nurse practitioner and radio broadcaster Crystal Hardy.

In her interviews that run around 10 to 20 minutes, Ms. Nodin and her guests discuss Indigenous matters such as what it means to decolonize health care or tackle negative stereotypes.

“Getting to interview people that want to change that label is really amazing, Ms. Nodin says. “Just to hear that from different perspectives – they all were really great.”

Leigh Nunan, a field co-ordinator for the IRP based in Thunder Bay, calls Ms. Nodin a rising star.

“She’s really done something awesome. She put so much into [the podcast] and she’s one to watch for sure,” Ms. Nunan says.

JHR started the Indigenous Reporters Program in 2013 and has since trained and mentored about 600 people in Northern Ontario through intensive training programs and workshops.

Ms. Nunan says trainees learn valuable communication and research skills, as well as a better understanding of what they see in the media.

“They’re all going to be able to hold the media to account when it’s talking about their communities, because they know what they can expect of the media and understand what the media is supposed to be doing,” she says.

Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the JHR program involved sending journalism trainers to participating First Nations – oftentimes remote, fly-in communities – for 8 months to work with community members, usually youth, to build media literacy skills and publish or broadcast through local news websites and radio stations.

The pandemic forced the organization to pivot and offer training online, says JHR executive director Rachel Pulfer.

That opened up more opportunities for urban Indigenous trainees, says Ms. Pulfer, and many of this year’s 75 participants were from Thunder Bay.

Training took place on virtual platforms like Zoom and Facebook and often covered sensitive topics such as systemic racism and residential schools, highlighted by the trainees’ personal experiences. Ms. Pulfer said the in-depth work helped create an avenue for freelance opportunities – several participants have had their work published by mainstream media, including The Globe and Mail, APTN News and TVO.

Zachary Skead, a photographer from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, captured what pandemic life has been like for his family living in rural Northwestern Ontario in a black-and-white photo essay published in The Globe this past November.

Mr. Skead says thanks to the IRP training, he feels a career in photojournalism is now attainable – and something he hopes to pursue. 

In addition to running their virtual training program this year, JHR also developed its IRP training material for the high-school curriculum. It is now offered as an accredited course at Keewaytinook Internet High School, a private online secondary school serving eight First Nations.

Ms. Pulfer says teaching journalism skills at the high-school level in a way that is accessible to youth and their communities has been a goal since the IRP began, particularly given there are no journalism schools in the region.

She says the long-term goal is to get the training into journalism schools across the country as basic curriculum, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that calls for Canadian journalism and media programs to teach students about the history of Indigenous people – including residential schools, treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law and Aboriginal-Crown relationships.

Ms. Pulfer says the media industry is experiencing an awakening following a year of anti-racism movements spurred by the deaths of Black and Indigenous people killed by police in both the United States and Canada.

“All these newsroom leaders suddenly looked around and realized that they had a lot of work to do to change both their hiring practices and their content,” Ms. Pulfer says.

Building on its current newsroom training and workshops that include the basics of covering Indigenous communities – developed in part by Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue and former Omushkego journalist Lenny Carpenter – JHR is now developing leadership training for Indigenous journalists who are in mid-career and want to move into management roles.

Ms. Pulfer says the new leadership training will also involve teaching best practices to “mainstream middle managers” for how to successfully bring Indigenous reporters into their teams. This means confronting the challenges of tokenism and marginalization, which often leaves lone Indigenous journalists feeling isolated and dealing with “this huge extra burden on their shoulders of being sort of the ‘Indigenous rep,’ educating this otherwise mostly white workforce,” Ms. Pulfer says.

From educating youth to tell their own stories to professional development for those already in the career pipeline, Ms. Pulfer says JHR hopes the Indigenous Reporters Program eventually results in better representation in the media industry, including ensuring Indigenous journalists in senior-level positions with the decision-making power to shape media in the future.

Willow Fiddler is a Local Journalism (LJI) reporter with the Globe and Mail. The LJI program is funded by the Government of Canada