Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Shoal Lake Caper

It is remarkable how small events often mark major change. There was such an event last week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent last Thursday at the Shoal Lake First Nation in Manitoba, which has been under a boil water advisory for 19 years. (Yes, 19, almost two decades). He was there for the day, talking with elders, visiting  young people at school and taking part in community activities, including delivering jugs of imported water and attending a hockey game.

Trudeau being there was not remarkable in itself. He has indicated his commitment to improving the Third World living conditions of Canada’s native people.

And, perhaps it is a case of the son making amends for the sins of the father. Pierre Trudeau’s wrong-headed 1969 White Paper on aboriginal affairs proposed assimilation of native people into white society, and abolishing all previous legal documents pertaining to them, including treaties.

The reaction to the White Paper was so angry and explosive that the elder Trudeau was forced to withdraw it, incredibly saying: “We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.” The quote was so shocking that it earned a place in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

The new Trudeau obviously does not favour the continuing existence of the “ghettos”. Hopefully he sees that assimilating all native people into an urban culture is not the answer to improving their living conditions. No government should force any people to abandon their culture.

The most remarkable change signalled by the Shoal Lake visit concerned the news media. The only media accompanying Trudeau to Shoal Lake was Vice Media, the gonzo digital news and information newcomer that sometimes blurs the lines between news and  advertising.

The howling outrage from the national media was loud and immediate. Trudeau was showing disdain for the traditional media by leaving them out of the visit. Such an important story needed coverage by important media, not a wild and wet-behind-the-ears pup like Vice.

By taking along Vice, and not the big girls and boys like the Globe and Mail and CBC, Trudeau signalled just how less important traditional media have become. People increasingly get their national news from non-traditional sources such as Vice.

Vice, which started in the 90s as a counter culture magazine in Montreal, now is an international media conglomerate with various websites said to attract 60 million viewers a month.

The Shoal Lake visit showed how new media operations are years ahead of traditional media in terms of creativity and initiative. The prime minister did not invite Vice to come with him to Shoal Lake. Vice invited him.

Last fall Vice produced a documentary on the lack of clean drinking water in many native communities. (My last count was 85 communities). It planned to do more on this issue, so when Trudeau was elected, Vice suggested the new prime minister accompany a Vice crew to a remote reserve to see problems first hand. Trudeau agreed and picked Shoal Lake as the place to visit.

That’s the kind of initiative and new thinking that traditional news media such as daily newspapers, national television and radio have lacked as they fight to survive in the digital news age. Many have cut, and continue to cut, their journalistic staff. Many have  replaced editorial leadership with accountants and soup salesmen who know much about bottom lines, but little about professional news gathering and public service.  

Certainly, Vice and other new media lack some good journalism practices needed to deliver news that people can trust. Traditional media have developed and refined those important policies and practices over many decades but need new media type spark to become more relevant.

Some will argue that the Shoal Lake deal with Vice is just another example of Trudeau’s style without substance. More posing for the cameras. Perhaps, but he is showing aggressive new thinking more in tune with younger generations. Time will show if his thinking and style make life better for all Canadians.
So the Shoal Lake caper put the national media’s nose out of joint. A  suggestion to those once mighty newsrooms: Get over it and get going with fresh thinking. Either that, or get left behind. 


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