I shoot up from the bed in my hotel room, my heart beating so hard I can hear it echoing outside my body. It takes me a few seconds to realize I am not dead, that this is the recurring nightmare I have been experiencing for two and a half years, of which I do not always remember the details. I rush to the toilet and splash water on my face, taking a few slow, deep breaths to calm down.
This is the norm for me when I am out to report on stories of indigenous peoples. It got to the point where I had to carry a bottle of prescription sleeping pills to help in case I was so overwhelmed by adrenaline and stress that I could not sleep. Sometimes I do not sleep for days when I am on command, anxious about police intimidation, for fear that the person who sent me a death threat may follow it.
Every time I go out, it feels like I’m on my way to a war zone. A war of oppression, trauma and brutality against those whose stories I fought to bring to the world’s attention; in the hope that the world will care and stand with them to demand equality and justice for them.
And yet I often fight to be heard in the very industry in which I work.
There was a time when the voices of indigenous peoples were completely silenced. The media has played a huge role in this, both in Canada and around the world. Several years ago, I decided to tell these stories after realizing that much of Canadian society had become apathetic toward the plight of indigenous nations.
When I became a storyteller more than a decade ago, I was hungry to search for and share the stories of my indigenous people.
It was only a few years into my journalistic career that I only started focusing on indigenous stories after realizing that they are often told in a discriminatory and biased way by the mainstream media.
I’m what some call mixed blood, French Canadian on my dad’s side and Cree / Iroquois by my mom’s family.
As I reported, every native elder’s face I looked at reminded me of my kohkum (grandmother), who passed away in 2008. She was a survivor; of colonization, residential school abuse and struggling with alcoholism, but she was a fighter; proud of her native roots and loved her family from the depths of her being in her 74 years on this earth.
Seeing displaced families, the trauma they had to endure, and the addictions they were dealing with brought back memories of my own family’s struggle. Each of us, through several generations, has been affected by colonial violence, residential school horrors and the devastation that followed.
A troubled relationship
Meanwhile, the media has helped perpetuate this violence by failing to report on the rampant injustices. And when the media did report on our communities on the rare occasion, they mostly misunderstood it. All this – our people, our culture, our history, our constant struggle.
I was insulted and sad. So, this job became my life mission. But it required determination because it is not easy to go where little has gone before. You have to get your hands dirty, do hard work on the ground. It’s hard to win the trust of people who are often still hurt by trauma, and to build relationships, to get their stories done right. And learning the culture, protocols and traditions of each sovereign nation is only the first, but an important step, in this process. All this extra effort must be made without any expectation or guarantee of payment for it.
These stories often have strong ties to people’s lives, and require a deep dive to explore and expose the multiple layers of systemic abuse and brutality. The mainstream media’s template of storytelling does not even begin to do justice to them, because it only leaves journalists, who are often parachuted, barely scratching the surface.
To complicate matters further, the relationship between indigenous peoples and those in the media and government – mostly non-indigenous – is upset. Our stories are interpreted and presented from the white colonial mindset, which dominates mainstream media. A system, I believe, needs to be challenged and broken down.
Indigenous journalists are now taking steps to decolonize the media and tell the truths that have never been told. In doing so, they challenge historical untruths. For too long, there have been colonial power imbalances within the media, making it possible to represent the colonial narrative.
We, as journalists, have the power to strengthen the voices of the marginalized, to bring about social and political transformation, and to improve the lives of those who bear the brunt of widespread abuse.
Retrieving the narrative
Decolonization of the media, however, is a strange concept in media circles.
This will require a major shift in the traditional power structures so that the reins can be returned to the people whose stories are being told. As an indigenous journalist, I understand the importance of sharing these stories through an indigenous lens, to present their struggles based on their lived experience and worldview. This is a crucial step towards the recovery of the narrative.
Doing this work is also about reconciliation, and it requires two sides. Editors and people in positions of power who make key decisions about content need to support and invest in indigenous and BIPOC storytellers – so our journalism is not dismissed as “activism” or we are not accused of being too close to the story.
After all, non-native journalists are never branded as activists when they tell stories of and about their communities.
It is only one step to reduce the burden borne by the indigenous peoples. There is much more that needs to change for their problems to be solved.
But there seems to be a lack of political will to take the necessary steps to meet the challenges facing the indigenous peoples of Canada – the drinking water crises, the missing and murdered native women and girls, land expropriation, abandoned infrastructure and housing, the over-representation of indigenous peoples in the prison systems, and the list goes on.
I believe it is because the government and the authorities do not care and are afraid to be found out. Canada touts its vision of reconciliation to the world as a correction of the wrongs of the past. But the wrong things continue. Canada is not ready to face this truth itself, nor does it want the world to find out the extent of it. Therefore, it uses tactics of delay and bureaucracy to dismiss this “race-based” genocide”, Which leads to apathy in the media.
But our voices are now heard and the veil of secrecy is lifted.
The Tombs of Indigenous children was shown to the world this summer.
As a native journalist, I have covered numerous disturbing stories of the missing and murdered native women and girls. I’ve been to the places where their bodies were dumped like rubbish. I held their loved ones while they mourned. I cried along with survivors of the abuse in the residential school system, those struggling with constant landslides, forced poverty as well as families of those lost by this epidemic of violence. I shared the pain of their injustice.
The living and the lost
In a country like Canada, which is admired by the world as a bastion of human rights, I often wonder how they could get away with such atrocities for so long.
I’m tired of collecting the stories of dead bodies. I am done with being treated as if I am someone who can threaten and intimidate the perpetrators and forces because they want to continue to stifle these truths.
I will no longer be silenced or intimidated. I am determined to fight back to stop the violence driven by political, economic, institutional and social racism and oppression.
Around the world, the lives of our people are in danger every day. Threatened, stolen, beaten, abused and killed.
We are all in this together. Our women are the life-givers, the daughters, the sisters, the caretakers of this earth – they are much violated like our holy Mother Earth. And our Mother is tired of the abuse and the destruction. She roared in rage – the earthquakes, the wildfires, the storms, the floods, the deaths, the chaos. These are the cries of our Mother Earth – who demand honor and respect – much as our mothers on this earth long for honor and respect.
I add my voice to those who cry out for righteousness – the living and the lost.
I believe we will be heard, we will be seen, and we will kindle the fires of righteousness over these lands, for generations to come. And we will not stop until the world burns with hope, peace and love.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.