Nisga’a whistleblower story shows need for free press

A free press could have brought both context and scrutiny to this story sooner, both of which are necessary for a healthy democracy.

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A recent news story about a court action involving a potential whistleblower from the Nisga’a Lisims Government (NLG) reminded me of the need for a free press in Indigenous nations.

According to this CBC story, the Nisga’a government moved swiftly to silence an IT manager named Andre Cardinal, after he allegedly copied “confidential financial documents” and emails from senior Nisga’a elected and government officials.

The Nisga’a government alleges that Cardinal was going to release the information, along with his concerns, to Nisga’a citizens, as well as to CBC.

He didn’t get the chance, though.

The Nisga’a government obtained a BC Supreme Court injunction preventing Cardinal from forwarding or disclosing the information in his possession. An application to seal the affidavit that was the basis for the injunction remains before the court. Meanwhile, the Nisga’a government has ordered an internal investigation into the matter.

“Please understand that NLG takes the distribution of the message and the allegations it raises extremely seriously and will be taking necessary steps to investigate and resolve them in full,” Nisga’a president Eva Clayton told citizens of B.C.’s first modern-day treaty nation, according to CBC.

“Until that time, however, in the interests of our government and our community, I ask that you please delete the message and refrain from speculating on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the allegations that have been made or sharing the message with others.”

In another message to Nisga’a citizens, Clayton reportedly said “the integrity of NLG and its employees have been compromised.”

What exactly Cardinal is concerned about remains unclear due to the injunction. But it doesn’t surprise me that this happened because there is no media monitoring the Nisga’a government  or the nation’s four village governments. And I believe this issue makes a strong case for why a free press is needed there.

Three years ago, I wrote a series of stories about the state of press freedom in the Nisga’a Nation. I chose the Nisga’a because they are a new treaty nation in northern B.C. They have their own constitution in which they’ve adopted Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which includes freedom of the press.

“[Freedom of the press] is an important part of freedom of expression,” media lawyer Brian Rogers told me in 2016, when I spent months researching the issue.

Rogers teaches media law at Ryerson University. A practising lawyer, he specializes in libel, privacy, copyright, freedom of expression and Internet-related law, and represents newspapers, magazines, book publishers and broadcasters. Rogers says freedom of the press gives citizens the right to gather information, participate in public processes, disseminate news and then act on it through debate and discussion. “The press is a surrogate for this for every citizen in society,” he says.

But freedom of the press has long been a grey area in First Nations. It doesn’t apply per se, yet there is no legal precedent testing or rejecting media access to Indigenous lands and band meetings. This is no longer the case in Nisga’a country, though. Press freedom definitely applies there now — though how it plays out is a different matter.

In The Discourse’s five-part series three years ago, I pointed out that journalism wasn’t part of Nisga’a culture historically, but their treaty has seen them adopt a hybrid democratic-traditional system of governance. Yet, they didn’t foresee how journalism is an integral part of democracy.

At its best, a free press would watchdog the Nisga’a legislature and the nation’s village governments, and report about the business that impacts Nisga’a citizens so they can make informed decisions. It would also question elected officials and senior bureaucrats about their decisions, and praise or hold them accountable for the impact of those decisions.

A Nisga’a free press could have picked up on this alleged whistleblower story long ago. It could have offered some historical, institutional knowledge to trace events, look for specifics and give the story context. It could have been the go-to source for reporting on this issue, and might have carved some space for ongoing, healthy scrutiny, rather than being gagged by an immediate court injunction from the government. And it also could have pointed out shortcomings and solutions sooner.

Instead, CBC broke this story, but it shouldn’t have. It’s not that CBC did a bad job; it didn’t. Rather, a Nisga’a free press could have documented this story all along. It shouldn’t take another incident like this to prove that press freedom and consistent coverage is needed up north.


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People are talking about

  • In this Vancouver Sun opinion piece, political commentator Warren Kinsella says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s acknowledgement of Canada’s genocide against missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has triggered an investigation into the matter by the Organization of American States.
  • On the CBC’s Early Edition, host Stephen Quinn talks to a Cree woman who says she was racially profiled in a Chilliwack grocery store and asked to leave.
  • According to this Globe and Mail story, a new Indigenous-led capital fund is set to give a boost to Indigenous social enterprises.
  • CBC is reporting that a proposed healing centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a step closer to reality now that the Vancouver Park Board has passed a motion to ask the port authority to work with the Indigenous community to explore the feasibility of a centre in CRAB Park.

What makes life harder

“We’re stereotyped too much. It sets us back in a way, right off the bat,” says artist Jerry Whitehead, standing next to a design he painted in the library at Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver.

Urban Indigenous people’s challenges in Vancouver can simply boil down to appearances and the way others judge us, says artist Jerry Whitehead.

“It is the way people look at us, I think. Even something as simple as getting a place to rent, they look at your background and they look at you first and then, ‘I don’t know if we should rent to this guy,’” Jerry says.

The 62-year-old Whitehead is Plains Cree from the Peter Chapman First Nation in Saskatchewan but considers Vancouver his home. “I think I’ve been urbanized longer than I have been on the rez, so I would say that urban is — I feel more comfortable nowadays because I’ve been here so long,” he says.

Still, Jerry says, Indigenous people in the urban centre are stereotyped too quickly, even in the most innocuous places. Just wearing work clothes in a store can get an Indigenous person stereotyped, something he says he knows all too well.

He says he once went into a Michaels store with his former partner and was followed around by store staff who thought he was trying to steal something. “I was in my painting clothes. My partner got pissed off. I didn’t even know this was going on. I was just looking around,” Jerry says.

“Even if we go in a place dressed rough-looking, these could be your work clothes and people think you’re off the street or something like that.”

Lets gather

June 12: First Nations Craft Class at the Kitsilano Community Centre. In honour of National Indigenous History Month in Canada, learn how to make a dreamcatcher in this class from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Traditional snacks and drinks available, and all materials supplied.

June 14: Indigenous Opportunities Forum at the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver. Indigenous leaders, industry leaders, and employers discuss best practices and future investments in building strong First Nations communities. Hosted by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.

June 21: In honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day, the Cinematheque theatre in Vancouver is presenting two films from award-winning filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city documents the 2012 struggle of the Musqueam Nation to stop construction of a condo development on their ancestral village and burial ground; and Bihttos, which chronicles how past injustices impacted the marriage of her Blackfoot mother and Sámi father. Screenings start at 7 pm. Tickets available here or at the door.

June 28: Indigenous Summer Stage at  šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn (formerly the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza) at Hamilton and West Georgia streets in Vancouver. The event features Indigenous artists from multiple genres and nations on an outdoor stage. Free from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

If you know about an event that you think should be included in this newsletter next week, send us an email.

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