Newsletter: Child’s death prompts need for media-Indigenous cultural protocol

I’ve listened to people on both sides, and I’m convinced it’s time for media and First Nations to set some shared guidelines

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Imagine your child has suddenly died and while you’re grieving, according to your Indigenous culture’s customs, you are being besieged by calls from reporters about the death.

Imagine that you’re a reporter or editor who is covering the sudden death of an Indigenous child. You’re trying to get a family member to share their feelings about the child, to talk about who they were and how their death will impact the community. Deadline is approaching and no one will answer your calls. What do you do?

This scenario played out in real life in Port Alberni, B.C. earlier this month, after the death of a six-year-old Nuu-chah-nulth child. I’ve listened to people’s questions on both sides of this issue and I am convinced that it’s time for media outlets and First Nations to consider adopting a cultural protocol and guidelines.

A protocol would help reporters navigate how to report on deaths in First Nations, and help them understand which images to use of the deceased. If Indigenous people don’t take the lead on explaining their culture’s customs to media, then it’s left up to individual reporters to try to make sense of it. Doing this in a vacuum isn’t good for anyone.

For media, a cultural protocol with guidelines will help ensure that Indigenous stories are told respectfully — which every reporter wants (or should want).

A protocol could also help reporters tell First Nations stories in a way that sustains a relationship with Indigenous people, and isn’t just a one-off. As well, It could help build trust with a people that have historically been misrepresented by media.

The challenge for reporters is this: Where do we draw the line in respecting cultural customs? Everyone must be held equally accountable.The integrity of journalism must be maintained. And truth can’t be compromised.

Dontay-Patrick’s family spokesperson gave me permission to use their funeral service announcement, with his photo, in this newsletter.

For First Nations, the advantages of working with media to develop a protocol  include ensuring our cultural codes and customs are codified and respected. As well, it ensures that stories are more accurately told and more balanced, and that First Nations are painted in a more nuanced and truthful manner.

There are challenges, though. There are trust issues because of a historically bad relationship. Both sides of this equation will have to manage their expectations and understand that this isn’t a cure-all. But it’s better than the vacuum that exists now.

As far as I am aware, no such protocol exists in Canada. There is a precedent, however. In Australia, the Special Broadcast Service produced the Greater Perspective, a cultural protocol that guides media when they report in Indigenous communities about Indigenous issues.

And in Canada, journalist Duncan McCue’s website Reporting in Indigenous Communities serves as a toolkit for reporters and editors who are reporting about Indigenous issues in Indigenous communities.

I’m going to pitch brokering a cultural protocol between a media outlet and First Nations as my next project, after my investigation  into on-reserve housing wraps up.

Drafting a protocol will require extensive engagement with a First Nations group. It  may not lead to a big story, but I think it contributes to reconciliation and will offer a considerable public service. And I’m convinced that it is the right thing to do, and that it’s time.

Do you think a protocol would be useful? What would you include in the guidelines? And how would you balance the need to share the news with the cultural sensitivities of First Nations? Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.


  • Reconciliation in schools is about more than reading Indigenous literature. Read here about how reconciliation can be offered through school curriculum, culture, community involvement and institutional planning.
  • Canadian unions advocate for equality and social justice but what are they doing for reconciliation? Read about what some unions are now doing to advance reconciliation, including their efforts to adapt grievance and arbitration to integrate Aboriginal processes to resolve conflict.
  • Listen to this thought-provoking radio piece about reconciliation, and whether it can be achieved in the post-Tina Fontaine and Colton Boushie era. [end]


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