First Nation Paper Prints Only Positive Stories

The aim is to counter “bad press” in other media.

By Tari Wilson

Mi’kmaq Treaty Day in Halifax, October 4, 2012. (Photo: Tari Wilson)

Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nation News aims to counter “bad press” in other media.

By Tari Wilson

Violence, scandal, conflict – you often find these in newspapers. Negative stories generally make up the news. But Atlantic Canada’s only First Nation newspaper, Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nation News, strives to only print positive stories.

Reporter Clifford Paul picked up the phone and was told two young boys were walking on a frozen river when one fell through the ice.  The other boy rescued him. Paul faced a choice. He could either go to a meeting in Membertou to see a prominent  visiting politician, or he could go report the rescue.

The Micmac News reporter covered the rescue story.

The decision caused problems with his editor, but Paul says it was worth it because people responded. Letters and phone calls from parents flooded in saying the story made them cry.

“There is a strong love of our people. There is a strong connection of our people. When somebody has success everybody has success. If somebody is hurting everybody is hurting.”

Paul is no longer a journalist and Micmac News no longer exists.

The severing of the Native Communications Program meant Micmac News lost its government funding.

Competing paper Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nation News, started in 1990, is now the only aboriginal paper printed in Atlantic Canada. It only prints positive stories. Publisher Tim Bernard says that’s the paper’s job – to build up the community. Still, some community members say the paper isn’t living up to its responsibility.

Paul was editor of Micmac News during its final years, the became a communications officer in the natural resources sector. Paul says even though Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nation News was a competing paper he was glad to see the tradition of telling personal interest stories within the Mi’kmaq community kept alive.

A mandate for telling personal interest stories that matter to Mi’kmaq communities is where the similarities between the two papers end.

Micmac News was independent and had reporters and photographers on staff. Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nation News was created and continues to be run by the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq. The paper is bankrolled by Eastern Woodland Print Communications, a company owned by the confederacy. Another stark difference is the fact Nation News has zero paid contributors. Volunteers submit all of the articles.

Clifford Paul, Micmac News editor, gets a close-up of delegates at Treaty Day. (Photo: Tari Wilson)

“It’s written about us. By us. We’re the focus,” says Gordon Pictou who submits articles on behalf of the Glooscap Heritage Centre in Millbrook.  Pictou describes Millbrook as a community with many voices.

“There’s not one Mi’kmaq opinion on everything. Sometimes in regular media they’ll talk to one person in an aboriginal organization, and that’s the only person they’ll talk to, the only voice they’ll hear. But within Mi’kmaq Maliseet Nation News there’s a wide variety of voices.”

The Nation News has 1,200 subscribers, with the majority of readers in Nova Scotia and an increasing number in New Brunswick, PEI and eastern Quebec.

Publisher Bernard says he wishes Nation News could pay their contributors.

“But right from day one we had to find a way to keep the paper going. We provide the medium and they provide the message. As long as it fits with our mandate we are getting it out into the public.”

Mise’l John Prosper, the Nation News’  production technician, and office manager Carol Busby consider the paper’s mandate when they choose whether an article should be printed or not.  

John Lagimodiere talks about the effect positive news stories have on readers

“I was speaking at this First Nations high school in Saskatoon. And afterwards I was putting my stuff and my newspapers into my car. This young guy comes up to me and he’s all decked out, good-looking kid wearing the tracksuit and the ball cap. He looks like a gang-banger, but kind of cleaned up. And he said to me ‘Hey man, how do I get into your paper?’

“And I’m like ‘what do you mean?’ And he says,  ‘Well, you know, I was reading your paper inside a Youth Correctional Centre and on the cover I saw my uncle Don and he’s a big lawyer and doing good. And then in one issue I saw my cousin doing his sports thing. And I want to be in there’.

“So I told him ‘well, you have to do good things’ and he said ‘I know, and when I do something good I want to be in there.’

“So they’re seeing those images. If you keep those images coming … they have a real impact. It keeps repeating in our communities. Sometimes when you tell the good stories in our communities, it gets some traction and becomes the norm.”  

John Lagimodiere – editor and publisher of Eagle Feather News

Busby explains that sometimes if a negative story has received a lot of play in other media they will get the go-ahead from the publisher to run the story. An example of this is the story of Victoria Paul, a Mi’kmaq woman who died in 2009 while in police custody. When the case was reopened in 2011 Busby says the story had graphic details about Victoria Paul’s death. It was unlike anything else the paper had printed. After talking with Bernard they decided it needed to be printed, and wouldn’t  shock anyone because the details had been in other publications.

Prosper has been the newspaper’s production technician for 11 years. When Prosper was in junior high his father worked for a newspaper and would often bring his son along. He’d sit in their old truck and try to get raw candid photos while his father interviewed farmers. He learned the paste-up process with hot wax, and worked in the darkroom. Once he was out of school he started two publications: one was only a single issue and the other lasted six weeks.

“So I was definitely familiar with newspapers, but more the breaking news, the stuff closer to the front. And it’s different here, it’s a different genre,” says Prosper.

Former editor Arthur Stevens says printing positive stories can inspire communities and “Who wouldn’t want to be the bearer of good news?”

Since the Confederacy of the Mainland Mi’kmaq owns Nation News, publishing negative news stories about band councils is unlikely.

“You’re not going to be writing anything bad about your boss,” says Stevens. “However with that said I was never once called and told not to run a story.”

CBC reporter Wab Kinew has reported First Nation stories including on the documentary series, 8th Fire, which is about residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One story he featured was his own father’s. Even though he tells First Nation community stories from within mainstream media, he feels Aboriginal owned and operated news publications are important.

 “What I hope they aspire to be – especially with online media and social media … is the dream of what the free press is in an open democracy. The press should be a lever to exert accountability on the people in power.”

John Lagimodiere can relate.

He has been publishing Eagle Feather News for fourteen years from his own home, printing more than 10,000 copies of the newspaper for First Nations communities in Saskatchewan.

 [Audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/?attachment_id=14036]

Lagimodiere has been burned, or rather blacklisted before.

It happened when he covered a Metis election. He says the election was rigged and he covered it as any journalist would, telling the truth and writing an editorial. The Metis Nation of Saskatchewan stopped advertising and told others not to deal with Lagimodiere.

Despite this loss of business, Lagimodiere remains steadfast that a newspaper needs to be free to criticize the chief or something the chief does. He says you won’t see the same dialogue in band-owned newspapers.

“The role of Aboriginal media is to be independent and as legitimate and credible as mainstream media. By telling our stories, the good, bad and indifferent.”

Violet Paul babysits her two-year-old grandson in her Indian Brook home while working on a proposal for an aboriginal healing centre built in Shubenacadie. She is the mother of four children and has two grandchildren.

She reads Nation News and would like to see the community built up by tackling issues such as violence.

“They have the opportunity to advocate. There’s more to be done to protect our children and our communities.”

When Violet Paul’s neighbour, three-year-old Matthew ‘Matty’ Paul, was murdered by his father, she thought Nation News should have reported it. She thinks they could have turned the negative story into a positive one.

Nation News launched an online subscription service in June 2012, to try to capture a younger audience. Bernard says it’s too early to tell if they’ve been successful hooking a wider audience willing to pay $24.95 a year.

Rebecca Thomas doesn’t have a subscription to Nation News, but she did recently discover the paper while planning a Mawio’mi, a traditional Mi’kmaw gathering.

The grassy quad on Dalhousie University campus has been transformed into the site of a powwow. Dancers encircle the Eastern Eagle drumming group. Mingling with the sounds of the singers’ deep chants and piercing falsettos are murmurs about moose stew being served.

Thomas watches Mi’kmaq dancers from behind her sunglasses.

Honey coloured moccasins step once and then twice in time with the pulsating beat of the drum. Every time a dancer turns he creates a kaleidoscope of colour as sunlight bounces off the tiny mirrors sewn on his regalia.

[pullquote]

“This is our way and we’re trying to show there’s more to us than all the bad press.”

– Rebecca Thomas, Dalhousie University Native Student Association president [/pullquote]

Regalia, says the emcee, not costume or traditional clothing.

Regalia is the word he stresses because it’s the word Mi’kmaw people have chosen.

“I’m just stepping into my own moccasins,” says Thomas.

She is the president of the university’s Native Student Association and helped organize the Mawio’mi. Thomas is nearing graduation for a master’s degree in social anthropology. Through her studies she became more deeply aware of her culture. A smile spreads across her freckled face as she explains she doesn’t know the dances, but she knows school and books and can offer those skills to the Mi’kmaq community.

“This is our way and we’re trying to show there’s more to us than all the bad press.”

Nation News is successful counteracting “bad press”. Wayne Socobasin and Nathan Sack of Indian Brook feel it is a similar to a coffee shop newspaper. Socobasin says it’s an interesting read for someone who knows many people in the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq community, as they recognize friends and family.

This is done on purpose. Nation News staff chooses to publish photos showing faces over action shots. Prosper says they want people to stop and “say ‘oh look, that’s my cousin!’”

Prosper says it’s important Nation News prints a centre spread of six to eight pages of graduate photos each May, as well as many photos from athletic games and tournaments.

“It’s hugely important that our First Nations media are there and telling community stories from the perspective of the community. Sharing news, the things that are important to us as Aboriginal people. And kind of in a micro way rather than a macro way,” says University of British Columbia journalism professor Duncan McCue. 

[Audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/?attachment_id=14035]

McCue is the creator of the Reporting in Indigenous Communities guide for journalists and has been a CBC reporter for 14 years. He’d like to see First Nations news publications continue counteracting the negative portrayal of First Nations people, but with an important caveat.

“I think that we really need to have a vocal and free press in Indian country that acts as a watchdog as well. And I don’t see enough of that. That requires resources, that requires training. We don’t see enough of that in First Nations media and I’d like to see more.”          

A map indicating where most Nation News subscribers live.

Published Jan. 2013