How reporting on Indigenous issues as an Indigenous journalist can get complicated
Discourse Media investigation hit close to home for Wet'suwet'en reporter Trevor Jang
Indigenous issues are a complicated topic for any journalist, but for Indigenous reporters, covering them can also get personal.
I experienced this complexity while investigating the internal governance challenges of the Gitxsan Nation in northwestern British Columbia. The Gitxsan are territorial neighbours to my own nation, the Wet'suwet'en.
The investigation was sparked by a pair of confidential documents that had been leaked into the community last fall. They revealed a group of Gitxsan hereditary chiefs had accepted millions of dollars in exchange for their support of a natural gas pipeline proposed to cross their territory.
When I visited the community, Gitxsan members expressed concern that these chiefs did this without consulting the membership.
But when I began investigating, I was scolded for challenging the authority of the Gitxsan chiefs to make decisions for their people.
One Gitxsan leader told me that as a Wet'suwet'en person, I have no right to question the business of their territory. This is based on traditional Gitxsan law. The Wet'suwet'en have similar laws.
This leader was right. Our neighbour's business is not our business.
But as a journalist writing for an organization that wants to serve northern B.C., Gitxsan business became my business.
Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en legacy
I didn't find pride in my Wet'suwet'en identity until I learned about my great-grandfather and the impact he had on First Nations land rights in Canada. But this pride in my lineage also complicated my involvement in this story on the Gitxsan.
Johnny David, who held the hereditary chief name Mikhlikhlekh, was the first Wet'suwet'en chief to give evidence in the historic Delgamuukw land claims court case.
Thanks in part to Mikhlikhlekh and the other chiefs and elders who gave testimony, almost all subsequent land rights cases in Canada have favoured Indigenous plaintiffs.
The impact of their words helped to shape the government's legal obligation to consult First Nations when proposing resource development projects on traditional lands.
The case concluded at the Supreme Court of Canada on Dec. 11, 1997. As a journalist who writes about Indigenous issues, I felt compelled to return to Delgamuukw 20 years after the historic court case.
This fuelled my investigation into First Nations land rights and self-governance in a post-Delgamuukw legal environment, particularly where those rights and issues clash with or influence resource development projects in northern B.C., such as pipelines.
The situation involving the confidential documents leaked in fall magnified broad internal divisions over how decisions are made and who can speak for the Gitxsan.
The Wet'suwet'en struggle with similar governance challenges, but I decided to focus my attention on the Gitxsan, because I felt uncomfortable writing about my own nation's internal politics. I feel it would be a conflict of interest for me to investigate my own people.
But it turns out I'm close to the Gitxsan, too.
And so I stuck my nose in my neighbour's business to complete my investigation, thus breaking the traditional law of the land — the same law my great-grandfather described in the historic court case.
Walking in both worlds
In the end, the Gitxsan leader who scolded me was pleased with my investigation. They found it fair and respectful. They also apologized for being harder on me than they would be on another journalist, simply because I'm Wet'suwet'en.
The experience made me realize that as I move forward with my career, sometimes my role as a journalist and my cultural identity will contradict each other and lead to conflict.
But my cultural identity and the legacy of my great-grandfather are also what drive my curiosity to explore and explain complex Indigenous issues through journalism.
Mikhlikhlekh's evidence in Delgamuukw was epic, filling more than eight volumes.
His testimony has been transcribed and analyzed in a book by anthropologist Antonia Mills called Hang Onto These Words. In its opening, Mills wrote that she used my great-grandfather's evidence "as a primer on the problems of unmasking colonization and of creating cross-cultural communication."
I didn't realize until after my stories were published that I was attempting to do the same thing in my investigation.