Why clicking on this story about Indigenous people matters: Neil Macdonald

The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has many difficult challenges ahead. One of the most daunting, Neil Macdonald writes, will be persuading non-Natives to pay sustained attention.

MMIW inquiry has a big challenge persuading non-Native Canadians to pay sustained attention

Bridget Tolley, whose mother Gladys was killed in 2001, is embraced after the announcement last month of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Best of luck, truly, to the new commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women, as it begins its two-year journey into darkness.

Best of luck in prying information about racist police behaviour from behind the thick blue wall of Canada's police forces, and best of luck in persuading bureaucrats, who deeply believe information is power, to open up their files and collective minds, and best of luck in dealing with the rather touchy subject of domestic violence inside Native communities.

But most of all, best of luck in persuading non-Native Canadians to pay attention.

Elder Claudette Commanda passes a birch bark basket containing stories of victims and families and cultural items to Judge Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Oh, there'll be worthy efforts to cover the "high points" of the hearings. Editors understand the importance of worthiness.

The official opening of the deliberations will merit headlines, and a lot of editorials about how crucial the inquiry is to "the healing process," and "national reconciliation," etc., etc.

But editors and reporters at mainstream media organizations understand something else, too: the audience isn't really very interested in reading about Indigenous issues. Coverage will quickly wane.

This is not a guess. Whereas news organizations in the past relied mostly on gut instinct to gauge the importance of any particular subject to the audience, they now have hellishly accurate online tools that can measure precisely how many people are reading any story at any moment.

Big numbers are the prize, and editors and columnists know beyond a doubt that when they select certain topics for coverage, the audience will probably tank.

I've learned that one guaranteed way to shrink my numbers is to write about Israel/Palestine, or, to an even greater extent, Indigenous issues.

Why the indifference?   

In purely journalistic terms, of course, those topics merit coverage. But the temptation to avoid them is strong.

After a column I wrote about the new inquiry was largely ignored by readers, CBC executive vice-president Heather Conway told me weak numbers will not change our determination to make Indigenous issues a coverage priority: "It's disheartening, but doesn't change my personal view that this is a — if not the — central issue facing Canadians this century."

Justin Trudeau hugs Elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache, a residential school survivor, during the closing ceremony of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at Rideau Hall last year. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The trouble is, if the audience metrics are any indication, Canadians themselves don't see it that way.

Even educated liberals, while they applaud Justin Trudeau's decision to spend billions on "reconciliation," don't seem terribly interested in the details.

So. Why the indifference?

Well, an obvious partial answer is plain racism.

CBC's website, which is heavily invested in publishing reader comments, has chosen to turn them off where any story about Indigenous issues is concerned.

CBC News doesn't publish comments on Indigenous-related stories because of the amount of hate expressed. (Ministerio TIC Colombia/Flickr)

In announcing that decision last November, CBC's senior director of digital news, Brodie Fenlon, wrote that "These stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line … some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e. racist sentiments expressed in benign language)."

Fenlon called the decision a temporary measure, saying CBC hoped to reopen comments on Indigenous-related stories in about six weeks.

As of now, nine months later, comments remain switched off.

Pernicious indifference

That's one effective way to deal with naked, blatant racism and hatred. It can also be confronted, it can be repudiated, it can be denounced and shunned.

Indifference, though, is something more pernicious, and much more difficult to deal with.

Because what's the point of continuing to talk about something if even people of goodwill aren't listening?

Insist too much on educating readers and viewers against their will, and they tune out, the way they reacted to overzealous, didactic coverage of the Meech Lake Accord in the late 1980s.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney makes a pitch in the House of Commons on June 20, 1990, to pass a resolution urging Manitoba and Newfoundland to pass the Meech Lake accord. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

The fact is, editors at news organizations are alive to audience biases and apathy, and have baked them into their editorial choices for as long as journalism has existed.

The elders of our craft deliver speeches to rookies about "news judgment," making it sound like acquired wisdom, something that develops only after years of experience and sober reflection on important issues.

But really, news judgment is a slipperier thing, freighted with ethnocentrism, tribalism, nativism and the assignment of value to life based on an understood, but undiscussed, hierarchy.

In choosing stories and laying out pages at newspapers decades ago, I quickly learned that one dead Canadian anywhere (even more so, a white Canadian), equalled two or three dead Americans, which in turn equalled 10 or 15 Brits or West Europeans, which in turn equalled 30 or 40 dead East Europeans, who were probably white and maybe even Christian, but came from unpronounceable places, and so forth.

At the very end of the list were Africans, or, say, Bangladeshis. They had to perish in very large numbers indeed to merit any notice.

Bus Plunge

Then there was the Bus Plunge. The Bus Plunge was usually a two-paragraph brief from somewhere in the Third World where a bus (or train or ferry or any other contrivance) crashed or plunged or exploded, killing a lot of people. The Bus Plunge was terribly useful; it could be used to plug last-minute holes that resulted from poor layout measurements.

I'm not saying Indigenous issues are a Bus Plunge. But Indigenous people, I'm afraid, haven't rated very highly on that unspoken hierarchy. Canadians evidently do not consider Indigenous people proximate — and the less proximate the subject, the more indifferent the audience.

As the missing and murdered inquiry will no doubt conclude, police also prioritize cases they believe are of most interest to the public; in a way, they exercise news judgment of their own.

And it's a safe bet that in turn, predators choose targets that are low priorities for law enforcement: to wit, Indigenous women, especially if they happen to be sex workers, are not only the most vulnerable among us, but the least protected.

So, indifference can also be lethal. And now we have those damned computer apps to remind us constantly of its stubborn, passive presence.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.