Meet Walking Eagle, the finest source of satirical Indigenous news
'This was an opportunity for me to get a lot of stuff off my chest'
This interview was originally broadcast on December 9, 2017.
At a time when the news cycle routinely sends readers' anxiety levels through the roof, it can be a relief to turn to satire.
Fans of the Canuck humour site The Beaverton have known this for a while and now Tim Fontaine is getting into the game with a new online satirical news site, Walking Eagle, which bills itself as "the finest source of Indigenous news."
One early headline reads: "First Nations man wakes up white after Indian Status card expires."
Fontaine, a Winnipeg journalist who previously worked as a reporter for CBC News and is now the host of The Laughing Drum on APTN, knows a thing or two about hard news. But he says it's been a relief to shed its confines.
"I was reporting on all of these stories and not able to say how I feel, because when you're a journalist, you can't show people how you feel — bias is just not done, [or] at least it shouldn't be done," Fontaine told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
"So this was an opportunity for me to get a lot of stuff off my chest. Somebody described it as like a dam breaking, because there was just one story after another [when the site launched], and I guess it was because it was stuff that I had bottled up inside me for a long time."
Indigenous people, stop eating our animals so we can kill them for sport: hunting org <a href="https://t.co/IiAIVURwWT">https://t.co/IiAIVURwWT</a>—@TheEagleist
Stumbling into satire
In searching for new ways to tell stories, Fontaine says he shifted from serious to silly almost by accident.
"I wanted to be more of a creative writer, but everything was still coming out as news," he explained. "And then I thought, 'You know what? There's something here,' because I was writing humorous stories and I thought, 'There has got to be a place for this.'"
"So I never intended to make a satirical website, but I put some of it online and then I just kept going and going, and then a couple hours later, I had a site built, social media accounts and everything, and I was ready to go. So I said, 'Let's do it!'"
Fontaine applies his sharp journalistic instincts to finding the funny in topical situations, from Prime Minister Trudeau's dealings with Indigenous groups to the bureaucratic foibles of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
Grain of truth
Like all good satire, Walking Eagle's stories ride the fine line between completely ridiculous and potentially believable.
While a post about former AFN head Sean Atleo reinventing himself with a breakdancing career might have readers shaking their heads with a chuckle, it turns out stories like that one aren't as far-fetched as they might initially seem.
"There is a lot of just plain ol' silliness on the site," Fontaine said with a laugh. "But there's also a grain of truth in that [story], because Sean Atleo, believe it or not, did actually teach breakdancing before he entered politics. And people believed it — they believed that he had actually gone back to it. I mean, the other thing that's been surprising about this is how many of these stories are being believed by people."
Things that are absurd are what I find the funniest.- Walking Eagle News founder Tim Fontaine
One such tall tale on the site that had some readers appalled suggested that Canada was to present an Indigenous man to royal couple Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as an engagement gift.
"It's this Cree guy from up north who is going to be moving to Buckingham Palace, and people believed that because there is an element of truth to it," Fontaine said.
"But I'm talking about human zoos and things like that, and people were like, 'Oh, it's 2017 — how can this still be happening?' I guess there's an air of plausibility about it, as ridiculous as it seems to be. Things that are absurd are what I find the funniest."
Entire federal Liberal government caught in massive dreamcatcher <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cdnpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/YeIGiuCiKE">https://t.co/YeIGiuCiKE</a>—@TheEagleist
'Not trying to make us the punchline'
The Indigenous community's sense of humour is as diverse as the people themselves, Fontaine notes.
"When you go to large meetings or gatherings and you get people together, they're all laughing together, but I'm sure there are [differences]," he said. "I've been blessed in this career to be able to travel most of the country, and I think I have noticed a bit of a difference in how they joke and how they go about doing it."
"Some are more sly than others. Some are far more open. But doing it through satire and news, I find, is a way of almost bringing that all together because you see it through the lens of a journalist."
I'm trying to avoid negative stereotypes ... [and] not make our community the punchline.- Tim Fontaine
While the posts on his site are clearly meant to be light-hearted, Fontaine recognizes that making jokes for and about a historically marginalized group comes with accountability.
"I'm trying to avoid negative stereotypes. I'm trying to not make us, our community, the punchline," he said.
"There was one instance where a friend of mine wrote a story — and I take full responsibility for it though because I ran it — and we said that an inquiry was being called into the MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] inquiry, and we thought it was hilarious."
"But then when we realized that people were being genuinely confused by this, I pulled it automatically and issued a sincere apology. That was a very good learning opportunity that there are some lines that [should] not be crossed."
Video: Non-Indigenous suspected of trying to obtain Status Card so he can wear headdress to Coachella <a href="https://t.co/a9YqSzax5j">https://t.co/a9YqSzax5j</a>—@TheEagleist
Looking for laughs
That said, Fontaine's not planning to go easy on his favourite targets anytime soon.
"I really like poking fun at the AFN," he quipped.
"I'm more playing with the image of the AFN that people might have. In the universe of Walking Eagle News that I've created, they're almost like a high school football team. There's this big group of guys that are kind of bumbling around — I don't think it's really like that … but maybe it's a cultural thing. Every culture has an element of 'let's poke fun at our leaders.'"
Even the site's name is meant to elicit a smirk, Fontaine admits.
"I called it Walking Eagle because it's a very old, corny joke — it's a name bestowed on a leader and it actually means a bird that's so full of crap it can't fly," he said with a laugh.
"I was going to call it some other things, but it came together so fast, that was the thing that popped into my head: 'Okay, that's the name!' And it's worked out."
This article has been updated to include recent content from Walking Eagle.
To hear the full interview with Tim Fontaine, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.