This could be a learning moment but Canada's ossified pundits aren't really about that.
Pundits ridicule movement while pretending to have its best interests at heart. Photo courtesy of Marygkosta/Flickr Creative Commons).
Faced with its greatest First Nations protests in decades, Canada has turned its lonely eyes not to Joe DiMaggio but to its most trusted source of wisdom -- its media elders.
The elders have responded to the call, especially in the National Post. Joseph Brean sneers at First Nations' fears of "legislative extinction." John Ivison dismisses the arguments of Chief Theresa Spence and Idle No More as "simplistic." Andrew Coyne worries about the movement's "absolutist rhetoric" and reliance on failed approaches.
Similarly, Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail dismisses aboriginal Canadians as "living in a dream palace." And former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan, the CBC's scholar of aboriginal affairs, puts the whole thing down to "people who think they should be in charge" plus a "leftist rent-a-crowd."
Following Idle No More and the week leading up to the Jan. 11 meeting in Ottawa, I admired the consistency with which media commentators stayed within the box of orthodoxy. They were, to coin a phrase, a rightist rent-a-crowd, relying on a notably failed approach: ridicule the movement while pretending to have its best interests at heart.
Ringing the media's bells
Whatever the First Nations' motivations, the commentators and the rest of the media have stuck to their Pavlovian responses. Four particular bells made them salivate.
First, as in any political confrontation, the media consider etiquette far more important than the political issues themselves. When an exasperated NDP MP Paul Dewar described the issue as "a frigging meeting," the Ottawa Twittersphere erupted. When Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett on CPAC used the same word on Friday morning, it erupted again.
Such terms, and worse, are the language of private political discourse, but using them in public immediately re-frames the debate into one between Worthy Genteel and Discredited Underclass.
Second, the media showed an almost totalitarian yearning for monolithic unity on all sides, combined with the eager hope that it didn't really exist. In interviews in Ottawa on Friday, reporters pestered chiefs with questions about Shawn Atleo and whether their differing views had undercut him in his role as Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Like scatterbrained kids, reporters had to be reminded that Atleo's job security was not the immediate concern. And had they noticed that white Canadians were less than united about all kinds of things? (Evan Solomon had to be reminded all over again on CBC Radio's The House on Saturday.)
Attacking the critics, not the criticism
Third, almost from the start of Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, Conservatives and their supporters in the media have relied on attacking her and her supporters rather than refuting their criticism -- the Harper government's preferred response to every challenge since 2006.
They were greatly encouraged by the Deloitte audit, which was conveniently leaked three months after its completion. The audit rightly pointed out the serious lack of documentation in spending at Attawapiskat, but said nothing about the failure of Ottawa and its third-party manager to blow the whistle on the problem, which had clearly lasted for years.
By the same token, Julian Fantino's recent freeze on aid to Haiti blamed the Haitians while ignoring his own government's inadequate monitoring of such aid.
No one in the media has compared Attwapiskat spending with the Conservatives' squandering of millions on the F-35 while lying to the media, abusing the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and attacking their critics for criticizing them.
Finally, the media were scandalized when Chief Spence's people threw them off Victoria Island and out of Attawapiskat. Yet those same media are long inured to being treated with contempt by prime ministers ever since Pierre Trudeau -- and especially by Stephen Harper.
Never, in the hectares of print commentary and the countless hours of TV and radio chatter, did any of the media elders seriously suggest that maybe something unusual was going on here, and that maybe the First Nations had a real point.
Please list your complaints on the form provided
Instead, the media elders complained that Idle No More, like the now-forgotten Occupiers, wasn't listing its demands in standard outline format. The chiefs and others patiently went over that outline again and again, starting with natural resources and treaty rights, while their interrogators glazed over and then repeated their questions.
Our media are not alone in their attitude. Over the past 20 or 30 years, similar abject behaviour by the American media has permitted the launching of illegal wars, the routine kidnapping, torture, and murder of supposed enemies, and the general stupefaction of millions of citizens.
Fifty or 60 years ago, those media were treating the U.S. civil rights movement as our media are treating Idle No More: A bunch of dimwitted, over-emotional coloured folks who might have some real grievances, but who were being sadly deceived by their crooked or incompetent leaders.
That excused the power structure from taking them seriously. Listening to them might mean admitting that the power structure had been very wrong for a very long time. That would lead to spending more money on them, and maybe even having to accept them as equals.
When the Indians will be no more
Such attitudes have stubbornly persisted for generations if not centuries, even though the media elders choose to forget or ignore them. As recently as 1971, a 1958 history of Alert Bay was re-published to commemorate the centennial of B.C.'s entrance into Confederation. Apart from praising the local residential school, criticizing the laziness of the natives, and shrugging off the disappearance of their language, the book also noted the improving health of their children:
"It may be owing to the infusion of white blood that these results are occurring. A large percentage of the Indians today are not of pure Indian blood, but have a large admixture of other races. This will hasten the time when the Indians as such will be no more, but will be absorbed into the white race."
Canada's media elders are old enough to remember such attitudes. Many -- whether they admit it or not -- learned them since 1971. And you don't have to be a First Nations elder to recognize it when you see it. The media elders don't want genetic smothering of our First Nations, when cultural smothering will do: Your own culture has nothing to offer us, so just behave like a well-tailored National Post columnist, and your problems will be over.
The issue now is not "absolutist rhetoric," or readiness to talk to reporters, or using rude words on television. The issue now is whether we non-aboriginal Canadians can get past our own rhetoric, shut up for a minute, and just try to listen. The non-aboriginal Canadian media could set us a good example.