Enduring Colonialism in Canadian News

Reviewed by Candis Callison

No one would want to look in a mirror to see a reflection that is unflattering, ghastly even, and inconsistent with one’s own sense of self. Yet, Seeing Red by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson produces such a mirror. While many Canadians are likely to perceive their newspapers as reflective of long cherished values of racial tolerance and multiculturalism, Anderson and Robertson find disturbing, persistent, and enduring colonial stereotypes in Canadian newspapers.

Seeing Red is a wonderfully dense and rich historical work that situates itself equally amongst journalism history, colonial histories in the Americas, and scholarship on representations of minorities and race in Canadian media. It begins with the sale of Rupert’s Land in 1869, and in the following eleven chapters, methodically walks through other major historical moments in Canada: the signing of Treaty 3 in 1873, Louis Riel’s death and the North-West Rebellion in 1885, the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, the death of Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson in 1913, the unmasking of Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) in 1938, post-World War II coverage of Aboriginal people in 1948, the White Paper in 1969, the Anicinabe Park Standoff in 1974, the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985, Oka in 1990, and the Prairie Centennial in 2005. The conclusion ends with a scathing critique of Margaret Wente’s long-running column in the Globe and Mail. The authors argue that Wente’s “common sense” approach reflects many of the same—now naturalized—colonial predilections for binary comparison, where Aboriginal people are always found wanting morally, physically, mentally, historically.

Anderson is a historian, primarily of Latin America and American film, and Robertson an art historian and curator with Lakota and Scottish roots. They view the press as agenda-setters who not only frame issues for an “imagined community,” but also provide the public with “ready-made consumable opinions.” Gramsci’s idea of hegemonic ordering provides a key theoretical framework for understanding what lies behind the “othering” process, where inequality is consistently used in various ways to “promote a nation.”

Methodologically, Anderson and Robertson approach historical news coverage slightly differently in each chapter. This should not be seen as a deficiency, but rather as a way of investigating both national and regional journalism in ways that reveal the durability and malleability of stereotypes. For example, the first several chapters look at coverage from the Toronto Globe and the Montreal Gazette, while the Klondike chapter focuses on five newly established Yukon newspapers. As Canada and its reporting capabilities expand, Anderson and Robertson enlarge their terrain too, for example, looking at the coverage of the White Paper in 1969 in eighteen regional and national dailies.

The book covers a vast historical landscape in terms of the development of journalism, beginning in the partisan (and often yellow) period through to the more professionalized objective version of the early twenty-first century. That this shift hasn’t eradicated deeply held colonial attitudes towards Aboriginal people is a critique that remains productive, and could be applied as well to recent coverage of the crisis in Attawapiskat.

This review “Enduring Colonialism in Canadian News” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 140.

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