I’m staring at a report about a former Anishinabek Nation chief being sentenced to 60 days in jail for his part in a scheme that defrauded his band of almost $3 million. This type of news always evokes a mixture of emotions in me.
First of all, this report causes me great sadness. I have met this individual, who by all accounts has been a person of strong moral character. The court heard a pre-sentence report refer to him as someone who offered spiritual and financial help to community members, and attributed his uncharacteristic behaviour to a gambling addiction. I feel sorry for him and his family.
It also angers me, as does any form of betrayal by people in positions of public trust. Such stories undo so much hard work by so many dedicated First Nation leaders who devote political careers to convincing others that Indians can manage our own affairs.
Like the saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel, especially if you’re talking about public perceptions. A hundred stories about ‘Nish students on the honour roll or successful small aboriginal businesses or on-reserve couples who take in dozens of foster kids never make the six o’clock news or the front page of the Daily Blab.
But this one story was on front pages and evening newscasts – not just locally -- but all across Canada. It will feed the negative stereotypes and fan the redneck flames.
And this makes many of us feel ashamed. I have to start coming up with responses to the jabs I expect from people who know better, but who have been given some potent ammunition for their bigotry by this one person’s lapse in judgment.
So when the inevitable wisecrack comes across the dinner table about the Indian Chief who couldn’t keep his hands out of the till, I’ll be ready with something like: “Well, he’s no match for Brian Mulroney – he took a $300,000 bribe from a convicted criminal then sued the Mounties for a million bucks for damaging his reputation!”
That oughta do it … until the next time.
And that’s the real challenge. What can we do to reduce the possibilities of there being any “next times”?
The journalist in me knows that publicity is one of the cruelest forms of punishment. I know of perpetrators who have committed suicide because of the humiliation they experienced when their crimes became common knowledge.
Many younger and more foolish years ago my boss got very upset when it came out in the local newspaper that I had been convicted of impaired driving. What concerned him most wasn’t my misdeed. He was angry because I was the editor of the paper, and had written and inserted the story myself. He was concerned about his newspaper’s reputation.
But so was I. After all, how could I apply a different standard to myself than to dozens of other citizens who found themselves the source of local gossip because they got caught drinking and driving.
The Anishinabek News has a mission that is different than most publications. Our objectives are printed on Page 4 of every issue. Offhand, I can’t name another newspaper in Canada that has any publishing objectives, other than to make money for the owners.
Like most publications, we strive to present information that is truthful and accurate. But unlike most others, we deliberately emphasize stories that show the best side of our communities and citizens. We say if you want to read bad stories about Indians, buy the National Post.
Does the Anishinabek News present an unrealistically rosy picture of what life is like in our nation? Probably, just as other newspapers create the unrealistic impression that their communities are dominated by drug addicts, inept drivers and corrupt politicians.
Given the challenges facing Anishinabek citizens – particularly young people – I am prepared to plead guilty to promoting achievers, success stories, and hope for a better future.
Does that mean that our newspaper will not speak out when things go wrong in our communities?
We just did.