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The media play an important role in building positive links and new understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and in supporting reconciliation. But their frames of reference vary considerably, revealing the presence of “two solitudes” in journalistic coverage.

In the early 2010s, Quebec and Ontario designed and implemented plans to develop their northern regions. While the provincial governments said they were intended to strengthen relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – as well as promote economic growth, social development and environmental protection – both plans drew significant opposition from the beginning that continues to this day from Indigenous populations.

Our study of coverage in the traditional media of Indigenous responses to Ontario’s Far North Act (2012) and Québec’s Plan Nord (2011) found that media outlets serving the majority population in those two provinces – English in Ontario and French in Québec – largely painted the actions of Indigenous groups in a negative light.

However, media outlets serving linguistic minorities – French in Ontario and English in Quebec – were more likely to frame opposition to the northern plans in terms of social justice.

Media spin

Media outlets do not always cover the same events, and do not always cover these events in the same way when they do. Editorial preferences, professional and journalistic norms, political partisanship and corporate sponsorship are just some of the things that affect coverage.

Some experts put a particular spin on how these differences manifest themselves in our media landscape. They tell us that what is covered and how things are covered is often shaped in foundational ways by language.

They claim that English-language media and French-language media make different decisions when covering events and issues, and that this is especially true when the events or issues are political.

There is a good reason why people often refer to the relationship between francophones and anglophones as the “two solitudes”: two separate societies, one majority English-speaking and one minority French-speaking, living together in the same country with limited interaction.

But things are seldom so simple, and this metaphor sometimes obscures more than it illuminates.

The power of numbers

In our study, instead of finding a French-English divide in the ways news outlets covered Indigenous responses to these northern development plans, we found the target audience was the crucial variable.

We observed that where media served the linguistic majority, they were much more likely to frame Indigenous responses to the development plans as a threat to national unity, using language like “creating national divisions.”

However, where media served the linguistic minority, they were significantly more likely to frame Indigenous responses in terms of social justice, referring to “righting a wrong” or the “legacy of colonialism.”

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In our study, the “two solitudes” metaphor refers to the majority/minority divide, rather than a French-English split.

These findings are important for three reasons.

First, they challenge the traditional understanding of the differences between mainstream and ethnic or minority media because these understandings fail to capture the complex dynamics at work in multilingual states such as Canada.

The basic idea is that it is not always helpful to think of one language or ethno-cultural group as “the majority group” in a country and all others as “the minorities.”

Depending on what part of the country is being discussed, who is the largest or more powerful group can change. This may have significant effects on media coverage and the framing of events.

Second, our findings raise questions that turn on the experience of being a member of a minority group and the media that serve these populations.

For example, does minority status and its corresponding inequality of power enable some people to observe more easily the inequalities around them? Is that why the media that serve minority groups are more likely to use the language of social justice to tell their stories?

The answers to these and other related questions will be of interest to media scholars in Canada and in other countries with multilingual media environments, such as Belgium, Haiti, Switzerland and South Africa.

Third, our findings support the commonly held view that media make different decisions about which events and issues to cover, as well as how to cover them. This means that the media has an important role to play in how certain groups are portrayed.

We should be concerned about this when the groups in question are experiencing serious social, economic and political injustices. Many Indigenous groups in Canada and around the globe are in this category.

So, it is worrying that Indigenous groups’ battles, including recent ones over Ontario’s mining policies in the so-called Ring of Fire, continue to be painted in a negative light by some media outlets, especially when those media outlets serve the majority which holds many of the levers of power in the region.

Better media comprehension of the power dynamics affecting the representation and framing of Indigenous groups’ actions would be an important first step in ameliorating the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. So, too, would a better inclusion of Indigenous actors in the coverage.

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Isabelle Côté
Isabelle Côté is an associate professor of political science at Memorial University. Her work examines the role of demographic factors and population movements on intrastate conflict and contentious politics in Asia and beyond.
Dimitrios Panagos
Dimitrios Panagos is a political theorist at Memorial University specializing in Indigenous politics. He is the author of Uncertain Accommodation.
Louis-Charles Vaillancourt
Louis-Charles Vaillancourt is a graduate student at Memorial University who is researching renewable energy acceptance.

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