Consent, refusal, and the press

Recently, an episode of the media podcast Canadaland featured a panel of Indigenous reporters and media makers.

The panel assessed mainstream media coverage of Indigenous news as well as the role that Indigenous media plays in today’s digital news landscape.

Host Jesse Brown asked whether mainstream media should be permitted to cover these stories in the first place, and conversely, whether Canada is experiencing a “watershed moment” in which Indigenous stories are receiving more airtime.

Maureen Googoo, who owns and runs the independent Indigenous news site kukukwes.com, said:

“I’m at a point in my career and life where I just don’t care what mainstream media finds interesting anymore because I have my own website. I get to decide…. I care about what my community finds interesting. Those are the stories I want to tell and those are the stories I’m going to try to tell […] at this point, I mean, I’ve dealt with mainstream media long enough to realize that these questions are what I’ve been hearing my entire career.”

And Leena Minifie, editor of Ricochet’s Indigenous Reporting Fund responded with:

“We’ve been doing Indigenous media by Indigenous people for Indigenous people since the turn of the century […] we’ll continue doing those stories […] It might take mainstream media a long time to get that kind of education.”

These two responses stood out for me.

They jumped out because I am a settler journalist preoccupied with the ethics of reporting Indigenous stories for mainstream media.

This panel discussion and these two responses were particularly generative, however, because they dovetailed with the ideas raised in Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Land as pedagogy”; specifically, Audra Simpson’s critique of ethnography and Leanne Simpson’s deployment of the concept of consent regarding academic participation.

Audra Simpson is an anthropologist who, in her book, critiques ethnographic methods while articulating a “politics of refusal” in relation to the Kahnawà:ke reserve in what is now southwestern Quebec. It’s a rich, exhaustive and self-critical study of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke and their strident assertion of sovereignty in a deeply oppressive colonial state.

In “Land as pedagogy,” Leanne Simpson challenges readers to rethink the impetus to “Indigenize the academy” and instead to take up and pursue particular, situated forms of knowledge (in her case, Nishnaabeg) that are derived from the land itself.

Both represent a turning away from colonial attitudes and conceptions of sovereignty and institutionalized forms of knowledge.

These concepts (“politics of refusal” and “consent”) may provide a way into the question of what productive mainstream media coverage might look like and what it should not strive to achieve – a direction I think both Googoo and Minifie are gesturing towards in their statements, above.

Audra Simpson articulates a politics of refusal as a response to the politics of recognition. Refusal as she describes it, represents a move in the opposite direction: “Refusal” refers to the “political and ethical stance that stands in stark contrast to the desire to have one’s distinctiveness as a culture, as a people, recognized.” In this way, refusal becomes a political assertion. “Refusal comes with the requirement of having one’s political sovereignty acknowledged and upheld, and raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing” (2014, 11).

Audra Simpson sees this politic play out in Kahnawà:ke, but she also acknowledges and respects this politic and turns it onto her own ethnographic methods. It’s a problem, she confesses, because it runs contrary to the presumed tenets of good ethnography.

But respecting it makes room for a far richer account of the politics at play on this reserve and perhaps more generally, in occupied territories across Canada/Turtle Island:

“In listening and shutting off the tape recorder, in situating each subject within her or his own shifting historical context of the present, these refusals speak volumes because they tell us when to stop” (Simpson, 113).

This account of refusal speaks, I think, to Leena Minifie and Maureen Googoo’s rejection of the authority of mainstream media.

While mainstream media ought to be accountable and ought to be accurate, structurally, it does not (and cannot) serve Indigenous voices. It gains its legitimacy through upholding the status quo even as it portends to be an antagonist of the powerful and sceptic of entrenched hegemonies.

Not only that, but Audra Simpson’s rethinking of ethnography also opens up ways for rethinking journalistic practice.

Perhaps there is a way here, to look at respectful coverage that acknowledges the colonial underpinnings of media institutions, and at how acknowledging this power imbalance might help us appreciate and respect why the tenet “freedom of the press” has its limits.

Perhaps in journalism, too, “refusals speak volumes.”

And it’s here, I think, that Leanne Simpsons’ notion of consent might help us appreciate and work through a reframing of mainstream media approaches to covering Indigenous stories.

In land as pedagogy, Simpson points to the harm caused through the persistent denial of consent: “Within the context of settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples are not seen as worthy recipients of consent, informed or otherwise, and part of being colonized is having to engage in all kinds of processes on a daily basis that, given a choice, we likely wouldn’t consent to” (2014, 15).

While the subject at hand is academia, her analysis provides a strikingly accurate account of the danger of reporting, as well:

“The word consensual here is key because if children learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power” (2014, 15).

There are times when journalistic consent is presumed – and this denial is as damaging for those affected as it is to a student denied his/her particularized, knowledge framework in the academy.

In both cases, this presumed consent can be normalized and become an insidious means of both justifying and denying asymmetrical power dynamics. If mainstream media journalists are brokers between two worlds, their first job is to acknowledge the game is rigged.

I wonder, then, what consensual journalism might look like and whether it is a contradiction in terms. Especially coverage that requires reporting in communities in which stories are hidden from mainstream audiences either in virtue of proximity or through the enactment of “refusal,” as outlined above.

One final thought: As Jesse Brown suggests during the discussion, the advent of the social web has meant unprecedented settler access to Indigenous media. Applying questions about how politics of refusal play out in the context of the web and in relation to independent Indigenous media are fraught. But they also open up opportunities for reclaiming space and affording bridging opportunities between settler and Indigenous communities. They might just offer mainstream media, a means of education.

[1] Maureen Googoo, Leena Minifie, Jarrett Martineau, Ryan McMahon, and Waubgeshig Rice