John W Friesen,* johnwfriesen@gmail.com, http://drsfriesen.com

Review of Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund and Carmen L. Robertson. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2011, paperback, 362pp., including notes, bibliography, and index.

This is an unfortunate book—unfortunate in the sense that the authors have been able to document what many of us have feared for a long time. Racism towards First Nations is not dead in Canada, at least not in the newspapers. In the book the authors examined what newspapers have said about Canada’s Native people from 1869 to 2009. Their message is terse; “This may come as a surprise if you think that colonialism is a best-forgotten relic of days gone by in Canada. It may also surprise you if you think that the press is strictly objective and non-partisan. If that is the case, you will be surprised to discover that the evidence shows something strikingly different” (p. 4).

Twelve chapters later, the authors observe that while in 1900 Canada had 120 newspapers, most of them were independently owned; today, a handful of corporations control the same number. The slant of writing, however, in regard to the treatment of the nation’s Native peoples has not changed (p. 266). The same underlying presuppositions drive news-stories; Native people are characterized as depraved and racially inferior, and tend to function in accordance with a stubborn resistance to progress (pp. 6-7).

So what further can the various chapters tell us? What areas of legitimate grievance do they target? Space does not permit a summary of all twelve chapters, but sampling of concerns may suffice. The first chapter, dealing with happenings in 1869, targets the Rupert’s land purchase with newspapers in Toronto and Montreal chortling about massive land aggrandizement, “virtually free for the taking” (p. 19), and wrested from “as degraded a set of savages as can be imagined” (p. 35).

As expected, chapter two continues in the same vein, and concentrates on the signing of Treaty Number Three in 1883 involving 28 First Nations. Several newspapers state that the seizure of Aboriginal lands was fortuitous for the Natives since they were incapable of reaping needed harvests from the land. After all, “A man cannot be both a hunter and an farmer” (p. 42). The chapter that follows investigates the aftermath of the Riel wars with the Tory-aligned Daily Colonist suggesting that Louis Riel had deluded his followers and deserved to be hanged. Apparently Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald did Canadians a service in consenting to end Riel’s life (p. 66).

The fourth chapter picks up the theme of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-1905 and newspaper headlines describe local Native residents in these terms: “An inordinate Amount of Superstition; Heap Old Man: The Young Squaw! Both Crazy;” and, “Dying Off Like a Flock of Sheep with the Rot.”

With her death, English-Iroquois born Pauline Johnson was conveniently stripped of her “Indianness” (chapter five) by some newspapers, and fondly described as a “poet, princess, and [English] possession,” (see also chapter ten). The Sudbury Star refused to acknowledge Johnson’s death and continued with its usual orientation of downplaying Native cultures with this type of story: “The Liquor men of Sudbury experienced a regular field day on Monday afternoon when Indian Agent Cockburn of Sturgeon Falls had four of the local hotels or their bartenders on the carpet for selling ‘booze’ to his ‘Red Men’” (p. 115).

Archie Belaney, an Aboriginal imposter, presented himself as Grey Owl, and managed to attract considerable positive press (chapter six), even to the extent that some observers preferred to believe that he had Indigenous roots if only to illustrate that some Aboriginals could live fairly productive lives.

The remaining chapters of this amazing study indicate similar literary fare albeit focusing on a variety of topics. The notorious White Paper of 1969 (chapter seven), posited a blatant undercurrent assimilationist policy, and was prepared without consultation with Native people. The assimilationist position was generally supported by the press as the avenue by which Aboriginals could access the good life in Canada. Some newspapers labeled the Anicinabe Park Standoff of 1974 as an act of vandalism by Aboriginals (p. 179), and newspaper descriptions of the Oka crisis (chapter eleven) are similarly denounced.

The final chapter of the book addresses the prairie centennial of 1905 to 2005 with recent newspaper editions touting themes of “the passing race” (p. 245), “Aboriginal neediness” (p. 257), and “a culture of dependency” (p. 258). The authors conclude by noting that through the generations, “colonialism has remained intact in the press (p. 276).

While this book certainly documents fine scholarship, it is unfortunately clothed in a format comprising an artsy cover that distracts from the book’s title, very small, faint print, and completely unreadable page numbers. Let’s hope that a second edition corrects these shortcomings!

Seeing Red documents what close observers of Aboriginal ways already know to be true. Perhaps if Canadians once again witness the malady of racism that this book documents, a change in perception may finally come. One can only hope.

*John W. Friesen is on the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary.

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