Reporting Racism

The complainant, David Anderson, thought the emphasis on racism in a National and online look at the plight of Indigenous students who go to Thunder Bay to complete high school was inaccurate and biased.

I found the piece addressed some of the complexities of the issue and it was appropriate to include racism.


You objected to an article on the website entitled: Unsafe harbour: Parents weigh school versus safety in Thunder Bay.” The item was a compilation of material from a special report that had been broadcast on The National. You thought it was both inaccurate and biased. You said it “laid the blame for the numerous native student deaths in Thunder Bay on racism.” This is not true, you stated, the cause of death as revealed in an inquest was drugs and alcohol:

Only once was alcohol, drugs, and depression mentioned, and that was in the second paragraph of the opening remarks. There was no mention of how the students died other than they ended up in the river or in the floodway. The theme throughout the whole piece was that racism was rampant in Thunder Bay, and that racism was the cause of their deaths.

You said that blaming the deaths on racism is a “blatant lie.” You were concerned that the reporting was biased because it only presented one point of view:

I believe that journalists are supposed to present the facts of a story, and not tell the story from the native's point of view, which in this case is totally false..


Jonathan Whitten, the Executive Director for News Content, replied to your complaint. He explained that the story you referenced was one treatment of a complex subject. The method here was part of a special report which began with the problem for many isolated Indigenous communities. He made clear this treatment was a “broader view” of a series of stories CBC News has been following for some years. He explained that CBC has covered the specific stories of the nine young people who have died over the last seventeen years in Thunder Bay. He said that there have been many stories which dealt with the complex issues affecting Indigenous young people who come to Thunder Bay. He explained how the story was structured, and what its purpose was:

We began with the problem: For many isolated Indigenous communities, we said, the only way young people can get a high school education is to come to Thunder Bay. Doing that means leaving their small communities, families and friends to come to the city and the anxiety and temptations that come with it. “They can be particularly vulnerable to pressures ranging from alcohol and drugs to depression, to racism”, the story said.

The result, the story explained, is that many families are refusing to send their children to school in Thunder Bay. And that is where this story started.

He added that Rosemary Barton, one of the hosts of The National, went to Deer Lake to present the experience and views of two different families - one whose child was going to Thunder Bay for high school, and the other who had decided against the move. He noted that was the “heart of the story.”

He pointed out that the story concluded with a range of perspectives of the cause of students’ difficulties:

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he thinks an “extreme degree” of racism is responsible, although he concedes Indigenous leaders “should be doing better”. Mayor Keith Hobbs said he sees an “element of racism”, but feels the racism in Thunder Bay is no different than what exists in other cities across the country. Rob Kakegamic, an educational coordinator, said nothing replaces the family, but he tries to support and protect Indigenous students who arrive in town. And Jane Philpott, the federal minister responsible, said the government is working on providing local communities with more opportunities their own higher education.


You observed in your complaint that you thought reporters were supposed to present the “facts of a story and not tell the story from the native’s point of view.” Actually, journalism is more than just a random collection of facts - it is the iterative examination of complex issues in the public interest, it is the telling of people’s stories from a variety of perspectives and points of view, and it is, as CBC policy explains, journalists using “professional judgment based on facts and expertise” to distill and shape stories. This particular treatment, as Mr. Whitten pointed out, focused on two families facing the decision to send their teenage children far from home to Thunder Bay. It explores their perceptions and lived experience. It then broadens out to a larger look at the issues at play and how some people involved with the issue of Indigenous student deaths in Thunder Bay understand the challenges. To reduce it to a statement that racism is blamed, not only fails to appreciate any of the nuance in the piece but also the complexity of the problem. It is your belief that racism is not at play here - and you are right, it is not the only issue - something the piece reflects. The fact is that systemic discrimination, marginalization and mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada has been documented and is one of the frames in which this is properly set. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented it, and Canadian governments have acknowledged it. It is a context that is a reality, and as Keith Hobbs, the Mayor of Thunder Bay, is quoted as saying:

Mayor Hobbs believes the city's relationship with First Nations people is a national narrative that is playing out in Thunder Bay. He admits there is no doubt an element of racism in the city, but adds that the same racism exists in many other communities.

One of the young people recounts a painful racist encounter, and a father also faced overt discrimination when he was a student. One of the chiefs quoted also blames racism. There is no violation of policy to present his point of view - it is part of the picture - but not the only part addressed. You believed the reference early in the story to the role of drugs and alcohol is dismissive and gives it short shrift. In fact, by putting it near the beginning, it also sets a frame and a context:

For many communities in the North, the reality for young people is that moving far from home is often their only way to get a high school education. But sending students to the city takes them out of the supporting sphere of their own family and community at an age when they can be particularly vulnerable to pressures ranging from alcohol and drugs, to depression, to racism.

Parents of any adolescent worry about drug and alcohol use. Often the substance abuse is a symptom - the underlying issues are addressed in this discussion. The piece addresses the absence of parental supervision, the stress of adjusting to a city and from dealing with racism and discrimination. These are facts set out in this story to create a fuller understanding of the choices confronted by parents in assessing the dangers their children face in order to continue their education.

Another perspective in this piece was from a worker whose job was to provide services to Indigenous high school students in Thunder Bay. He actually provided a note of hope that the situation can be improved. The issue is not blame - it is diagnosing and understanding underlying causes and taking appropriate action:

"What we'll do is the best we can and provide as many services and support as we can. In the last two to three years the activities after hours, and students getting involved in areas they shouldn't, it's drastically decreased."

I did not do an exhaustive search of CBC archives, but even a brief one revealed a host and range of stories about the challenges and issues facing Indigenous communities, and what might be done about them.

The reality is that Indigenous youth are at a significantly higher risk to die by suicide than non-Indigenous children. CBC crews have documented the conditions which lead to that reality. They have also examined the problems of addiction and the challenges of delivering proper and appropriate mental health services, and basic infrastructure to alleviate the conditions that lead to these problems. To acknowledge the well-documented legacy of the residential school system, and other systemic public policy that devastated First Nations lives, is not bias - it is illustrating what the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, referred to as the worst stain on Canada’s human rights record. Racism is part of the larger picture in understanding the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. In this case, it was part of the examination of the lives and deaths of students in Thunder Bay. It was neither inaccurate nor biased.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman