BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The National Mall is a place where encounters happen. Groups of people, many with agendas, cheek by jowl in the most public of public squares.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This is where the Native American elder comes in. He was coming from an indigenous peoples march.
NATHAN PHILIPS: And it was full of pray, full of promise of a better tomorrow. You know, that's was--the message we put out. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The kids were in DC to protest what they see as a national shame. Unaware, perhaps, that Nathan Phillips was too. The shame being the legacy of genocide, to this day, depriving Native Americans of adequate clean water accessible, health care, voting rights, protection for indigenous lands and more. Which is why Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty tweeted the idea that quote 'Covington Catholic High School should organize a spring break project doing service on a Native American reservation.' For a meaningful encounter, not a glancing one. Tumulty's proposal was roundly criticized as putting the onus on Native Americans to do the work of educating the ignorant mainstream. But presented with deep hatred and racism in their own country, some indigenous people in Canada came to a very different conclusion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: These six travelers have been invited to experience indigenous Canada for the next four weeks. Other than that they know nothing about the journey that lies ahead.
BOB GARFIELD: First Contact from APTN, Aboriginal peoples television network, is a Canadian documentary series based on an Australian series of the same name. Vanessa Loewen is executive producer of the Canadian version of the show.
VANESSA LOEWEN: There had been a study published that cited that six out of ten Australians had never had contact with indigenous people. So the producers looked at that and thought, 'maybe if there was more contact there would be less tensions between the communities.'
BOB GARFIELD: It was a success. And so, four years later, six white Canadians, Ross, Avonlea Don, Ashley, Jamie-Sue and Dallas were assembled for a full immersion adventure. They came with suitcases and a full complement of ugly Indian stereotypes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I think of alcoholism. I think of drug abuse.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A whole bunch partying and flophouses.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: They just always get money and handouts.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Power, they are worse off when they're given so much.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We are being made to pay for something that we didn't do.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Where's my money going? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: In over 28 days they move through different communities from assimilated middle class families to rural Inuit trappers up in Nunavut to urban areas rife with the pathologies of blight. Notably, the visitors learn about Canada's horrifying 120 year history of residential schools in, which Indigenous children were taken from their communities and sometimes actually kidnapped to be transported to boarding schools in order to de-Indian them. The schools were finally shut down about 20 years ago but they have left generations of trauma. Rick Lightning, a residential school survivor now specializing in first nations awareness, school the visitors.
RICK LIGHTNING: My brother was in a residential school. And my sister-in-law were residential schooled. They were--they died alcoholics. Whatever happened to them in their--but the effect on their children was unbelievable. My father went to the residential school in Red Deer. He told me a story, they were working out in the fields and there was a big hole there and there are bigger boys are bringing in a wheelbarrow. And they dumped it and there was all these little bodies and fell in there. And there--one of them was their little brother David Lightning. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the show's white stars take this information hard because among the things they came in not knowing was the nature of the education they had signed up for.
VANESSA LOEWEN: We originally that Canadians with strong opinions, a sense of adventure and a desire to know more about their own country. We asked them a wide range of questions about different politically charged issues like hunting and environmentalism and indigenous issues. And then as they got further along to the interview process with our casting team and started to see producers, we started to tell them the show will be focused on indigenous Canada and indigenous issues. And at that point I mean, I imagine in the states with these kinds of race relations it's similar. People who feel these things are generally not shy. In fact in Canada people might be a little bit more shy because we fancy ourselves like really, really polite and the racism that we experience everyday is sort of one of our best kept secrets between indigenous people and non Indigenous people. But people are surprisingly unafraid to say these things.
BOB GARFIELD: The native Canadians that your adventurers met along the way were, as a group, just so charming, so thoughtful, so calm, so wise.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The problem with saving us, they've left us with no religion, no belief system. And so that's something that's important to understand is that we have a way of prayer. Churches didn't bring guard here. We had pray. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD: Such great exemplars of both the traumas and the triumphs of first nations people. Was that by design? Was it a tough call?
VANESSA LOEWEN: It was not by design is all I can. Say we picked people who we knew could speak to the community. A lot of the time these people are activists like Michael Champagne in the first episode or teachers and elders Rick Lightning. And these are people that are in our communities. The stereotypes are so deeply embedded in the fabric of Canada that people just choose not to see that there is a whole other side to being indigenous than what they're seeing on the news and what they're seeing sometimes in their cities.
BOB GARFIELD: While you're six white folks went from significant assimilation onto Nunavut where they saw a much more traditional lifestyle.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So what would be an example of local food?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: [INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Seal.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: [INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Whale.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: No. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And they also visited a drop in center for homeless people. They encountered people with drinking problems, ex-felons.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: My mom wasn't, wasn't really around in my life when I was a youth.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: So I just was angry about the whole my mom situation–leaving when I was a kid. But it took me to a drug overdose and well, I committed to my crime and then I tried to escape from reality and--[END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD: Not a whitewashed picture of indigenous life. You could have just created a Potemkin village but you didn't. Why?
VANESSA LOEWEN: Because with the issues with crime and addiction, those are all things that we understand come out of colonization. And we wanted people to really be able to drill down A, to see that these people are just people B, to see that they might have something in common with these people. In the case of Jamie-Sue that really had a profound effect on her because of her own struggles with addiction. Meeting these folks with addiction problems and stuff and really just peeling away the layers that we're all human. The best way to defeat racism is through education and so many people choose not to be educated because it's just easier to read the headlines and move on and have her strong opinions and think you're right. So, this was our one opportunity to educate and make people have a little bit of empathy for their indigenous community.
BOB GARFIELD: But there was some backlash from the first nations communities.
VANESSA LOEWEN: I think that they felt like, 'why is it our responsibility to make the non-native population of Canada understand that we're just people. We're sick of having to do this. Why do we have to keep doing this?' I will say that in the case of Michael Champagne, he was initially asked to be on the show and said, 'there's no way in hell I'm doing this.' And he said like, 'why would they even think that I would want to be a part of this. This is crazy.' And then he sat back and really thought about it and was like, 'I have a responsibility to my community to help educate and help build this bridge.' And he did it and now I see Michael all the time, we live in the same city. He says it was a completely valuable experience and he's so glad that he let his guard down and put himself in that situation.
BOB GARFIELD: At the end, the transformations are uneven. At one extreme, you have one of the women Jamie-Sue and a young guy named Dallas who actually see themselves now as advocates and allies of the Indigenous community.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I want to be part of the solution. I don't want to be part of the problem and you can also classify the problem as silence. The fact that there are six of us sitting here talking about it right now is a really good step forward. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, there's these two guys Ross and Don, who from the beginning have been almost caricatures of stubborn old white guys who believe what they believe and they just won't be budged.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I'm still skeptical about the whole school thing because it was all, 'they stole our kids, they ruined out families--'.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's the wrong thing to focus on.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: That--that connotation of that was that a violent taking of all the children.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It's not focusing on--they took, their culture. They took their language way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: No, you can't take someone's culture--
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Yes you can.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: --you can teach them a new culture. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD: For the purposes of reality show drama, were you assuming or even hoping that they stay in character to the bitter end?
VANESSA LOEWEN: At no point did we approach this series as though it was a reality show. I know that it inherently falls within that genre but we were treating it as a documentary series where we wanted to document their true experiences and we were not manufacturing them. The only thing that we were aware of was everybody has to undergo psychological testing obviously. We can't send people for 28 days to remote areas and risk someone being not well. As a result of the psychological testing, we knew that some people would have more of a propensity for change than others. But, of course, none of that is a given anything could have happened. And I will say, Ross who really seemed not to change and even though that, you know, is I think true of who he is, after he met some of the inmates from his area he went back that Christmas and took them gifts as a way to show them support and continue to encourage them on their journey toward making their life better. So while he maybe didn't change in his opinions that he spouts to people, he certainly felt a connection.
BOB GARFIELD: The show which started on APTN, a network explicitly for indigenous peoples, it now has a lot of mainstream distribution. What's the reaction been?
VANESSA LOEWEN: Well, we certainly always struggle with getting eyeballs on what we're creating out of the Indigenous community. There's a mentality of that's for them and not for us. With First Contact, we were actually quite hopeful that it would reach the mainstream and most of our feedback is from non-indigenous people. Now we have been bombarded in a good way for requests for educational packages. So we're working on creating a curriculum that will accompany the educational videos that are being distributed by our distributor. I mean, I just had a call this week from women from a religious organization in Ontario who were organizing screenings for their communities. That's a really the response that stays. The responses of the militancy or the, 'this is all lies' or 'I'm sick of hearing about residential schools,' those comments certainly came and then they quickly fell away. Those people haven't stuck around. And that's all that we care about. What we care about is that there is going to be a long tail of this teaching that can be taken forward for hopefully generations.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Vanessa, thank you very much.
VANESSA LOEWEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Vanessa Lowen is an executive producer of the Canadian version of First Contact. For Canadians, First Contact is set against a backdrop of pain and, more recently, reconciliation. Here's former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a special joint session of the House of Commons in the Senate in 2008.
STEPHEN HARPER: Mr Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology. To former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Harper's apology for this dark century of Canadian history was followed by the founding of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which ultimately released its conclusions in 2015.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: For more than six years, the commission traveled the country hearing from survivors. Nearly 38,000 say they experienced physical or sexual abuse.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The hope of our commission for reconciliation in the future is that we as adults can make a commitment to the children of the future. That we will do what we can today to make their world of tomorrow a better place. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The report set forth 94 recommendations including the right to mass media. APTN, which was founded in 1999, became a fundamental piece of the reconciliation process. Jean La Rose is CEO.
JEAN LA ROSE: While our mandate is, basically, to share our stories amongst ourselves because we are not one people in Canada, you have first nations, you have Inuit, you have Metis people's, so we better know each other. But also share it with all Canadians. Canadian experience has been to create a false image, a stereotype, of Native people in Canada. I remember my grade 5 school book showed us as semi-naked savages, dirty unkempt, full of lice. So all Canadians have this image of who we are, the stereotype, but the reality of it is across the country, our communities and our peoples are involved in every facet of life. We have engineers, we have politicians, we have ministers in the cabinet. We have people across everywhere in industry that are making a huge contribution and a huge difference in this country. So for us to be still perceived as either the noble savage or the drunken savage is something that needs to be addressed.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, your channel isn't just a propaganda channel highlighting the nobility part of the stereotype. Part of Truth and Reconciliation is truth and you do not turn your cameras away from chronic problems of an underclass, from transgenerational trauma from dysfunctional families from dysfunctional lives and there's backlash attached to that from Indigenous communities. There are people who believe that you are yourselves portraying a side of indigenous life that they would prefer not to advertise to the world. They think that you're are self-defeating. How big a problem is that for you?
JEAN LA ROSE: I say it would be a bigger problem when we started turning the lens on ourselves about 10 years ago. The backlash then was quite strong but we're seeing a change in our communities. We're seeing a change in the leadership. There is a younger leadership but there's also leadership that wants to be more accountable, that wants to be more transparent–slowly moving into place. So we're having less of that backlash than we did when we first started. What we're seeing is that the actual community members will tell us, 'thank you for telling that story because we didn't dare. For example, APTN had a series called Blackstone that ran for five years. It created a fictional First Nation. The plot started off by portraying everything that was bad in a community, about the leadership, about the politics, about everything else.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Last season on Blackstone.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A gun register to your name was found at the crime scene.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A woman has gone missing.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I'm all alone.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And now a sizzling new season of Blackstone begins. [END CLIP].
JEAN LA ROSE: And initially we were severely criticized for portraying ourselves in a bad light. But the goal was, over the course of the series, to show how the community could start taking matters into their own hands. People could start making their voices heard. They could start pushing for change. We started getting a lot of support for it to the point that when we ended the season, we got criticized for stopping it. So it did, for many people, create that aspirational viewpoint that things can be better but we have to be a part of the solution. We can't sit there and expect things to happen for us. We've done that for 150 years. It doesn't work. We've got to take matters into our own hands and make our lives better. And we believe that APTN is part of that transition and helps people sort of focus on the broader picture and not just today's reality.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Jean, thank you very much.
JEAN LA ROSE: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jean La Rose is chief executive officer of APTN.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi We had more help from Xandra Ellin and Alice Maiden and our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Sam Bair. On The Media is a production of WNYC studios, I'm Bob Garfield.