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Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers

by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson

There is no denying that the new book by University of Regina professors Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson is a valuable and valiant effort. Addressing the way Canada’s native population has historically been characterized in our national media is an incredibly worthy topic that warrants a book-length study. Unfortunately, the broad swath of history and newspaper coverage the authors seek to study, combined with a problematic methodology, undermines this effort.

The book examines how Canadian newspapers have covered key moments in native history, from the Red River Rebellion to the Oka crisis and beyond. Anderson and Robertson view all of this through a theoretical lens that draws heavily on the idea that newspapers are a crucial tool of hegemonic forces in Canadian society. There is nothing wrong with this particular approach, or with the corollary of employing textual analysis to critique the media, especially when dealing with a subject so likely to be fraught with loaded language. There is, however, a lack of clarity regarding how the authors carried out their analysis. 

The authors search for key terms and phrases – “squaw,” for example – to illustrate the treatment of natives in newspapers, but their selection criteria are not always clear. One of the most glaring examples of this flawed approach comes in an analysis of newspaper coverage surrounding former Assembly of First Nations chief David Ahenakew’s anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers asserted Ahenakew was “furious” and “promoting hatred” following his conviction; for the authors, these assertions were an example of how the “press also promoted hatred of Ahenakew.” But the authors need to build a far more meticulous and convincing case to back up their argument.

While it would be unfair to suggest that Anderson and Robertson should have carried out a different study, they would have benefited from a rudimentary quantitative analysis of newspaper coverage of natives. Not only would this provide support for claims about how frequently certain frames of reference appear in news stories, it might also help situate the importance of news about native Canadians in the broader landscape of the national news agenda. After all, being ignored – or, to use Gaye Tuchman’s term, symbolically annihilated – is at least as bad as being stereotyped.

In spite of some occasionally glaring problems, hopefully Seeing Red will spark new interest in examining media portrayals of native Canadians, instead of serving as the last word on the topic.