By Lindsay Briscoe
Just uttering the word ‘Attawapiskat’ these days likely conjures up a whole slew of images of dilapidated shacks and sewage back-ups. The 2011 housing crisis in the Northern Ontario First Nations community spurred a national media frenzy and subsequent push for the Canadian government to do something about it. And it only took one article to get the ball rolling.
Toronto-based Journalism for Human Rights (JHR) Project Manager Robin Pierro is committed to getting remote Northern Ontario communities’ stories out to a broader audience in a quicker and more efficient way and has taken on the planning of an Aboriginal journalist training program intended to do just that.
And although she says she’s been working on the project since four months before the Attawapiskat housing crisis story hit news stands across the country, she says that familiarity with that story will certainly strengthen her argument for why JHR’s project should move forward.
“It’s an interesting case study as to how the media can impact change or push people into action,” she says.
The project is currently in its infancy as Pierro says that before it can actually begin, JHR must secure the funds to carry out the year-long pilot project. She says the partnership commitment from Wawatay Native Communications Society – which has offices in Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout – has been a huge step in the right direction.
Wawatay radio currently broadcasts in several Northern Ontario First Nations communities with the help of volunteer journalists from those communities. The idea for the JHR project is that trained professionals will work with the volunteers to create original content from the communities which will then be broadcast on Wawatay radio in Thunder Bay and hopefully picked up by other news agencies as well.
The six communities on board so far include Fort Severn, Weagomow, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Attawapiskat, Moose Cree and Constance Lake.
“We want to open it up though because we realize there may be people who are really keen but never got involved with the radio station so we’ll have community forums in addition to the more intense on-the-job training,” says Pierro. “The forums will be more general and will focus on how to work with media, what to do when there’s a community crisis and how to get it out there.”
Wawatay has also agreed to purchase freelance content from the journalists-in-training for its print news outlet. Pierro says this is a crucial step forward because it will enable the journalists to earn money for their stories instead of simply work on a volunteer basis.
Pierro says that JHR is currently working on securing funding from several bodies –including the Trillium Foundation, the Aviva Community Fund and corporate sponsors –and trying to iron out the kinks of the project plan as she is well aware of the challenges of operating in remote Northern Ontario communities.
“We’re going to hire a field coordinator from Thunder Bay who will coordinate everything,” she says. “Having that management very close to the trainers, and not somebody in Toronto, is going to help.”
She says JHR is also hoping to hire First Nations trainers with experience working on Northern reserves to help with the integration process.
JHR hopes to be able to start the project in March of 2013. The Aviva Community Fund – one of its potential funders – works on a voter basis. If you’re interested in voting for the JHR project visit: www.avivacommunityfund.org. Deadline for the second round of voting is Nov. 1.