I’ve recently been learning to take responsibility for possibly colonial biases in my seemingly neutral “professional” practices as a writer. I wonder if there’s a similar soul searching happening at the CBC, given the anguish the Fifth Estate’s “investigation” of Buffy Sainte Marie has triggered in the Indigenous cultural community.
I wonder if they’ve questioned framing the story as a Fifth Estate “investigation” of this 82-year-old non-Canadian Canadian icon in the first place. It seems professionally neutral; yet it set a binary tone: innocent or guilty full stop. There’s also what qualifies as relevant source material. In the practices I learned as a journalist, objective facts such as birth certificates were the gold standard, stripped of context and extenuating circumstances.
Framing the program as a conversation might have better allowed the messy contradictions of lived lives and self-identification to just compassionately be. There might have been space to segue into the cultural context of the 1950s when Buffy Sainte Marie was a teenager; Hollywood was still spray-painting white actors to fit what it thought an Indian should look like. A conversational circle might also have been more conducive to exploring the complexities of identity, including the stories we tell ourselves and live into, and the complicity of others when this fits what they want to hear as well. It might have considered different approaches to identity without ranking them: the role of blood quantum in establishing identity for the colonial administration of Indigenous affairs and the long-standing role of adoption in Indigenous kinship identities. In the catch-up learning I’ve been doing in recent years, I now understand how integral adoption was in extending kinship relations among Indigenous nations sharing hunting and trapping territory, especially as the European-centred fur trade expanded across central and western Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries when this practice occasionally included people from France.
Framing the program this way might not have garnered the million plus views it has in the impeccably professional investigative format that was used. But it might not have caused so much pain and division in Indigenous communities.
Last week, a CBC Radio producer with the program “Unreserved,” Laura Beaulne-Stuebing, posted a follow-up to Geoff Leo’s Fifth Estate documentary, giving voice to three Indigenous women in the cultural sector calling for healing. One was Lori Campbell, nêhiyawak/Métis from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and associate vice president of Indigenous engagement at the University of Regina, who said: “The only thing I want to hear from white people right now is ‘…I hope you’re doing okay. I’m thinking of you.’”
As a white person who’s spent my entire career in the cultural sector, I am thinking of you, and feeling for you too. I will continue my soul searching.