The creation of publics for Aboriginal rights in Canada

The Canadian publics who take an interest in Aboriginal rights are contested. Not all agree on the federal role in Aboriginal affairs or recognise the historical aspects of colonisation in this crisis.

Attawapiskat housing crisis 

My research explores how health, housing and education issues in Canada’s First Nations communities are articulated and circulated within social media and conventional media. I’m interested in the increasing influence of ‘transmedia flows’ in mobilizing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians as ‘publics’ and to explore this I have analysed a specific set of media texts and practices that have generated public debates about the economic and social conditions faced by Aboriginal people.  

On November 13, 2011 New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament Charlie Angus posted a short video to YouTube called ‘Attawapiskat Housing Crisis.’ The video was made in response to the local council’s declaration of an emergency in a remote indigenous Cree community and it showed the various tents, sheds and trailers being used as extremely over-crowded housing in the approach of severe northern winter weather. Just over ten minutes in length, the video combined handheld video footage of interiors and exteriors of several homes with interviews of local families, representatives and medical authorities. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the social and economic realities of Aboriginal reserves in northern Canada, the video serves as a shocking introduction to the neo-colonial conditions that underpin Aboriginal people’s everyday lives. The video surveys substandard housing conditions, links these directly to health problems in children and adults, and challenges the federal government to address the emergency. ‘Attawapiskat Housing Crisis’ reached fifty thousand views within a few days of its release and led to extensive coverage by mainstream media in Canada and internationally. The federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper was widely viewed as having mismanaged the crisis after the Red Cross was called in to distribute relief supplies in the community. 

The government responded in a classic case of ‘blame the victim’ by imposing an outside manager to control financial affairs in the community. The housing crisis provided an important political context for a national gathering of First Nations and federal leaders held in January 2012 at which First Nations leaders argued that the relationship between Aboriginal people and Canadian governments was in need of a significant overhaul. 

My research is concerned with tracing the origins of the housing crisis video as a public text, from its initial YouTube circulation, through its appropriation and citation by news coverage in national public (CBC), commercial (CTV and Global) and Aboriginal television networks (APTN) and in national newspapers. I also consider how the issue was recirculated through social media and blogs as the crisis developed. At each stage of its representation and circulation, through various forms of user-generated content and commentary, the Attawapiskat housing crisis mobilized public response. 

The video and its associated texts worked to address various publics, exposing many of the deep conflicts and political tensions that surround contemporary and historical relations between Canadian governments and First Nations peoples. By tracing the circulation of this specific text, representing a particular series of issues and events, my research analyses the whole process of making a public within the social movements for Aboriginal rights in Canadian democracy.

Transmedia texts, convergence culture and open media systems

I began this research with the goal of adapting and applying Henry Jenkins’ concept of transmedia flows – primarily developed with reference to popular entertainment and fictional narrative – to the understanding and analysis of the circulation of journalistic, documentary and news texts. 

Jenkins explores the changing practices of media production and media consumption. He uses case studies of ‘transmedia texts and practices’ to demonstrate how audiences are increasingly involved in the production and reproduction of media narratives and to suggest that in this context, media corporations lose some aspects of their control over the circulation of media content. According to Jenkins, when it comes to ‘communal media’, we should recognize these tensions between the individual’s power to participate, and state or corporate power to control.  

In Canada, for example, Aboriginal people experience a participation gap in their ability to interact with and influence culture and transmedia technologies. Yet they do participate actively when afforded the opportunity to create their own media content and develop their own networks like Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), or K-Net, an indigenous controlled on-line community that serves Northwestern Ontario not far from the community of Attawapiskat. These types of communal media enhance individual Aboriginal people’s power to participate, despite the fact that corporate and state control are still very powerful factors limiting their right to self-governance and access to economic opportunity. 

Media researcher Mark Deuze develops Jenkins notion of communal media and explores theoretical models for explaining simultaneous modes of production and consumption within the creative industries. In a 2007 article, Deuze compares open and closed media institutions alongside elements of collective production and personalized consumption. This matrix presents a means of tracking the origin and movement of texts within publics.  

The Attawapiskat housing crisis video, for instance, originated as non-professional media content made by an MP using handheld camera and basic editing skills and then released on YouTube. It falls into the category of what Deuze calls collaboratively produced ‘we media’, circulating within a highly accessible ‘open media’ system like YouTube. Within days of its release, however, segments of the video had been edited into news stories by all the major Canadian national TV networks, CBC and CBC News Network, CTV and Global, APTN (Canada’s Aboriginal controlled network) and even the relatively recently launched specialty news channel Sun News Network (referred to as ‘Fox News North’ for its strong rightward orientation).  

The video triggered follow-up reports in national and even international newspapers. In these contexts, the video was appropriated by conventional ‘closed media’ systems, primarily set up for individual consumption within private media spaces (either through conventional broadcast reception or through on-line viewing). By mapping transmedia flows within this emerging media ecology, we can trace the representation and circulation of the Attawapiskat housing crisis across the various terrains of conventional media and social media platforms. Deuze suggests that peer-to-peer, commons-based media foster ‘heterarchy’ such that traditional boundaries of media professions are dissolving. He argues that media work, including journalism, is becoming more responsive and inclusive in relation to publics.  

In this case, journalists in all the conventional media were led to follow up on the housing crisis by the spread of Angus’ video on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and through news blogs like Huffington Post. National television networks like APTN and CBC then sent reporters to the community to report on the crisis in greater depth and detail. 

Publics or audiences?

My research also tackles the question of how this specific YouTube video and its various iterations are received by audiences and interpreted by publics. How do ‘transmedia texts and practices’ shape the assembly of publics around specific issues like Aboriginal rights and conditions in First Nations communities? Social theorist Ian Angus argues that social movements help expand the public sphere by including previously excluded issues and actors. 

In striving to undo inequalities of exclusion, mediating conflict and expanding representation, social movements seek to expand points of commonality within democracy. The history of the Aboriginal rights movement in Canada illustrates elements of Angus’s model of the formation of social movements through three processes: self-definition, redefinition of the social situation, and definition with reference to opponents or antagonists. What Angus calls ‘emergent publics’ help open up wide areas of social life for discussion and debate. The ‘alternative public spheres’ of social movements impinge upon wider public spheres in democracy as ideas and issues flow between the two. 

In the case of Aboriginal rights, the decolonization process of indigenous people in Canada has clearly involved these kinds of transformations through modes of public representation in both media spaces and political processes. Aboriginal people constitute both publics and audiences within and apart from a larger Canadian public and national audience, not all of whom are aware of or in agreement with the movement for Aboriginal self-determination. These tensions between emergent and existing publics, between alternative and national public spheres, were clearly apparent during the Attawapiskat housing crisis. As the YouTube video was picked up by conventional media, and the issues were further debated in Parliament and on the national news, the history of Aboriginal rights and competing views about Canada’s colonial past shaped the interpretation of and response to the crisis.

To the extent that audiences are addressed and attentive within transmedia flows, they have the capacity to act as publics. In 2005, media researcher Sonia Livingstone first asked to what extent media audiences are also publics. She suggests that we understand ‘public’ as an adjective as well as a noun and argues that modes of representation and means of ‘making things public’ are in themselves constitutive of ‘a public.’ Hence the creation and reflexive distribution of the Attawapiskat housing crisis video in itself created a public for issues of Aboriginal rights.  

To understand publics outside the institutions of formal politics, Livingstone asks whether we also require a more complex conception of audiences. She looks for that intermediary space between the ‘audience’ of media studies and the ‘public’ of democratic theory in the notion of civic culture. Civic culture is relocated from the explicitly political to everyday issues of lifestyle and identity. As Livingstone says, cultural citizenship then becomes a question of belonging, position or equality, more than political participation or critique. So, in the context of audiences for news about First Nations communities and public debates about Aboriginal rights in Canada, we might tentatively identify a civic culture built around competing narratives of national belonging (Canadian or First Nations), colonial histories (dispossession or Aboriginal rights claims) and cultural identity (assimilation or persistence).  

The public invoked by the Attawapiskat housing crisis video and subsequent media coverage participates in the production of civic culture. Conventional news networks in particular raised questions of Aboriginal identity, the place of Aboriginal people in Canadian society and the historic role of the federal government in managing and controlling Aboriginal affairs. 

In this case the public position was by no means homogeneous. On-line comments to stories on the housing crisis and its political implications varied widely in the degree of knowledge about Aboriginal rights and colonial history demonstrated by forum participants. While many comments waded into forms of racist assumption and exclusion, others responded to the crisis with shock and anger that such living conditions could be accepted in Canada.  

Publics and the democratic process  

Thus, as Mahony, Barnett and Newman (2010, 4) suggest in ‘Rethinking the Public,’ public spheres reflect emotional and affective economies. The Attawapiskat housing crisis works to personalize Aboriginal identities and to publicize private issues of poverty, housing and health in Aboriginal communities. As emergent publics the Attawapiskat Cree and their supporters are engaged in representation and making claims, speaking in their own voice in the video and the wider media in order to give voice to others. 

Attawapiskat band chief, Theresa Spence, in her October declaration of emergency and MP Charlie Angus, in bearing witness and publicizing the crisis, are both giving voice to the people of Attawapiskat and making claims about the role of the Canadian state in addressing poverty and inequality in First Nations communities. Canada’s history of colonialism, government practices and settler relations clearly constrain the possibility of making such claims. As was evident from the thousands of on-line comments on various aspects of the Attawapiskat narrative, such claims are also likely to generate dissent, argument, refusal, and counter-representations.  

Apart from overtly racist remarks about the Cree and other native people, many comments rejected fundamental claims to Aboriginal people’s unique historical rights in North America, while putting forward an assimilationist agenda that argued for the ultimate erasure of First Nations communities as unviable in a globalised economy. By tracing how the original video moved across different media platforms and examining specific transmedia practices of embedding, editing, commenting, responding, circulating, sharing and copying the images we begin to understand how possibilities of public engagement and action are shaped in bringing the Attawapiskat housing crisis to public attention. 

The outcomes of the Attawapiskat housing crisis eight months later are ultimately positive. The mobilization of publics around this issue led to building and furnishing 22 new modular homes for families in the community, repairs and renovation to other houses and federal commitment to build a new school. The community successfully challenged the imposition of outside management, with a recent Federal Court decision calling the government’s action ‘unreasonable.’ To this extent, the initial video and its circulation through transmedia texts and practices played a crucial role in Canadian democratic processes, not by erasing past injustices or eliminating the potential for future conflict, but by giving voice to emergent publics for Aboriginal rights despite dominant neoliberal and neo-colonial discourses that would suppress them. 

This article is part of the Creating Publics, Opening Democracies partnership, funded by the Open University. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the author

Marian Bredin is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, at Brock University in Canada. She is a member of the Transmedia Research Network at Brock, teaches in the MA in Popular Culture and recently co-edited Canadian Television: Text and Context (2012) and Indigenous Screen Cultures in Canada (2010).