Commentary by George Abraham in Ottawa
IN the summer of 2015, a roomful of Ottawa folks got together at the National Arts Centre, eager to gain insights into the question, “What Stories Swing Votes?” The next federal election – the one that eventually ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decade in power – were just around the corner, and up on the stage at this Canadian Journalism Foundation event were some of Canada’s best political pundits – Susan Delacourt, Frank Graves, Adam Radwanski, David Herle and Tom Clark.
I don’t recall much of what was said, except one particular expression Radwanski used. It has stayed with me ever since. He spoke of a “subterranean campaign” that would be waged in immigrant communities across Canada – presumably in foreign languages and in a vernacular that would be very different from appeals to the rest of Canada. He was predicting a different playbook in select ridings – a playbook that Radwanski assumed would be beyond his understanding.
Looking back, I suspect he was right: there indeed was a playbook that enabled the Liberals to win immigrant-rich ridings. It is widely believed that part of the Liberals’ victory in October 2015 came from immigrant communities switching their votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberals won the so-called “ethnic vote.”
However, Radwanski’s choice of expression has intrigued me ever since. The respected columnist writes for the Globe and Mail – a paper that I have consistently read ever since I set foot in Canada in 2002.
I know the paper to be resourceful, financially well-endowed and world class. As a reader, I see that it invests in its journalists, giving them generous travel budgets to report at great length from hotspots on every continent, but also giving its columnists lots of latitude. It is a great Canadian institution.
And so I was fascinated by the concept that a campaign could be “subterranean” when it dealt with massive, well-established communities, served by hundreds of ethnic media publications. Why did the Globe not already have a cadre of journalistic talent that would have helped it cover these “subterranean” communities just as it did all the other ridings in Canada? Why not use translators, when necessary, to make inroads into these sorts of communities?
Radwanski’s telling observation begged a larger question: Why is our journalism not as multicultural as the rest of society?
In the period since the October 2015 election, I have reframed my question to ask, Why are our journalists not as representative as our federal cabinet?
I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau shared with the head of his transition team, Peter Harder, his thoughts on how he wanted to go about selecting cabinet ministers. Together they produced a masterpiece of Canadian diversity. How did they get it so right, without really inviting a backlash from those who have got so used to a monochromatic hegemony in all the levers of power?
More than one year on, I still have trouble reconciling to the fact that a turbaned Sikh immigrant is Canada’s Defence Minister.
I am not the first journalist in Canada to shine a light on the lack of diversity in Canadian journalism. A few years after I set up New Canadian Media, I had the honour of meeting John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson’s journalism school, somebody who made it his life’s mission to make newsrooms more representative, more reflective of their readership and viewership. Miller has researched the issue and written extensively on the topic, to little avail.
There are still spaces in Canada that media don’t understand and have made barely an effort to try to understand. The less charitable side of me thinks they’d simply label these spaces as “ghettos” and be done with them. I suspect there are newsroom managers who argue that these newcomer enclaves don’t see themselves as Canadian.
It is incumbent on our media to do better: our journalism must enable all Canadians to feel equally included.
Given that one in five Canadians born in another country and an equal number are the children of first-generation Canadians, the “immigrant” ethos is writ large. We’ve been adding 1 million new Canadians every four years. And, generally speaking, their ethnic profile tends to be different from that of earlier settlers – for the last three decades, the majority of our newcomers have come from Asia, nations such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Canada is changing right before our eyes.
In 2012, I took a tentative step toward blending my experience as a journalist in Asia into the Canadian milieu. By then, I was convinced that most newcomers and their children share a sense of dislocation, having moved to North America from regions that are racially and socio-politically very different from the origins of earlier arrivals. They have different mores, a different worldview and a different “lived experience.” They consume news differently and view the world through a different lens.
Interestingly, Canada has had a robust ethnic media sector for a very long time. Visit any grocery store in the suburbs outside the major cities and you will encounter scores of publications stacked in neat piles. A local radio station will play music from “back home,” and the newspapers will say very little about happenings in Canada.
This anecdote may be apocryphal, but a respected ethnic journalist recently told me about a Vancouver radio station that launches its broadcast with the words, “Good morning, Vancouver! The weather in Chandigarh is …”
Each of these publications covers a particular immigrant community, in a specific geographic region, often in a foreign language. Most ethnic media continue to be narrowly focused on issues concerning their communities.
They are staffed mainly by the hundreds of journalists who arrived in Canada wanting to continue in their profession, but find it hard to gain a foothold. About 200 of them have worked with New Canadian Media or participated in our training sessions. They possess experience and language skills that could perhaps help the mainstream media demystify their communities, but nobody has quite figured out a way to marry their talents with the current needs of newsrooms.
I would be the first to admit that not all journalists are created equal. Having lived in five countries, I know first hand that every nation has its own ways of doing journalism. I also know that ethnic and “mainstream” could not be further apart in their professional standards. It would be the rare ethnic journalist who has had the luxury of paying for a journalism degree in Canada.
Working for multicultural media is very different from working for, say, the Globe. The reporters often double up as advertising salespeople. Ethnic publishers roll from one financial crisis to another; scores of them go under every year, while others sprout in their place. The line between editorial and advertising is blurred.
These publications, though, remain a vibrant part of Canada’s media ecosystem and play a critical role in informing and welcoming new immigrants. They fulfill a vital democratic function – albeit an insufficient one.
We in the media need to do a better job of speaking for Canadians and being a mirror to society. This is a cliché, but readers, viewers and listeners want to see and hear themselves reflected in our newsrooms. They want to hear foreign-sounding accents and even a mangled English or French sentence once in a while.
Journalism is about reflecting the lives and times of all Canadians – in all their diversity, colour and socio-political complexity. Newcomers invariably do not fit into the preconceived notions of today’s mainstream media editors.
That’s why it is very important for newsroom managers to specifically empower journalists in our newsrooms from diverse backgrounds to speak up, not to be cowed by those who perhaps unwittingly crowd out more timid voices and offbeat perspectives. In short, let’s privilege diversity, rather than conformity.
As we imagine a new media landscape for future generations, I suggest a “third way” that enables Canada to become the first nation in the world to marry ethnic and mainstream – a true reflection of our unique demographics. Let’s recognize that our highly corporatized media organizations have lost touch and are excluding large segments of our population by continuing to hire candidates who could not possibly do justice to the worldviews or lived experiences of many communities, including immigrants.
I realize it will take more than a generation to achieve in the media what Trudeau has done with his cabinet. It will take more than resolve and window dressing. In the meanwhile, let’s find ways for the two media silos to work together, discover common ground, and, in the process, improve the coverage of communities that feel left out.
This commentary was first published in Policy Options and part of a special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.