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Media Representation Needed for a Healthy Democracy

For Black History Month, the Institute launched a policy series highlighting bold policy solutions in order to tackle anti-Black racism, focusing on the need for intergovernmental action. Each submission proposes a plan for governments to work together to tackle a problem; while serving as a guide for advocates working towards [what should be] our collective effort to eradicate anti-Black racism.

From 1501 to 1867, 12.5 million Africans were snatched from their homes, and packed like cattle into ships headed for the Americas.1 Of that number, only 10.7 million people survived the hellish journey across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold into slavery.

More than two centuries after the last British slave ship docked in North America, the Prime Minister of Canada – accompanied by a Canadian press contingent consisting entirely of white reporters – visited Gorée Island in Senegal, an infamous slave trading post for four centuries. On their visit, they toured the Maison des Esclaves – the final stop before enslaved people were crammed onto French, Portuguese, Dutch, and British vessels headed across the ocean.

Promotional photos were then taken in the “Door of No Return”  – a door that as many as 756,000 people walked through in order to board the waiting slave ships2 – the Prime Minister gave a short press conference, speaking generally about “the horrors and tragedies of the past” and the need to “act and move beyond this terrible part of our past and build a future where everyone can live free”. There was also no talk about how in Canada, the descendants of the people who walked through that fateful door continue to have significantly worse health, education, economic and justice outcomes than their white peers.

Indeed, the Prime Minister and the journalists that accompanied him seemed so unaware of the lives and experiences of many Black Canadians that they visited a place overflowing in meaning, symbolism and pain, yet somehow managed not to speak to or see us at all. As a result of all this, Canadians were once again robbed of an ideal opportunity to have critical conversations about systemic anti-Black racism and its impacts on Black Canadians and our country more generally. Sadly, the lack of meaningful diversity in the staff and leadership of Canadian media that was on full display during this bungled visit to Senegal is nothing new.

In 2010, a Ryerson University study found that of the 289 leaders in Canadian media they examined, only 14 or 4.8 per cent, were racialized3. Nearly a decade later, Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah of Ryerson University released a new, 21-year study of Canada’s three largest publications  – the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post. In it they focused on the 89 columnists who wrote at least 40 columns a year4.

Over more than two decades, none of the publications employed a regular Indigenous columnist or a Black woman columnist, and only three Black men appeared regularly enough to meet the criteria for columnists5. As it stands in 2020, two of the aforementioned Black men are no longer regular columnists – Royson James has retired from the Toronto Star and is now a freelance contributing columnist6, while Desmond Cole left the Toronto Star after their public editor attempted to bar him from activism7. Tanya Talaga, who would presumably have met the study’s criteria in 2019 is now referred to on the Toronto Star’s website as “a former reporter and Indigenous Issues Columnist”8.

We all know that a free, effective and trusted press is essential to the health of our democracy. If this is so, then the persistent and overwhelming whiteness of Canada’s newsrooms and press galleries – especially when it comes to who covers politics at all three levels of government – is nothing less than a cancer in our body politic. It hampers the press’ ability to knowledgeably and effectively cover the issues of the day. It also makes the institution of the press less credible, especially in Black, Indigenous and racialized communities9. If you don’t see yourself positively reflected in Canada’s political actors or the journalists that cover them, why would you consider the system valid or trustworthy?

Last year, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists released a white paper showing the way forward on this pressing issue. In it, they outlined seven calls to action for the Canadian media to address its ongoing lack of diversity: 

  1. Begin self-reporting of newsroom demographics on a regular basis
  2. Increase representation and coverage of racialized communities by hiring more editors and reporters of colour
  3. Retain and promote journalists of colour to management positions in the newsroom
  4. Formally consult with racialized communities about news coverage on an ongoing basis
  5. Take a structural approach to improving representation beyond corporate training and workshops
  6. Create scholarships and mentorship opportunities targeted towards aspiring journalists of colour
  7. Start the work of diversity and inclusion in Canadian journalism schools10

For those who see this problem as so complex it seems insurmountable, Canadian media already has at least one model that can be repurposed to provide a good first step. Every year, the Atkinson Foundation provides a leading Canadian journalist with $100,000 to investigate a public policy issue of their choosing.

What if, in every province across Canada, a talented and established Black freelance journalist was provided with $100,000 in funding, weekly column space in a major publication and the opportunity to embed themselves in the press gallery of their choice for a year – whether it be their local city hall, their provincial legislature or Parliament Hill? What if, at the same time, an up and coming Black journalist that recently graduated journalism school was granted $50,000 in funding, bi-monthly column space and paired with a mentor in the press gallery of their choosing?

This would only cost $1.5 million a year. Barely 0.0004% of the Canadian federal budget11. The kind of money the Thompsons or the Westons can find in their couch cushions12. It’s even less than the Prime Minister’s $2 million trip to Africa and the oblivious, offensive photo op that came with it13.

How drastically might Canadian media coverage change with two Black journalists – one a seasoned veteran getting a bigger platform, the other a young and hungry up-and-comer – in the press gallery of every provincial legislature?

We could start making the face of Canadian media look more like Canada. We could strengthen the free press, empower a new generation of Black journalists and give an ailing industry a much-needed shot in the arm. Most importantly, we could help ensure that critical discussions about systemic anti-Blackness and the way forward are harder for governments across the country to sweep under the rug.

If we’re envisioning Black Futures this February, why not start there?

Jared A. Walker is a writer, activist, and communications professional, presently working as Principal Speechwriter and Media Relations Coordinator for the Leader and Caucus of Ontario's Official Opposition NDP. 

1. D. Eltis and D. Richardson, eds., Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press), 2010, pp. 18–19.
2. Eltis and Richardson, p. 18.