On May 11, 1993, in a conference room of the Radisson Hotel in London, Ontario, Lynda Powless stood before the two men and one woman who were heading up the biggest ever public inquiry into the injustices facing Native people in Canada. Powless, a Mohawk reporter for the CBC, was there to talk about media.
The stout, boisterous brunette was characteristically blunt. “There is no such thing as freedom of the press in Indian country,” she told the Royal Commission of Aboriginal People.
In August, when I interviewed Powless for a profile that is in this month’s More magazine, she said that her 17-year-old statement still holds true.
If non-Aboriginal journalists try to get information from the band council that should be publicly accessible, Ottawa will tell you that it belongs to the band. “I’ve had to resort to the fact that I’m a band member to get basic information, like the annual audit,” she says, “that shouldn’t happen.”
But Powless also wonders why journalists are still going to jail in Canada over freedom of information. “Press rights should be enshrined in this country, as they are in the U.S,” she says.
One year after the RCAP testimony, Powless started Turtle Island News, an independent weekly newspaper on Six Nations. I saw her speak at an awards event in Toronto two years ago, and was taken in by her story: A single mom moves back to her reserve (the most populous and one of the wealthiest in Canada) to raise three sons and start a newspaper. Her muckracking turns nearly everyone in the 15,000 strong community – apart from her sister and few close friends – into an enemy. Not an easy path to walk, but Powless chose it.
Today, there are maybe two independent national newspapers focusing on Aboriginal issues – Powless’s amoung them – but independent, community newspapers on reserves are almost non-existent. The profile focuses on Powless’s determination to run an independent newspaper on a native reserve in Canada. The stonewalling and isolation she suffers is one big reason why most reserves don’t have a free, local press.
Does it matter? Sure some community papers are nothing more than vanity presses, but the majority report transparently on important, local government decisions. And at a basic level, how are you supposed to cast an informed vote if you don’t know what’s going on?