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Indigenous voices highlighted at Media Democracy Days

SFU co-hosts event with VPL and OpenMedia

Following the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the word “democracy” has been mentioned a lot in the last few weeks. What does democracy mean to us in Canada? Is it making sure all citizens have an equal voice in society?

These were the very questions asked at Media Democracy Days (MDD) 2016 on November 15–16 and 19, hosted by SFU Vancouver and the Vancouver Public Library (VPL). The multi-day event held workshops, screenings, and public lectures around the democratization of media in Canada. It urged people to consider the ethics of media coverage, asking whose stories get told or ignored in contemporary Canadian society.

MDD was founded in 2001 by the Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom in Toronto and Vancouver. Now OpenMedia, the group has joined forces with VPL and the School of Communication at SFU to produce this annual event for independent and alternative media in Canada. This year, MDD covered topics like “Decolonizing the Media,” “Protecting the Right to Protest: Free Speech versus Corporate Power,” and “Amplifying Stories of Displacement.”

The keynote speaker was Ryan McMahon, an indigenous media maker and comedian who is the host of the acclaimed podcast Red Man Laughing.

McMahon began his talk by singing a traditional “trade song,” filling the room with his deep voice and the striking of his hand drum. He then chillingly told us that tribes in Northern Ontario had sung this song to welcome the first settlers, who they believed had come to help them.

His lecture, “Digital Media, Bush Tea, and Dibaajimowinan,” filled the seats of the lecture theatre at Harbour Centre. He raised important concerns regarding indigenous representation in media. Though many times during his talk, McMahon had the room laughing, at the heart of his message was a sombre appeal. He said it is the cultural stories and collective sharing that keep indigenous culture alive, and indigenous media initiatives provide that much-needed platform.

Janet Rogers had a similar message later in the afternoon in her public lecture “Native Waves Radio.” A Mohawk broadcaster and producer, Rogers has been involved in indigenous initiatives all over the country for decades, most recently co-creating the podcast series NDNs on the Airwaves. Rogers stressed that media has power, and “creating and maintaining indigenous presence on the airwaves is of utmost importance” to reclaim that power.

The MDD slogan this year is apt: “Know the media, be the media, change the media.” As Stuart Poyntz, associate professor in the SFU School of Communication, pointed out in his introduction to the event, media democratization today is a real concern as right-wing public policy gains momentum following Trump’s election.

Media Democracy Days shed light on a time when social justice and democracy are internationally under threat. This event stressed that media represents the plurality and complexity of our Canadian society, more important now than ever.