On the way to my office in Montreal’s Old Port on Sunday, I stopped in at the SAQ at the Complexe Desjardins to buy some gin to restock my office bar. While browsing, I found this: Wendigo gin.
In broken English, the label declares itself to be “Inspired from…the land of the Natives.”
A “wendigo” is a mythical cannibal beast that belongs to the cultures of the Indigenous people across this region. According to Wikipedia, it can possess you and lead you into bouts of insatiable greed and murder, and can even turn you into a mad cannibal — effectively a zombie.
In short, it’s a weird name for a gin, and the terrible description on the bottle tells me that the producers may not have bothered to research what a wendigo was.
So, I did what was required when you see something like that — I took a picture for my friends to laugh at, and instead bought the somehow less offensive blue bottle with the picture of the lady that stole our land on it.
Wendigo Gin – from “the land of the Natives”. pic.twitter.com/sP3VeUghgb
— Robert Jago (@rjjago) February 24, 2019
I posted the picture on Twitter while I was at the Complexe Desjardins. By the time I looked at my phone again — two blocks away — I’d already had dozens of retweets, comments, and an interview request from CBC Indigenous.
A day later, the interview requests kept coming, and the traffic on the tweet increased — which normally I would shrug off, but this time couldn’t because of what it says about the coverage of Native issues by our press.
You see, last week — after two months of edits and fact-checking, crossing the country, and months of research before that — I published an article for The Walrus on the hereditary chieftainship on my home reserve, the Kwantlen First Nation in Metro Vancouver.
In preparing that article, I interviewed dozens of dissidents who shared stories of their experiences mounting opposition to the leadership, which had only taken on a hereditary structure in recent decades. Even now, I can’t characterize their stories, other than to say that it took a lot of courage for them to speak to me, and a lot more to be willing to take part in fact-checking, and to contribute to the article as much as they did.
In some respects, the Kwantlen First Nation resembles an autocracy. There are no elections for positions of leadership; instead, all offices, including council and the chieftainship itself, are appointed by the hereditary chief (whose disputed legitimacy I explain in the Walrus piece). Kwantlen is one of a growing number of First Nations with custom governance agreements with Canada in which democratic controls have failed. Recently the CBC’s Jorge Barrera covered one in Ontario — the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen — where the chief is taking his people to court in order to preserve his position as chief for life. In Barrera’s report, he presented video showing the Ontario Provincial Police entering a meeting of pro-democracy activists from the reserve and questioning them on their activities. The OPP had been called by an unnamed party, who claimed they were holding a “mock election” — an offence I am unable to find in the Criminal Code.
The police, the courts, the Indian Act — all of these tools are handed to reserve autocrats by the federal government, theirs to use as they wish. In some cases, that wish extends to silencing the media. On Saugeen, the CBC showed video of their encounter with the chief. On their way to interview a dissident band member, the chief stopped them, and told them they were not allowed on reserve, giving the reporter 30 minutes to leave before he called the police.
In a 2015 report on the Kwantlen First Nation, APTN didn’t even make it on reserve, and were prohibited from filming there by the Chief and council.
It can be risky to cover these types of reserves because of the powers they have — especially when you are yourself Indigenous, and your family, and most of your sources, are citizens under their rule.
While writing my piece on the loss of democracy on some reserves, I asked for other press to get involved, because I believed coverage by more media would mitigate the possibility of retribution. I spoke to reporters from the CBC, The New York Times, an Indigenous newspaper, and others, giving them angles, explaining why this story needs to be covered.
Full disclosure: I need people to steal my story. @CBCIndigenous @APTNInvestigate @globepolitics @NatObserver & many others. In writing it, I exposed myself and some of the dissidents to retribution. The more eyes on the story, the safer everyone is: https://t.co/1rq7ClOgub 1
— Robert Jago (@rjjago) February 22, 2019
These reserves don’t have to be under undemocratic rule; the minister can restore the right of First Nations people to choose their leaders with the stroke of a pen, and past ministers have done so on other reserves as recently as 2010. But more often, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has said that the governance of these reserves is not their problem.
It’s an infuriating situation, where the government has allowed contested ascensions to positions of absolute power to take place on reserve, and in its orderly bureaucratic way, accepted these without comment, granting these chiefs funds, use of police, use of courts, and legitimacy, while their own police forces break up peaceful meetings of pro-democracy activists as if they were criminals.
I’ve been working hard to get attention for this story, and other than some crude tweets from the senior editor of The Georgia Straight — insinuating that being in favour of democracy on reserve meant I was echoing The Rebel — I’ve had next to no success.
Yes, I am very dramatic about the decades old fight for democracy on mine, and many other reserves. As for saying it's Sun Media, the Rebel et al who agree with me, that's just poor reading comprehension. But this type of attitude from the press is frustrating. 1 https://t.co/h3UU78qZr3
— Robert Jago (@rjjago) February 23, 2019
This story isn’t going to get covered, pressure isn’t going to be put on the minister, and my sources will have taken a risk in exposing themselves, for nothing.
Which returns me to the bottle of gin. Why is the press so willing to cover something so frivolous and inconsequential, but won’t touch a substantive issue that affects the actual well-being of thousands of First Nations people?
I messaged the most recent CBC producer who asked me about Wendigo gin and turned the tables on them, asking them for an interview for this piece — unfortunately, they declined. I wanted to ask them why they were so eager to cover a bottle of gin, but why this massive, and growing failure of Indigenous government didn’t have legs as a story.
I’ve been interacting with the press on a variety of issues since about 2015, and I’ve been writing since about 2017, and invariably the stories that have legs are the ones that paint Native people as aggrieved at white people, as holders of weird motivations, and as trifling in the scale of their concerns.
Jordan Peterson once called me someone who “harbors resentments a-plenty,” as a way of dismissing the claims made in an article about him. But it’s a way that the Canadian public generally could dismiss Native people based on how we appear in the press.
There are stories about First Nations people in the papers every day. But the stories that get attention, that get people commenting, and make talk radio are the ones about a protest over Sir John A. Macdonald, a picket of a statue, a plea to change a textbook, a complaint about a play, or in this case, a stupid choice for the name of a bottle of gin.
But while covering those culture-war issues is certainly very easy, and brings in traffic, it both neglects real stories and degrades the political capital that Indigenous people have in Canada.
Looking at the writing offers I’ve received, I could easily make a career of being mad at mascots, bags of chips, dead celebrities, dollar-store toys, and a million dumb and racist representations of Native people. There is a real thirst in the public sphere to see us play the part of the angry Indian — the weirder and more inconsequential the object of our ire, the better. And it is true that people get heated about these things, use dramatic language on social media, but they are a sideshow to issues that regular Native people really care about.
Only the press has the power to turn social-media kvetching into news. Every time the media goes hunting for Natives, to find one that’ll appear on camera or in print to say they’re mad at a bottle of gin, or some knock-off moccasins, it primes the public to wave their hands and shoo away the next Indigenous story — regardless of its substance — with a dismissive: “What are they mad about now?”
There are Native people out there every day, trying to get their stories told, trying to get substantive issues covered. I’m vicariously embarrassed for the press, that they can so brazenly ignore those people, and those issues of substance, while tripping over each other trying to gin up stories about fake outrage and culture war idiocy.
Top image includes an aerial view of the main Kwantlen reserve (the island in the centre) taken by Jago.