Protesters? Or land protectors?

Calling Indigenous Peoples ‘land protectors’ or ‘land defenders’ is not loaded language. Calling them ‘protesters’ is.

In a column published earlier this month, during the height of the Muskrat Falls crisis, Telegram columnist Pam Frampton criticized the fact some media outlets—The Independent being the first—used the term ‘land protector’ instead of ‘protester.’ This, she suggested, was “loaded language”, as opposed to what she considered more “neutral” terms like “protester”.

Is “protester” really neutral? Or even accurate? Some—and most importantly, many Indigenous peoples themselves—say no.

As an eloquent land defender wrote in an article in The Guardian this year, regarding the struggles taking place over the Dakota Access Pipeline, “We are not protesters. We are protectors. We are peacefully defending our land and our ways of life.”

Protesting? Or defending?

The shift to use of the term ‘defender’ (or ‘protector’, as the Labradorians called themselves) is part of a broader shift that’s not just taking place in journalism. The United Nations has adopted the term ‘defender’, applying it in contexts such as “human rights defender”, “indigenous defender”; “women’s rights defender”; “civil rights defender”. As the website of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights explains, “’Human rights defender’ is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights.”

The site further explains: “The term ‘human rights defender’ has been used increasingly since the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders in 1998. Until then, terms such as human rights ‘activist’, ‘professional’, ‘worker’ or ‘monitor’ had been most common. The term ‘human rights defender’ is seen as a more relevant and useful term.”

It’s taken journalism a while to catch up.

There’s nothing odd or clumsy about the term. A recent read of a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders demonstrates how easy and commonplace the term is.

[O]ccupations such as that which took place in Labrador are not simply a complaint, they’re people taking action to defend land that by rights belongs to them.

The reason ‘activist’ and ‘protester’ is increasingly frowned upon is because it has become, more and more, associated with a negative tone in stories. Also, it doesn’t accurately convey what’s going on in most media narratives.

Insofar as ‘protest’ is synonymous with ‘complaint’, it implies the Indigenous people are simply complaining about government policy. And since governments are elected by the majority of voters, it implies that the ‘protesters’ are simply a minority complaining about the democratic will of the majority.

Not only does this minimize and trivialize the land defense actions, but it doesn’t adequately reflect what’s going on. Insofar as Indigenous rights are constitutionally protected and acknowledged by Treaties, occupations such as that which took place in Labrador are not simply a complaint, they’re people taking action to defend land that by rights belongs to them (in the case of Labrador, not only is the river sacred but methylmercury poisoning would have impacted lands and water beyond Muskrat Falls itself). If someone came into your house and started emptying your cupboards, and you tried to make them leave, would you be a ‘protester’? Or would you be defending your house?

Protesters are people who are complaining about something. ‘Defenders’ are people who are defending something to which they have a right—land, human rights, equality. The term is a much more accurate one.

By refusing to acknowledge the constitutional and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples, including rights to their land and to a way of life that depends upon the health of the land, media are siding with white settlers and their view of the world. It’s not objective reporting—it’s reporting that takes as its point of departure the worldview and the legal framework of white settler governments. And it ignores efforts such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission to encourage public institutions to move away from taking the white settler viewpoint for granted and to instead begin implementing changes—some of them as everyday as the language we use—that reflect an effort to respect the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples as part of a long overdue process of reconciliation.

Journalism and coverage of Indigenous issues

Journalism has a particular obligation to reflect on its language—and not in the way Frampton suggests. A 2013 report by Journalists for Human Rights—a Canadian-based organization—criticized Canadian media for its poor record on reporting on Indigenous issues. Among other things, the study revealed that between 2010-2013 in Ontario, only 0.28 percent of news stories focused on Aboriginal-related issues. Coverage increased during protests, but this produced another effect: an 11 percent increase in stories with a negative tone toward Indigenous Peoples. In the final year of the reporting period, a content analysis of stories published revealed that 20 percent of stories portrayed Aboriginal people and issues in a positive light, 40 percent of stories portrayed Aboriginal people and issues in a neutral light, and 39 percent of stories portrayed Aboriginal people and issues in a negative light.

As APTN journalist Jorge Barrera, one of the report’s contributors, points out in regard to the Idle No More movement, failing to cover Indigenous issues until protests erupt is part of what generates a negative analysis on the part of the broader public. It sounds to the public as though the protests came out of nowhere, leading commentators to criticize the ‘protesters’ for not raising concerns sooner or trying to work ‘within’ the system before protesting.

In actual fact, the ‘protesters’ in many cases have been raising their concerns for years, and attempting to use existing structures to bring change. But media tends not to cover these things, and so the public remains unaware of simmering tensions and opposition to projects until they explode, in the final instance, in protests and occupations.

This problem was clear in the Muskrat Falls case. One of the criticisms some people made of the land protectors was the charge that they waited until the eleventh hour to do anything. In fact Labradorians have been protesting and raising concerns about the project almost since the day it was announced. But most media did not cover those concerns, instead focusing largely on the ‘big politics’ issues of who was running Nalcor and whether the provincial government would get billions of dollars in loans. This led to a perception that everyone was in favour of the project. With the exception of smaller media outlets like The Independent, opposition to the project was often ignored.

During periods of conflict and tension, what shapes the tone of media coverage is not necessarily journalists on the ground reporting facts, but senior writers based in urban newsrooms proffering opinion. — Duncan McCue, contributor to “Buried Voices” report

“The general public, and even editors and reporters, may have been unaware of the rising (and ongoing) tensions that led to the sudden explosion of protest activity,” writes Barrera in the report, referring to Idle No More protests. “To many, the sudden flash mob round dances and a chief hunger striking in a teepee on an island in the Ottawa River would seem to have materialized out of the blue.

“Without any reference points, or noticeable narrative arcs, the emergence of the Idle No More movement and protests led to predictable public reactions, which were highlighted in the tone of the media coverage, with most of it tilting to negative tones as the protest and hunger strikes continued.

“The public dialogue becomes mired in debates about whether protests are justified, or if the government has done enough, or not enough. What gets lost is that the events of January 2013 are part of a longer continuum…”

Report contributor Duncan McCue also notes that because resources are not devoted to Indigenous issues, coverage is often shaped by stereotypes, not on-the-ground reporting. He observes that “during periods of conflict and tension, what shapes the tone of media coverage is not necessarily journalists on the ground reporting facts, but senior writers based in urban newsrooms proffering opinion.”

McCue warns further that the fixation on protests may reflect deeper seated biases.

“Yes, protests often meet the test of whether a story is ‘newsworthy,’ because they’re unusual, dramatic, or involve conflict. Yes, Aboriginal activists, who understand the media’s hunger for drama, also play a role by tailoring protests in ways that guarantee prominent headlines and lead stories. But, does today’s front-page news of some traffic disruption in the name of Aboriginal land rights actually have its roots in a much older narrative – of violent and “uncivilized” Indians who represent a threat to ‘progress’ in Canada? Are attitudes of distrust and fear underlying our decisions to dispatch a crew to the latest Aboriginal blockade?”

There is another unfortunate irony in media coverage of Indigenous-led politics and activism. Given the disproportionate underrepresentation of Indigenous issues in mainstream media, what slim space is devoted to these discussions becomes sidetracked by the very sorts of issues that are being debated here.

While some Telegram reporters have been doing an excellent job trying to cover events at Muskrat Falls, the devotion of an entire column to criticize the preferred language of hunger strikers and other Indigenous leaders is unfortunate, because it means that valuable platform is not used to explore the much more serious issues and grievances of Indigenous Peoples.

Certainly, free speech demands we must have these discussions. But having them in that space, at that time, means that the actual and underreported issues generating the land defense actions, and impacting the lives of Indigenous Peoples, get ignored yet again, and the space becomes used to discuss and defend perspectives grounded in liberal white privilege.

But as Journalists for Human Rights, and Indigenous peoples themselves have noted, it’s an all too predictable phenomenon. And one around which we need to do better.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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