Critical Literacy and Media in the Classroom

Suzanne  -  Aug 12, 2013  -  , , , ,  - 

Again River (theguardian.com)

Canadian media recently covered the story of Adam Shoalts, a McMaster University student who discovered a new waterfall on the Again River, which runs along the border of Ontario and Quebec and flows into Hudson Bay. Dragonfly usually has a problem with the word “discovery” – because it’s usually used to describe instances in which Europeans are the first to find something or find something out, even though Aboriginal peoples have known or known about the same thing since time immemorial – but in this case, it’s actually being used correctly.

You almost wouldn’t know it, though.

Various media reports have detailed how this “modern-day explorer” has explored “uncharted waters” or “never-travelled waters” “alone” in the “wilds of James Bay.” From an Aboriginal perspective, these are problematic assumptions:

  • uncharted by whom? Aboriginal peoples in the area almost certainly have these waterways “charted” in memory and oral tradition
  • never travelled by Europeans does not mean “never travelled”
  • human beings are interconnected with all of creation – how can one be alone with rushing water, plants, animals… and mosquitoes?
  • the “wilds of James Bay” are home to tens of thousands of Aboriginal peoples and dozens of communities – this is not the edge of the civilized earth but the centre of the Cree world (and the Cree might have something to say about the unrestrained, tempestuous “wilds” of downtown Toronto)
  • like most European explorers, our intrepid student has likely had a lot of help from Aboriginal peoples – yet it’s his story that is told in media and history

Detail from "A Work In Progress" (christibelcourt.com)

Dragonfly wanted to see if every media outlet was making these same assumptions – and if Dragonfly was itself making an assumption with that last point – so we set out to research every media report of the waterfall “discovery.” And this is where it gets interesting. When we compare media accounts, we see a huge difference in how the story is told.

In the Toronto Star – Dragonfly’s go-to daily newspaper, where standards are usually rigorous, and where we first encountered the story – the article reads like the typical Eurocentric approach to Canadian history: white guy “discovers” waterfall in “uncharted waters” in the “wilds of James Bay.” The word “discovery” or “discovered” is used at least half a dozen times, the writer breathlessly compares the hero to Indiana Jones, and there is no mention of Aboriginal peoples at any point.

Next stop, Huffington Post. Here, we read that “No one has ever travelled the entire length of the Again River, according to experts.” So of course, we ask the necessary question: what experts? Are we talking about Europeans or Aboriginal peoples? Unfortunately, the HuffPost isn’t saying, so given past patterns in Canadian history and letters, Dragonfly must reluctantly assume they mean the European guys.

Detail from "Mnidoo Mnissing" (christibelcourt.com)

Then on to the Canada AM website. Here readers are told that the river is unused and therefore not well known because it is “likely too rocky for fur traders or Aboriginal populations to ever spend much time on.” Bingo! We have a winner! But the information is scanty – were Aboriginal peoples consulted about their knowledge of the river, or is this information coming from the unnamed “experts”?

It is, surprisingly, the right-wing National Post that actually best tells the story. Like Canada AM, they not only mention Aboriginal peoples – stating that the river was “likely too marginal to sustain ancient Aboriginal populations and too rocky for fur traders” – but they go on to say that “‘No known explorer, surveyor, or canoeist’ had ever travelled on the Again River, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society said, after scouring historic fur trade records and written accounts, and interviewing Aboriginal elders of the Moose Cree First Nation to confirm that Mr. Shoalts was indeed the river’s first visitor.” Jackpot! Not only are “ancient Aboriginal populations” mentioned, but the Post brings Aboriginal peoples into contemporary times, confirming that Aboriginal elders in an actual contemporary community were consulted. That answers the question about just who the HuffPost and Canada AM “experts” might have been.

Detail from "Good Land" (christibelcourt.com)

Why were certain media outlets so reluctant to name these “experts”? Why did some media outlets choose not to discuss Aboriginal peoples at all? Did it mess with the Indiana Jones vibe?

The story of our intrepid student and his waterfall discovery is made for the classroom: it situates geography in contemporary times and features a young protagonist and a death-defying adventure. But educators must be vigilant in asking critical questions of the resources they use. By comparing media accounts and poking holes in the Eurocentric framework of most of the media coverage, we create an instant lesson, where educators can use critical literacy approaches to improve knowledge (of contemporary maps, of geography, of media biases), understanding (of Aboriginal peoples, of explorers, of the choices writers make when they compose text), and application (how might other resources omit Aboriginal histories, experiences, and perspectives? How might we approach every resource using the same types of questions?).

For the complete Toronto Star article on the waterfall discovery, click here.

For the complete National Post article on the waterfall discovery, click here.

To plan an extension activity or start a classroom discussion on how Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives are marginalized in map-making/history and contemporary systems and institutions, refer to Métis artist Christi Belcourt’s recent article for Briarpatch, in which she discusses reclaiming Aboriginal place names and naming practices “in language and map.”

For a comprehensive list of Canadian place names based on Aboriginal place names – which could inform a discussion on how Aboriginal peoples “charted” the land and made “maps” long before the arrival of Europeans – refer to the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website.

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