Winnipeg’s Rooster Town Blockade has been standing for almost a month now, with Indigenous land defenders and allies successfully blocking a large aspen forest from clearcutting.
Local reporters have covered almost every major occurrence on site, including the original seizure of the mulching machine by land defenders, the developer’s request for an urgent court injunction against lead organizers, and the recent installation of massive floodlights and 24-hour surveillance.
But much of the media coverage of the situation — all conducted by ostensibly “objective” journalists — has frequently regurgitated blatant colonial biases. These range from allotting a disproportionate percentage of word counts to the arguments of the developer and his lawyer, deploying the language of capitalist conceptions of property ownership, and refusing Indigenous defenders the ability to self-define.
It’s worth picking apart the specifics, so we know what points need to be confronted.
Métis and other Indigenous people not consulted
First, a bit of background for people who haven’t been following the story closely.
In 2009, Andrew Marquess — a local developer with dozens of lawsuits filed against him over the last few years — received 59 acres of forested land via a land swap with the City of Winnipeg. This was around the same time as a series of other highly controversial land swaps were finalized under former mayor Sam Katz, including the infamous fire hall deal.
Nobody consulted Métis or other Indigenous people about any of this.
That’s despite the forested area serving as part of the historic Rooster Town, a so-called shanty town built by Métis people displaced by colonialism that was demolished in the mid-20th century to make way for a shopping mall. Many ceremonial structures and artifacts have been found in the forest, including housing structures, potential gravesites and tools.
Marquess didn’t submit a development plan prior to clearcutting one-third of the forest in July. While legal under Canadian law, it shocked many people, triggering the rapid mobilization of the blockade.
Asserting nationhood over “private land”
These facts have been captured in local media coverage. But while many of the articles have been well intentioned and likely follow the “style guide” set by the Canadian Press (CP), they have reproduced the very assumptions that established and enabled the colonial framework in the first place.
Take the constant attribution of Marquess as the “owner” of the Parker Lands.
Ignoring the important legal issue of the shady land swap, this very word contains an entire nexus of assumptions about power and sovereignty, which Indigenous land defenders and allies are contesting in occupying the particular geographic space.
After all, Manitoba was effectively born out of the Red River Rebellion, led by legendary Métis leader Louis Riel in 1869. The subsequent Manitoba Act, which literally created the “postage stamp province” in 1870, guaranteed 1.4 million acres to Métis children. Much of that promise was never fulfilled.
A Supreme Court decision in 2013 recognized this fact. All of Winnipeg and its surrounding area legally occupies ancestral Métis and Indigenous lands.
Yet Marquess still receives the title of “owner” or “legal owner” in news reports.
Left out of that phrase is “stolen land,” or “broken promises,” or “cultural genocide,” or any kind of language that would problematize the concept of property ownership beyond a controversial deal, let alone acknowledge the continued existence of Indigenous law and protocols around use of lands, waters and intangible cultural heritage.
Denying rights to self-identify
This ties into the fact local media outlets have roundly failed to take seriously the way in which Indigenous people and allies self-describe. That is, as land defenders.
When journalists have used the descriptor of land defender in the context of Rooster Town, it’s been in quotation marks; qualified as something blockade leaders wish to be known as, well after the attribution of “protester” by the journalist. This signifies a clear hierarchy of definitions - the “official” term is protester, while the “subjective” term is land defender.
This has a clear relationship to the understanding of capitalist property ownership.
If Marquess is considered by the CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press to be the “legal owner” of the property, then people at the blockade are indeed “protesters.” But if the Indigenous people at Rooster Town have a legitimate claim to nationhood and sovereignty, then the actions in which they are partaking are indeed those of defending their lands from colonial and capitalist incursion.
Journalists and editors may just be following the “rules” about editorial procedures under the Canadian Press style guide.
But in this supposed era of “reconciliation,” journalists can, and must, do better.
Going to bat for the land developer
Most of the colonial discourse on the subject has been contained in singular words and phrases. There’s been one key exception to that: respected CBC journalist Bartley Kives.
The first of his articles on the situation was published in late July. In short, it parroted Marquess’ lawyer’s claim that a blockade member was seen carrying an axe while an employee of the development company was on site.
Let’s take a look at the presentation of Kives’s article.
The headline stated “Parker developer claims police not doing enough to remove protesters.” The subhead read “Gem Equities also alleges protester followed company employee around Fort Garry site with an axe.” The photo that ran with the piece featured a land defender with an axe over their shoulder (used, clearly, to cut wood).
This very point was deployed as a key argument in the court hearing for the urgent injunction.
Then, on August 12, CBC published a lengthy piece by Kives that served as the “first sit-down interview” with Marquess.
Similar to the first piece, the headline was explicitly pro-capitalist: “Parker Lands developer unclear why protesters chose his property.” The same notion was expressed in the subhead: “’They’re not protesting the BRT,’ says Andrew Marquess, who says protest camp threatens housing plan.”
The picture itself showed Marquess, looking genteel and literally clasping his hands.
An obvious move would be to include the perspective of Jenna Vandal, the Métis leader and main spokesperson for the blockade. But she wasn’t quoted for another half-dozen paragraphs, on a conceptually different subject.
Invisibilizing alternative worldviews
It’s the process by which an entire peoples’ history becomes invisible: Marquess is presented as a helpless victim by one of the most respected journalists in Winnipeg.
The conflict then becomes one of a group of “protesters” inconveniencing a citizen who only wants to build some condos and houses, instead of a 150-year history of sustained colonialism, theft and displacement. In the process, the journalist is let off as an “objective observer” instead of someone making very explicit decisions about who to quote, where in the article to position particular worldviews, and which photos to include.
The rot in the Canadian media establishment is deep when it comes to reporting on Indigenous peoples and struggles.
Simply, it all comes back to fundamental understandings of history and place: is the ongoing cultural genocide and displacement of Indigenous peoples in Canada legitimate? Or is it a complete disgrace, one deserving of direct actions and refusals to capitalist and state incursions?
So far, journalists have strongly indicated they’re siding with the former.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.