All native: How Turtle Island News grew from its launch in a basement to an award-winning weekly

By Tamara Baluja

By Tamara Baluja

Lynda Powless launched Turtle Island News in the basement of her home on Six Nations Reserve 19 years, using her last paycheque from CBC to pay for its printing. Since then, the native weekly newspaper has grown to become a leader on reporting aboriginal news. Turtle Island News is nominated for a Canadian Journalism Foundation Award for Excellence in the Small-media category, to be awarded June 13. J-Source sat down for a Q&A with Powless:

J-Source: How did the newspaper gets its start?

Lynda Powless: I started the newspaper 19 years ago in my basement. I had been working for several years as a journalist in mainstream media with the CBC, Hamilton Spectator and The Globe and Mail. But the mainstream media does not reach First Nations and when they do come to report on First Nations News, it’s often to report on some kind of conflict and tragedy. What I wanted to do was tell everyday stories and inform people on reserve about what’s going on in our own community. So I decided to move to Six Nations and put my last paycheque that I got from CBC to printing the newspaper. Within three months, we were turning a profit which really surprised me.

J-Source: How was the newspaper grown?

I was a single mother raising 3 children, and two of them now work with me at the newspaper. So you can say Turtle Island News has grown with them. In the beginning, all I wanted to do was just pay the bills. We now we get about 4 million hits weekly and circulate 50,000 copies. The online website has 20,000 subscribers and it pays for itself. We’ve also added four publications on aboriginal golf, tourism, business and education.

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J-Source: You’ve drawn attention to the fact that when mainstream media does cover aboriginal issues, it’s usually on some type of conflict or events like Attawapiskat. Does Turtle Island News shy away from doing those kinds of stories and focus more on positive news?

LP: Absolutely not. We cover all kinds of news, like any other community newspaper from sports to politics and crime. And not everyone likes the reporting we do. Just to give you one example, people shot up our office just one week after we reported on a gang rape in our community in 2003 and we had editorialized about it in a column. One of the people who was charged and later convicted was the grandson of a band councillor, and she testified that if the girl didn’t want to be raped, she shouldn’t have been there. Just a few days later, the office was shot. The shooting happened at a time when I would have normally been at the office, but there was a special meeting called so I got lucky.

J-Source: Does that community backlash worry you?

LP: More for my children than for me. When I walked into the office, there were bullet casings and the place looked thrashed. At first, I thought the office had been broken into. My kids were definitely scared, but I had a newspaper to put out and it was production day, so we continued on. We had so many people call us and send letters to say 'please don’t stop production.' You know, it’s about education … I understand the apprehension over media and people not liking the newspaper exposing the underbelly of our community, but it needs to be done if we’re going to live in a transparent and free society.

J-Source: Can you elaborate on some of the challenges you’ve had with band councils?

LP: The band councils have incredible power. I’ve been arrested twice for refusing to leave band council meetings and I have been sued unsuccessfully six times. I remember calling my lawyer and he was told that I would be released from police custody if I promise not to do it again. And he told the police to charge me and said ‘she will definitely do it again.’ Well, they didn’t charge me in the end anyway. And I got lots of letters of supporters for standing my ground. There was another time the band council didn’t like my coverage and tried to stop me from using my house as collateral for financing the newspaper. The bank manager intervened and turned my mortgage into a personal loan, because they understood the kind of work we try to do at this newspaper.

J-Source: What’s next for your publication?

LP:  I want to make Turtle Islands News the native Globe and Mail. The Aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Yes, geography is a challenge when it comes to reporting, but that doesn’t mean we don’t cover news from these remote communities. We have to do things differently … We have to teach people they have the right to know what their band council is doing, that providing critical analysis does not mean negative coverage … it simply means telling the truth as is.

This interview has been edited and condensed