Op-ed: How the Nanaimo Daily News should have dealt with the racist letter to the editor

By Ginny Whitehouse

Dan Olsen managed to embarrass the Nanaimo Daily News when the newspaper published his letter to the editor, a rant accusing First Nations peoples of being nothing more than government relief sponges without history or honour.

By Ginny Whitehouse

Dan Olsen managed to embarrass the Nanaimo Daily News when the newspaper published his letter to the editor, a rant accusing First Nations peoples of being nothing more than government relief sponges without history or honour.

Lots of people were angry and disputed Olsen's claims, both within British Columbia's bands and amongst all people across Canada. Check here for the letter's full text and reaction. More than 1,000 joined a Facebook page protesting the Nanaimo paper's editorial judgment.

The newspaper apologized for running his letter, though it has published similar rants by Olsen before. The ethical issues stretch far and wide, and it is easy to be caught placing labels on the man and the newspaper, dismissing both as merely ignorant. Calling one racist and the other blind may be accurate but that doesn't delve into the heart of the ethics nor find a solution.

No bad intent, not who we are

The newspaper publisher's response essentially could be summarized as: Olsen has a right to his own opinion, but we shouldn't have published it. This isn't who we are and isn't typical of our coverage. We hope it didn't make us look too bad. Mistakes happen. What more can we do but say we are sorry?

My response to that last question: Lots.

Instead of going on the defense, the staff could show that it really can be a voice of the entire community. An argument could have been made for publishing Olsen's letter if First Nations elders were given opportunity to write a response in the same edition. The marketplace of ideas allows for erroneous opinions to grapple with truth because truth is supposed to always win. However, the greatest threat to truth is time; sometimes the damage is too great and truth comes too slow.  A week or day later is too long a time to pass. Olsen's argument is one that needs a counter immediately.

However, the letter was published, albeit erroneously, without adequate response until the outrage descended. The publisher may not want this incident to define the paper's identity, but it certainly shaped public perception. Making the newspaper look bad isn't the real ethical issue: Having an entire people's identity marginalized is a much bigger problem. The absence of a bad intention does not excuse a bad result.

Certainly publishing a letter does not and should not be equated with an endorsement. The fact the Nanaimo Daily pulled the letter down from its website after widespread complaint shows that the staff recognized the letter was so erroneous that including Olsen's assertions even as an outside opinion was not appropriate.

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The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council used to publish the Ha-Shilth-Sa, Canada's oldest First Nations newspaper, on the Nanaimo Daily's press.  After Olsen's letter appeared, more than 300 people, many from the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, protested outside the Nanaimo Daily's office and journalists from other news organizations came out in droves. Council President Clifford Atleo, Sr., announced the tribe had economic clout and intended to use it by getting the Ha-Shilth-Sa printed elsewhere.

The Nanaimo Daily staff may not feel terribly powerful right now but as part of the dominant culture they have privileges about which they maybe are unaware. They may drive over to the Real Canadian Superstore and blend in with the groceries, away from the crowds and drums at the demonstrations outside their offices. But when President Atleo walks into the same store he may simultaneously stand out as a First Nation person and find his culture to be invisible. First Nations people face routine insults: finding their culture marginalized, being told to turn into "Real Canadians," and rarely having stories important to them told. It is on these points that the Nanaimo Daily staff has the opportunity to show that they are neither racist nor blind.

The Real Story

Olsen's letter makes two arguments: 1) First Nations people haven't contributed anything significant to British Columbia specifically or Canada generally; 2) Since First Nations haven't contributed anything, they should stop complaining about having their rights violated.  In other words, assimilate already.

Most Canadians are going to disagree with those assertions, but passive disagreement is not enough. The dominant culture, descendants of post-European settlers, has a moral obligation to help shed light on the fallacies. Unless those with power are willing to share privileges with those who have been marginalized, then the powerful are guilty of benign oppression.

What else can the Nanaimo Daily News and every other media organization do? They can tell the First Nations' people's stories as they tell the stories of all in their communities. If finding those stories seems hard, look at the thriving First Nations media that might point mainstream media toward new possibilities: First Nations Drum, Windspeaker, First Perspective, Warrior Publications, Indian Country Today, and Native America Calling.

Improved coverage cannot just be about treaty conflicts and fishing rights: Those stories still place the dominant culture front and center. While potlatch and powwow stories offer some important insight, those stories also often have a certain tone that portrays the First Nations people as somehow quaint and part of a distant past. Instead, let's talk about rich stories that show both cultural heritage and present-day strength. The more than 200 First Nations bands within British Columbia have lots of stories to share. Let's hear them.

Ginny Whitehouse is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Kentucky University and formerly from Spokane, Wash. She writes about social media and media ethics, particularly coverage of Native American and First Nations people.