Skip to main content

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, speaks during a news conference where four more groups announced they will boycott the B.C. Missing Women's Inquiry in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday Oct. 6, 2011.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The publisher of the Nanaimo Daily News is blaming human error for the publication of a letter to the editor this week that expressed derogatory views of the first nations community.

The Vancouver Island newspaper apologized, in an online statement to be published in the paper on Friday, for "distress" caused by the letter, which Hugh Nicholson said should not have run. He said in an interview Thursday that the apology would be placed "in a prominent position."

"It's human error. Two weeks ago, we had five pages of letters in one week over an issue. People are rushed for time. They're doing the best job they can, and mistakes happen," Mr. Nicholson said. "Clearly the letter shouldn't have run."

He said the paper doesn't agree with the writer's views. Asked about the process of vetting letters, Mr. Nicholson said he takes responsibility "for anything bad" like this that happens to the paper.

Don Olsen's letter, published March 27, caused outrage in the community and among first nations organizations.

Under the headline, "Educate First Nations to be modern citizens," the letter from the Nanaimo resident questions the accomplishments of the first nations' community. It acknowledges the need to help such communities but decries their traditions and culture. Mr. Nicholson said he had the letter removed from the paper's website once it was brought to his attention.

The "editorial clarification" on the paper's website said: "We apologize for any distress this may have caused our readers."

Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said his organization is reconsidering plans to hold a two-day meeting in Nanaimo in May, because the letter raises questions about the community's tolerance.

"Without question, it was a disgusting racist rant," he said of the letter. "Such an inflammatory letter should have been weeded out." He was dismissive of the newspaper's apology, calling it "a little late in the day for that."

The letter also attracted the attention of the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, who said he hoped to join a protest march on the newspaper offices. Chief Atleo told reporters in Vancouver, where he attended the release of a public health report criticizing Ottawa's new crime legislation, that the letter was an example of "the deep disconnect, misunderstanding and ignorance about first nations people from coast to coast to coast."

He also expressed concern about the impact on native children in the area. "How do they perceive those sorts of reflections in a public commentary? I will be travelling there to stand with the citizens and their outrage and disappointment that there would be that kind of a published letter."

Mr. Nicholson said he is not planning any further measures. "We've apologized. What else could we do? People are fallible. No one did it with any intent. It just happens."

Still, he said he was open to meeting with anyone distressed by the letter. Mr. Nicholson said he hoped the situation had not harmed the image of the newspaper. "The public, in general, understands mistakes happen," he said. "It's not something they typically see in our paper."

With a report from Rod Mickleburgh