The tragic tale of Attawapiskat grabbed the spotlight on the national stage only two weeks ago, but it was in rehearsal for six years.
In 2005, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus was trying to bring attention to the misery in Kashechewan, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay struggling with water-borne illnesses, when he came to a realization: People wouldn't care unless they saw the evidence. So he orchestrated a press conference at Queen's Park and released horrific photographs taken by doctors in the community.
"It was when we came to Toronto with the pictures of the children that suddenly it hit home," Mr. Angus explained on Friday. "Pictures always make the difference."
When Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in late October, Mr. Angus knew he could go much further by leveraging a pair of tools that weren't around in 2005: Facebook and YouTube. So, in early November, he visited Attawapiskat with a borrowed Flip video camera, shot some footage of the squalor, and uploaded a short piece to YouTube. "We didn't think we wanted it [to run]any more than 10 minutes," Mr. Angus said in a nod to the short attention spans of Web surfers.
Still, the success of getting Attawapiskat on the national agenda isn't just about pictures and social media; it also reflects media savvy, a recognition of how to market a crisis, among both first nations leaders and Mr. Angus himself.
As it happens, two other James Bay communities had declared states of emergency at the same time: Fort Albany and Kashechewan. When he heard the news, Mr. Angus quickly began planning a trip with the local MPP Gilles Bisson to all three areas. But within a week, after internal discussions, leaders in the other communities withdrew their plea for help to ensure attention wouldn't be diffused.
"They know you're not going to get a full-scale response across the board," Mr. Angus explained. "Even though in Kashechewan we have people in tents, and in Fort Albany we have major housing issues, Attawapiskat was seen as Ground Zero of the problem. The other communities said, Okay, let's focus on Attawapiskat."
Immediately after Mr. Angus posted his video on Nov. 13, people began sharing it on Facebook. Links from mainstream media sites sent viewership soaring: so far, the video has been seen almost 34,000 times on YouTube alone, as well as HuffingtonPost Canada, where an essay by Mr. Angus also helped bring the story to the boil.
CBC reporters were among those who saw the video, and began pitching a story on Attawapiskat to Greg Reaume, managing editor for CBC news coverage. At first, he was only mildly interested, since CBC's Sudbury-based reporter Allison Dempster had done the story in early November for its morning and evening radio programs. The cost of sending a three-person crew for four days runs about $10,000, and the logistical challenges also gave him pause: it's difficult to file stories electronically from the remote region. (Housing, of course, was also a challenge; some reporters rented rooms at the White Wolf Inn, which is made up of interconnected trailers.)
But The National knew the story could be big, and when producers there caught wind that the Red Cross would announce on Nov. 26 that it was sending a team into Attawapiskat, CBC told reporter Adrienne Arsenault to pack some warm clothes. Her first report from the region led the National broadcast on Monday, Nov. 28, the day before the Red Cross arrived.
"It quickly became apparent there was a huge appetite for this story, it was kind of exploding into people's consciousness as soon as we started reporting on it," Mr. Reaume said. "In terms of the hits on our website and everything, it was just hammering everything else on the plate for two or three days."
Then, as politicians began to argue about Attawapiskat, demand remained so high for new material they sent reporter Tom Perry to help out for a couple of days. CTV and Global also sent crews. The Aboriginal People's Television Network went at the story hard. The Canadian Press sent a reporter to feed the dozens of papers in its network. "Everybody was there," Mr. Angus said. "It was quite something to see."
Spurred by Mr. Angus's video and the Red Cross action, the Toronto Star sent former foreign correspondent Oakland Ross.
The paper did not, however, feel it was promoting Mr. Angus's agenda. "I guess you could look at it that way," Mr. Ross acknowledged. "You could also look at it in the opposite way and say, 'If this was a dog and pony show, an event orchestrated for the media, it shouldn't have taken that to get us to pay attention.' We should have been paying attention anyway."