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Karyn Pugliese is an assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University and a board member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. She is a citizen of the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation in Ontario.Handout

Karyn Pugliese is an assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University and a board member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. She is a citizen of the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation in Ontario.

Canada is hosting the Global Conference for Media Freedom today. It is the second iteration of what is expected to become an annual event where governments discuss issues related to the protection of media freedom, safeguarding journalists, and the freedom of expression and human rights. The three topics Canada chose to focus on are safe ones: media freedom, the impact of the pandemic and disinformation. If those sound as if they were chosen by bureaucrats, it’s because they were.

There has already been criticism of the conference from press freedom groups, given that it was shrunk from two days to one. Also that Canada took little input from its own media and press freedom agencies, and that the country is failing to address problems with its own record on issues such as freedom of information. My personal disappointment is that Canada left Indigenous peoples off the agenda.

Canada had an opportunity to create a much needed space for Indigenous people at this and future conferences. It has shown leadership in this area before, such as by accepting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which includes the right of Indigenous people to establish their own media and encourages state-owned media to reflect Indigenous cultural diversity. Next month will be the five-year anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which emphasized the important role media and journalism schools must play in the process. Canada is also the first country, and remains one of the few, to help establish a national Indigenous broadcaster.

Of course, Canada has failed previously in this regard as well. Press freedom violations such as the arrest of Oneida journalist Karl Dockstader, and the prior arrests and detainments of other journalists who cover Indigenous land disputes, are a black mark on its record. Most of the working Indigenous journalists in Canada are female, and they sometimes face violence on the job. Last year, fed up with physical assaults on women reporters at APTN, then-CEO Jean La Rose issued a public warning that the company would start pressing charges against anyone laying hands on their staff.

Earlier this year, I conducted interviews with 15 Indigenous female journalists who walked away from jobs in mainstream Canadian media. As detailed in the report, Half the Story Is Never Enough, published by Journalists for Human Rights and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, they cited sexual harassment, racism and discrimination and a lack of mental health support as key reasons why they left.

If Canada is too embarrassed to admit its own record is flawed – and instead allow politicians and bureaucrats to sanitize debate with safe, feel-good topics – it will never be able to champion real global issues of press freedom.

In 2014, I met Patagaw Talimalaw, a 32-year old woman with a contagious smile. Ms. Talimalaw was a former reporter for Taiwanese TV who had recently moved to Winnipeg and taken on the role of secretary general for the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network, which brought together journalists in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the United States and Canada.

The organization was formed out of shared interests – a way for cash-strapped and under-resourced Indigenous broadcasters to share news and programming. But Ms. Talimalaw had other plans. She had contacts among Indigenous peoples around the world, including human-rights activists who faced arrest and even death for pursuing their work. Her idea was to use the confederation and its Indigenous reporters to shine a light on these dark places. Unfortunately, she died unexpectedly of a seizure just a few months after she arrived in Canada. The network fell apart without her.

Last month, a small list of Canadian press freedom advocates including myself were invited to preview Canada’s plans for the Global Conference for Media Freedom. When I suggested an UNDRIP panel, I imagined how it might restart the work Ms. Talimalaw had envisioned. Since the conference is virtual this year, it would have cost Canada practically nothing to arrange. Nothing, perhaps, but an admission that we have work to do here as well.

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