A panel of mostly Indigenous writers and artists challenged journalists and writers to be more respectful to grieving families of their missing and murdered.
“The lives that victims lead, there is a stigma attached,” Delilah Saunders said about her late sister, Loretta, at a panel discussion held at Dalhousie University on Apr. 18.
“But she grew as a person. She went to university. She wanted to make life good for me. She wanted to break the cycle,” Saunders said.
The panel, Our Narratives, Our Right, Our Voice, was assembled in reaction to a book of poetry and letters called, “Who Took My Sister?” written by Shannon Webb-Campbell. The book contained several poems about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Saunders said Webb-Campbell, who is of Mi’kmaq/settler descent, included a poem about Loretta without first seeking permission from the Saunders family. The poem contained a graphic description about Loretta’s death.
Saunders said her family found the poem upsetting because the writer neglected her ethical responsibilities on retelling stories on sensitive topics.
Saunders has been speaking out about journalism ethics and treating families with dignity since appearing before the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Membertou First Nation, N.S. last Oct.
Raven Davis, who moderated the panel, said journalists who cover stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls should provide their questions to families ahead of time.
“A lot of journalists don’t like to do that because they have to work and they also like to catch you off guard,” Davis said during the panel discussion.
“They want to get a reaction from you and they can’t if you are prepared. So, knowing what they are going to ask beforehand is an important thing,” Davis said.
“We can change the ethics within journalism and when you’re speaking to the Indigenous community, it is a whole different story. If the topic is important and the content is important and the speaker is valuable, then you will give us the questions,” she added.
Journalists need to be transparent about own journalistic processes
Duncan McCue, an Anishinaabe who teaches journalism at the University of British Columbia and Ryerson University, says journalism schools and institutions most often hold strict standards to not provide questions ahead of time to interviewees.
“The challenge for journalists is that there is an inherent conflict between a First Nation’s desire for control of their intellectual property and the journalist’s desire for editorial independence and press freedom,” McCue said in a phone interview from Toronto.
“Both of those are very core needs for both parties,” he added.
McCue said he would not give out a list of questions as it goes against journalism standards and practices of remaining independent. He also said the interview, particularly if it’s intended for radio or television, can give the audience a ‘not-from-the-heart’ or not a fully truthful impression.
“What we are allowed to discuss is the broad subject area that we will be asking about,” McCue said.
“My suggestion to journalists is they need to be fully transparent about their own journalistic processes, so that people who agree to participate in a story do so with full prior informed consent so they understand what they’re getting into and the relationship they’re getting into with that journalist before they begin to share their story,” he explained.
McCue has created a resource website called, Reporting in Indigenous Communities. The online guide provides journalists and other writers with cultural and historical contexts about Indigenous people and communities in Canada.
Cheryl Maloney, former president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, said she supports reporters who communicate respectfully, check-in and follow up with families for updates and keeping the story alive.
Maloney, who also took part in the panel discussion, said she has also supported multiple grieving families of the missing and murdered.
“When I first met the Saunders’ family, they were strong but they did not have their voice. Going through the trauma, they barely knew which way was up,” she explained.
Maloney said she offered to step in or provide a safe place so they could speak for themselves.