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Writing about Indigenous People and Communities: Three Tips to Get it Right by Angela Sterritt

Angela Sterritt
Angela Sterritt

By Angela Sterritt, Journalist and Writer, CBC

I often get asked, what makes an Indigenous story different? And I always say the say the same thing. Nothing.

That might seem counterintuitive when we are often reminded about the sensitivity, needed context and previous gaps in stories on Indigenous people and communities. But it’s about getting it right and that means striving to cover Indigenous stories with the same investigation, rigour, sensitivity, depth and accuracy as any other story.

The difference is the acknowledgement that as an institution, the media has not done a good job covering Indigenous stories in the past. We have left out details, such as how much a family member loves a missing or murdered love one, or been too gratuitous with other details, like spending the most time on who killed her or how she died. In many cases, we have also got facts wrong, talked to too few sources or worse, not covered a story at all.

Trust has been broken with media and now some are trying to build it back up.

I’ve been covering Indigenous stories, not exclusively, but often over the last several years and there are some tips I have picked up along the way—often from making my own mistakes.

1. Don’t rush a sensitive story

For some Indigenous people, in particular survivors of residential schools, the sixties scoop or family members of missing or murdered loved ones, this may be the first time they have shared their story because of a lack of trust in media.

Some may have witnessed or experienced a negative interview or had a story published about them or their community that was not accurate or misrepresentative.

Do let interviewees know about your deadline, the treatment of the story and your direction, but be open minded about how long it may take to gather, especially if it is a sensitive story.

I once expressed my frustration with how long an interview with a survivor was taking to set up and not only did I lose the interview and the story but the contact. It was a big reminder that some stories cannot be rushed. I now make a point of being gentle with time.

That being said, you might need to let your editor or producer know that this story might take more time in the gathering stage.

Also keep in mind this may not be true for everyone. I’ve also had many survivors feel good about sharing and want the story to go out as soon as possible. Others have worked with media before and can help turn a story around in a few hours. Keep in mind, like everyone, Indigenous people do not all have the same experience.

2. Be objective, and mindful of stereotyping

One of the main flaws of the past in writing about Indigenous communities was that they were often presented in an oversimplified way. We saw tropes of Indigenous people as only of the past, only in a cultural lens or bleakly.

We’ve left out important context that helped to understand a community or person or added context when it wasn’t needed.

For example, in an excellent news story about voting in an Indigenous community, two Indigenous youth were featured. It was compelling and powerful. But at one point the reporter questioned the youth about the type of drugs he used growing up—”oxytocin or meth”? It gave the story weight and context about the hurdles this community had overcome, but how often would we ask non-Indigenous people this same question for a story unrelated to drugs and alcohol? Many people of different races have had brushes with and even struggled with addictions but often it’s highlighted in Indigenous stories.

I also had a keen non-Indigenous student recently tell me that he was told by another student not to ask Indigenous people about their community as it may be too traumatizing for them. This is an inaccurate assumption, as for one it infers that all Indigenous people are victims, and for two it suggests we should steer away from difficult stories in Indigenous communities. We should strive for balance in our coverage of Indigenous communities and this means being brave enough to cover the hard stories and knowing the value of doing the lighter, more positive ones.

It’s a lesson about inserting our own bias about Indigenous people, intentionally or inadvertently, into our storytelling. The tip here is to think about what biases or tropes you are bringing to your stories with your own preconceptions about Indigenous people.

Here are some to avoid:

  • The victim narrative: Depicting Indigenous people or a person as collapsing under the burden of history or current realities, or overcoming tragedies that have no root cause.
  • The addict and alcoholic stereotype: Exhibiting a person’s past or current substance abuse when it is unrelated to the story.
  • The warrior trope: Rather than looking at concerns as legitimate political, environmental or socio-economic ones—painting an Indigenous person as a trouble maker, or as irrational, even violent.
  • The greedy/lazy label: Instead of telling a robust story about finances, treaties and lands in Indigenous communities, showcasing a narrow, crude or inaccurate presentation of the issues such as Indigenous people getting free stuff (education and gas are popular errors) or tax breaks.

3. Actually visit an Indigenous community

One of the things I notice more and more is that reporters end up tethered to their desks due to budget cuts or tighter deadlines, so I understand, this is a hard one.

But it’s difficult to actually understand the complexity of a community without going there, talking to people there and seeing the state of the community. For example, many reporters had covered a Stolo community close to Chilliwack, B.C. but without ever going there. Most of the reports focused on one chief who was in support of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and from one perspective. But going there showed me a diverse cross-section of the community: some who were clearly against the expansion, others who were for it, but for a vast array of reasons. Going there also showed me just how small the community was, how tight knit and how connected to other communities it was.

Being in a community can also show you the distance it is from larger centres, the challenges it may face to access education, health care and transportation.

Make sure not just to show up, ask permission from a resident (doesn’t have to be from the band leadership) and try to plan it around a community event. When I was covering stories about the oil sands in northern Alberta, we planned it around a career fair and a trapping trip.

The biggest, more important piece of advice I can offer, is start to see Indigenous people as not black-and-white caricatures who exist in homogeneous ways, but as three-dimensional, complex and diverse people, with various opinions, ways of life, experiences and values.


Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif

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AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) Tips for Your Website by Caren Watkins

By Caren Watkins, MDes; Inclusive designer, IDRC, FLOE, OCAD University; coordinator SNOW: Inclusive Learning and Education

An accessible website means that all information found on a web page or web application, including text, images, forms and sounds, must be accessible to physical, sensory and cognitive diversities. As of January 1, 2021, all public websites and their web content published after January 1, 2012 belonging to and controlled by a private, non-profit or public organizations with fifty or more employees must conform to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 Level AA (excluding live captioning and pre-recorded audio descriptions). While you don’t have to make content prior to January 2012 accessible you will be required to accommodate anyone who asks for alternative and accessible content.

In the 2016 AODA Hotsheet we discussed the importance of knowing how users access your content, staying proactive, and reframing accessibility: “Think of accessibility less as a compliance process and rather as an exemplary design process, the objective of which is to reach people of all abilities.” This year we dig deeper into tools that can help you get your site to Level AA and maintaining compliance.

The Facts about Deadlines and Compliance

The 2021 deadline is approaching and compliance monitoring will likely become stricter. Reporting compliance should be part of your accessibility goal, both to help you map a strategy to achieve accessibility as well as to avoid fines.

Here is a snapshot of web accessibility deadlines for private businesses and not-for-profits with 50 or more employees leading up to the big 2021 deadline:

Private & Not-for-profit Organizations (50+ employees)
2014 All new internet websites and web content on those sites must conform with WCAG 2.0 level A
Multi-year accessibility plans in place
File accessibility report (by December 31)
2017 File accessibility report (by December 31)
2020 File accessibility report (by December 31)
2021 All internet websites and web content must conform with WCAG 2.0 level AA
(excluding live captioning and audio description)

See a full list of deadlines at Access Ontario: https://accessontario.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/AODA-Deadlines.pdf

For this Hotsheet we’ve focused on section 14 of the Information and Communication Standard of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) of the AODA called “accessible websites and web content.” It is important to understand that there are many other standards within the IASR that include not only the information and communication standards but also the transportation standards and the employment standards, each with their own accessibility requirements. Publishing companies may need to comply with various sections within all three of the standards.

The mandatory compliance report includes 17 questions mainly related to services and built environments (space). The final question of the report encompasses website compliance: “Other than the requirements cited in the above questions, is your organization complying with all other requirements in effect under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation?” Even though wording doesn’t specifically indicate web-related compliance, the broad statement is a catch-all for all mandated requirements.

There are specific accessibility rules for publishers of educational materials, which I think is useful to mention here, given magazines often repackage materials into special editions or books. If those materials are intended as learning resources for educational and training institutions then they must meet accessibility standards in Ontario. Find out more here: https://www.ontario.ca/page/accessibility-rules-publishers

Getting It Done

There are two useful guides to help support understanding of accessibility and specifics of what needs to be done to your site based on WCAG criteria.

1. Accessibility guide based on four principles

W3C, the Web Accessibility Initiative, has put together a useful guide for web accessibility requirements organized under the four intrinsic principles of web accessibility: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR). Under each principle there are links to relevant WCAG criteria and several stories from people with lived experience. Below is an overview, but be sure to check out the full guide to get the most out of this useful learning guide:

A. Perceivable information and user interface includes text alternatives for meaningful non-text content, captions and other alternatives for multimedia, and options to control an audio or video component, for example.

B. User interfaces and navigation that is operable means a person can use a keyboard to move around your site rather than by gesture, mouse or trackpad, and that people have enough time to read and use the content by postponing or suppressing interruptions. It may also mean that the keyboard focus is visible, pages have clear titles and the purpose of a link is clearly evident.

C. A webpage is considered understandable when text is readable and understandable, content appears and operates in predictable ways, and users are supported in avoiding and correcting mistakes (when filling out forms for example). You can support broader “understanding” by providing definitions for unusual words, idioms and abbreviations and using the simplest language possible (or even provide simplified versions); having consistent navigation and prompts throughout all pages to let people learn how to move around the site with actions they can predict; and giving people the opportunity to review and correct content during and after filling out a form.

D. Making sure markup can be interpreted by assistive technologies (such as screen readers) is part of creating robust content that includes a name, role and value for content so that assistive technologies can process the content reliably. “ARIA is the means of supplying names, roles and values for common UI designs that aren’t part of the HTML standard, such as tabbed navigation interfaces,” notes Alan Harnum, senior inclusive developer at the IDRC. (See “What to Expect in the Near Future 2. ARIA 1.1” below for more info and learn about what name, role and value mean in context of technology here).

2. WCAG’s quick reference tool

This reference tool has a filter to help you zero in on the areas of your website that need to be addressed under the POUR accessibility principles. By setting the filters to 2.0 level AA you will be able to scroll through the approximately 13 requirements to fulfill AODA compliance. Level A has approximately 25 criteria and if you have already fulfilled all or most of them then you are well on your way to being Level AA compliant. And to make it even easier, each criterion displays expandable areas for further information, such as full descriptions, techniques and failures, and deeper information to help you understand the specific criterion.

WCAG's quick reference tool filter tab showing selection options.

Figure 1: WCAG’s quick reference tool filter tab showing selection options.

What to Expect in the Near Future

Work continues around the world to inform best practices and international standards. Working groups, research centres, advocates and others are focused on building a more inclusive world by making ICT (information and communication technology) accessible to all. We can, therefore, expect there to be valuable updates to criteria, standards and compliance requirements. Here are two worth noting:

1. WCAG 2.1

WCAG released version 2.1 in June of 2018. “The main goals of version 2.1 are to improve accessibility for mobile, low vision and cognitive differences,” says Lisa Liskovoi, designer and accessibility specialist at the Inclusive Design Research Centre. “The focus on mobile is significant because many people use and need a mobile device to navigate their world, so for example in 2.1 it is required that orientation cannot be restricted so users can operate a site or app vertically or horizontally on their device. Complex gestures such as pinching or twisting require alternative ways of performing the action. For example pinching to zoom in also has a plus (+) and minus (-) option that people can select to perform the same function.” In her reviews of website accessibility, Lisa often sees that contrast of non-text content such as buttons, icons and other important user elements is poor so that they become very difficult to find. Version 2.1 addresses access to non-text content with a new requirement for better designed contrast and visibility. WCAG 2.1 has been adopted by the European Union but has not been incorporated into any Canadian legislation as of November 2018.

We are starting to see more and more work being done around inclusion of cognitive differences and ICT. Last fall the IDRC (Inclusive Design Research Centre) had the opportunity to organize a workshop that brought together global procurement and accessibility leaders to inform a progressive accessibility policy for the Federal Government of Canada. A key recommendation from the group was the importance of supporting cognitive differences. WCAG 2.1 has begun to incorporate some functional requirements that support cognitive differences, such as giving people warnings about tasks that have time limits. For example, if someone needs to gather credit card or address information for a timed task they are told about the requirement before entering into the timed action, allowing people to gather information within their own time.

2. ARIA 1.1

ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications specification) is a set of attributes for web markup that “defines a way to make Web content and Web applications more accessible to people with disabilities” by adding a semantic layer of information that can be picked up by assistive technologies. For example, it allows users to communicate the functionality and current state of toggles that collapse and expand content, something that is generally only communicated visually. Developers can make advanced Web applications accessible and usable to people with disabilities, especially people who rely on screen readers and people who cannot use a mouse.

ARIA has several updates in the latest version 1.1. Lisa points to sites that use infinite role feeds like Pinterest, where a screen reader doesn’t tell a user that the page has been refreshed, something that is easy to identify for a visual user. With ARIA 1.1 there is now an attribute that prompts a screen reader to voice when a page in role feed has been refreshed.

Being Agile and Inclusive Go Hand-In-Hand

The most important adjustment you can make is with processes. How you design and build your web content can make it easier to be compliant. “Move away from one champion and have accessibility scaled laterally,” says Lisa, “and better yet, make accessibility a value in your company.”

Maintaining sustainable compliance is about embedding accessibility thinking at every stage of your design process by having your practices be inclusive of a diversity of people. The Inclusive Design Guide‘s insights, practices, tools and activities are resources you can easily layer into existing processes (in particular if you have an agile publishing process in place). Also check out the “inclusive design practice” section on the FLOE resource page for more helpful links.

Here’s an idea: consider accessibility as your fourth bottom line in a quadruple bottom line model and you will no doubt be a leader in inclusion.

Thank you to Lisa Liskovoi, Dr. Vera Roberts, Justin Obara, Alan Harnum and the inclusive design community.

Resources

2016 Hotsheet on AODA Tips for Your Website

https://magazinescanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2011_hotsheet2016_aodatipsforyourwebsite_carenwatkins_e.pdf

Inclusive Design

The Inclusive Design Guide
https://guide.inclusivedesign.ca/index.html

List of Inclusive Design Practices resources and more
https://floeproject.org/resources.html

The Inclusive Learning Design Handbook
https://handbook.floeproject.org/

Different types of assistive and accessible technology used to access content
https://snow.idrc.ocadu.ca/assistive-technology-2/

The Inclusive Design Research Centre
https://idrc.ocadu.ca/about-the-idrc

The Business Case for Digital Accessibility

This resource, published by The W3C WAI Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG), includes direct and indirect benefits of accessibility, the risks of not addressing accessibility adequately, and case studies and examples that demonstrate how continued investment in accessibility is good for your organization. It shows how accessibility can:

  • Drive Innovation
  • Enhance Your Brand
  • Extend Market Reach
  • Minimize Legal Risk

https://www.w3.org/WAI/business-case/

WCAG 2.1 blogs

https://knowbility.org/blog/2018/WCAG21-intro/

https://support.siteimprove.com/hc/en-gb/articles/360004825651-FAQ-on-WCAG-2-1-The-new-standard-for-Accessibility

How to Meet WCAG 2: Quick Reference Tool

https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG21/quickref/?currentsidebar=%23col_customize&versions=2.0&levels=a%2Caaa

Accessibility principles: POUR

https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-principles/

Understand the concept of ROBUST and what name, role and value mean in the context of AT
https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/03/web-accessibility-with-accessibility-api/

ARIA

The standard (https://www.w3.org/TR/wai-aria-1.1/)

The authoring practices document (https://www.w3.org/TR/wai-aria-practices-1.1/)

User Interface Options (accessibility add-on for your site)

UI Options is a tool that allows individuals to personalize web content and other user digital interfaces to meet their needs and preferences. It works by adding to the existing styles of a website or application, and can be integrated into a design with relatively minimal effort.

Accessibility checker tools & guides

Check your website to see if it’s accessible:
http://achecker.ca/checker/index.php

http://idrc.ocadu.ca/index.php/research-and-development/478?gclid=Cj0KEQiA3t-2BRCKivisuDY24gBEiQAX1wiXHmwOJbsMQMB3PYdBjLjr1mt69mBqD75tH3nw5axKCMaAoNe8P8HAQ

Check your markup for accessibility best practices:
http://validator.w3.org/
http://adod.idrc.ocad.ca/

Check your colour contrast:
http://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/

Understanding users of all abilities:
https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/people-use-web/Overview.html

Web content accessibility guidelines: introductory guide for web developers:
http://www.gaates.org/aICwebdev/cont.php

Authoring tools accessibility guidelines (ATAG 2.0):
https://www.w3.org/TR/ATAG20/

50+ employees:
https://www.ontario.ca/page/how-make-websites-accessible

Minister Qualtrough’s site:
http://www.esdc.gc.ca/en/consultations/disability/legislation/index.page

Other:
https://www.rgd.ca/database/files/library/RGD_AccessAbility_Handbook.pdf
http://terracoda.ca/ramp/
https://www.ontario.ca/page/accessibility-rules-businesses-and-non-profits
https://www.wlu.ca/docs/EnablingAccessHandbook_online.pdf
http://webaim.org/resources/designers/
https://www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/
http://www.ami.ca/about-ami/web-and-mobile-accessibility
http://www.lflegal.com/2013/05/gaad-legal/


Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif