When Kerry Benjoe signed up for the INCA Summer Institute in Journalism in 2002, she thought it would just be an interesting elective — but it ended up preparing her for a 16 year career in which she has become a trusted voice for Indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan media and a conduit for reconciliation.
The Summer Institute is offered by Indigenous Communication Arts every second year and is a seven-week, intensive, mostly hands-on course that prepares students for entry-level jobs in print journalism, digital and social media, and radio and television news.
In 2006, Benjoe had a degree in English and Indigenous Studies, when she was hired as a reporter-trainee at the Regina Leader-Post.
INCA program coordinator Shannon Avison remembers that the L-P publisher asked her to make sure Benjoe knew that she would be practicing and developing her writing for a few months before she could expect to have anything published. “She was on the front page of the paper on her second day,” says Avison. “It was a story about the Jay Treaty from 1795 and Kerry understood it because we learn about it in Indigenous (Studies) 100.”
She continued to push for Indigenous stories to be told and was the first to report on the Idle No More movement, which later became national and international news.
But it wasn’t easy. “A lot of First Nation … people did not want to speak with mainstream media because of a fear of being misrepresented, misquoted, fear of coming off as saying the wrong thing and having it sensationalized and not getting their message across,” she said.
So she focused on building trust and opening the lines of communication. Benjoe is a member of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation and went to the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School. Living on-and off-reserve gave Benjoe a perspective that allowed her to tell Indigenous stories in a way Indigenous people were comfortable with.
“It took probably about two years of constant phone calls, being able to tell their stories, positive ones they wanted to get out and seeing that result and seeing those stories appearing in the paper and knowing that I wasn’t going to call them out and misrepresent them and misquote them,” said Benjoe.
And it took about ten years for her sources to begin trusting the other reporters in the newsroom to tell their stories.
Benjoe is one of over 200 students who got their start in the INCA Summer Institute, and went on to careers in journalism and communication. Others include Connie Walker at CBC (Toronto), Nelson Bird and Creeson Agecoutay at CTV Saskatchewan, and Jeanelle Mandes, reporter at Eagle Feather News.
“CTV’s been very open and willing to allow me to share those perspectives,” said Nelson Bird who started as a video journalist at CTV in 1998, hosted Indigenous Circle for more than 15 years and is now CTV’s Assignment Editor. “I’m very fortunate that I was in this job for so long and now I’m in a position where I can call the shots on how we cover things and what we do.”
Bird has travelled all over Saskatchewan and has an extensive network of contacts among Indigenous communities. As assignment editor, he shares those contacts and ideas with his reporters — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to help them cover their stories with a little more understanding.
He says a lot has changed in the past 50 years in terms of diversifying newsrooms, but there is still a shortage of Indigenous journalists, something Eagle Feather News reporter and editor Jeanelle Mandes knows all too well.
“When I was in the journalism school … and also in the masters project, I looked around and I’m like the only Indigenous face in my classroom,” she recalls.
She said she often felt like the “radical” student in the room who was constantly challenging assumptions and misguided ideas about Indigenous people and issues, something she never experienced during her time at the First Nations University.
“I felt like I shouldn’t have to be saying these things, they should know these things by now,” she said.
So it’s no surprise that when asked what role the media plays in reconciliation, Mandes calls on journalism schools to do their part.
“They need to be teaching about Indigenous history. That should be a mandatory course inside the journalism program … because some reporters are going into these newsrooms blind,” she said.
With the right education, journalists can be better prepared, whether they are Indigenous or not, to “get it right,” which Mandes says they must do if media are to have a role in reconciliation.
Benjoe also sees potential for reconciliation through the media with stories like that of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. She says media can make a much-needed connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
That’s what Jaida Beaudin-Herney is hoping to do. Beaudin-Herney is a political science who will be participating in the INCA Summer Institute in just a few months.
She’s not sure where her career will take her, but she knows she wants to have the expertise to hold politicians accountable and communicate effectively with the world about the reality of Indigenous issues in Canada.
“I think it’s really important,” she says. “The Trudeau government is calling for reconciliation…but what steps are they really taking? What are they actually doing?”
Beaudin-Herney will join 20 other students at the INCA Summer Institute from May 7 to June 22 in Regina, and in just seven-weeks will have the training and network to make a difference in Canadian media and communications.
“So many of the Indigenous journalists I’ve worked with have gone through the INCA program,” said Benjoe. “They’re voices that need to be heard in the newsroom.”