A DISPUTE over the accuracy of a local CBC news story this week highlights the nature of relations between the media and government. Elsewhere in Thunder Bay Dougall Media refuses to deal with Mayor Keith Hobbs over comments on its website and won’t air Crime Stoppers material in a dispute with police. Some readers may recall a testy former mayor Walter Assef threatening to beat up a reporter in council chambers.
A free and unfettered news media is an essential component of democracy. In English and French historical terms the press was referred to as the fourth estate of government, with the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. In Canada the House of Commons governs with the media obliged to hold it — and all levels of government — to account. It is in this context that the CBC — the public broadcaster — alleged in a news story this week that Thunder Bay police officers verbally abused a woman conducting a cross-cultural training session on indigenous issues.
Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam, whose office produced the film used in the program, insists the woman misunderstood the behaviour of officers when they questioned statistics she presented on murdered and missing aboriginal women, and asked her to verify her claim that they treat indigenous people differently than other people.
City police chief J.P. Levesque called the CBC story biased and inaccurate while police spokesman Chris Adams explained that it is easy to misread people in situations like this. CBC stands by its story. What Levesque and Adams did not — could not — say was that police are feeling besieged in Thunder Bay on the issue of relations with the aboriginal community. Whereas there once was a distinct difference in how some officers treated aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, the force and city itself have gone to considerable lengths to change that. Both have established aboriginal departments and the training session was one of 12 conducted for the police, 11 of them without incident.
City police were accused of similar behaviour in the recent inquest into aboriginal student deaths but the coroner’s report did not support the claim. There is disagreement over numbers of murdered and missing aboriginal women between Canadian police agencies and those who have successfully pushed for the inquiry.
Those realities are part of what lay behind how police officers responded to the facilitator’s claims and numbers. How they expressed that disagreement is at the heart of the CBC story and the reaction to it. But police and the city are trying hard to improve relations with Thunder Bay’s aboriginal community. Surely that is the more important story.