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Indigenous journalist says questions more important than answers on English leader debate

Melissa Ridgen made history last Thursday becoming the first Indigenous journalist representing an Indigenous national TV broadcaster to ask questions of the federal leaders during a nationally televised election debate.

The APTN National News anchor, having been in the profession for 24 years, said she had no expectation that her questions would be answered fully by leaders Justin Trudeau (Liberal), Erin O’Toole (Conservative), Jagmeet Singh (New Democrat), Annamie Paul (Green) or Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc Quebecois).

She was right not to expect too much.

The Indigenous section of the debate, one of five blocks, was kicked off virtually by 18-year-old Ojibway man Marek McLeod who asked the leaders how they would build trust with Indigenous peoples after 150 years of failure.

“I felt nervous at that point,” said Ridgen. “You want to do people like Marek proud in asking those questions.”

She said she “struggled” with how to balance the details of her questions, so she wouldn’t be “watering it down for a broader non-Indigenous audience.”

“If it was me asking the leaders these questions on APTN for our audience, I might have asked them differently because our audience is coming in with a foundation of knowledge that the average Canadian doesn’t have…. I have to ask these questions so not just Indigenous people know what I’m asking and hear the answers, but to set the stage and plant the seeds for non-Indigenous people to know where we’re coming from,” said Ridgen.

Ridgen developed the questions herself, but her “bosses” and colleagues gave feedback, which allowed her to “massage the wording.”

The section of the debate that Ridgen addressed was on “reconciliation.”

“I think it’s sad that the only reason it was mentioned and it’s an issue for Canadians now is because they’re upset with their own history which was all brought to light with the graves this summer. That’s not new. I think that was a frustration for a lot of us,” said Ridgen.

In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced it had uncovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves by using ground penetrating radar (GPR) at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. A month later, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed that GPR had uncovered 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

In 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools released its final report, it included an entire volume on lost children and unmarked graves.

The answers that Ridgen and the viewing audience received didn’t stray far from the leaders’ campaign talking points, something Ridgen had anticipated. What she hadn’t anticipated, however, was the “wave that came after that.” The response to asking five people seven questions for a total of 11 minutes on air was overwhelming.

“It meant a lot to so many people, Indigenous people, to be hearing the questions that have been burning in their minds for 150 years, to hear them asked on a mainstream platform, and then also just regular Canadians who have such an appetite now for reconciliation to hear us ask the questions that maybe never even occurred to them,” said Ridgen.

Another unexpected wave was sparked when moderator Shachi Kurl asked Blanchet how he could defend Quebec provincial bills 21 and 96, which Kurl characterized as discriminatory in nature. Bill 96 proposed measures to reinforce the French language charter, while Bill 21 prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.

Blanchet went on the defensive, and then later refused to answer Ridgen’s question when she asked him about the racism Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan faced in a Joliet hospital before her death. Echaquan livestreamed what was happening to her as hospital staff verbally abused her.

Blanchet suggested to Ridgen that systemic racism should be discussed in a private conversation. She wasn’t surprised by his non-answer, she said, but she was disappointed by both him and the other leaders.

“Any of those leaders, when it came time for them—the question was put to Yves Blanchet (and) Quebec in particular has had to wrestle with this of late but— any of them could have followed up on it, pertaining to the question of systemic racism and how we address it in Canada. I just feel that it’s not a talking point they want to get into. What does that say?” said Ridgen.

And when the accusation of racism issue blew up in Quebec the next day it was focused on Kurl’s question and not Ridgen’s.

“Because it doesn’t affect most of the people who are talking about it. That’s my take. For people like you and I, we know that this is so stitched into every piece of Canada’s fabric; unless you live that, it’s not an issue to you. Mostly non-Indigenous journalists, where’s their priority? It’s not their aunties dying,” she said.

While the debate format has come under criticism and the time allowed for Indigenous issues was limited, Ridgen says the exercise was worth it.

“There’s an appetite for it now that didn’t exist before. I think there’s nothing bad that can come out of that,” she said.

She hopes whoever forms the next government takes the issues raised through the questions beyond election day.

The debate was also an opportunity for APTN to access party leaders, something the network has had difficulty with.

Trudeau, she said, came to the APTN studio in Winnipeg in 2015 during his first campaign. He promised to come back but never has.

Neither O’Toole nor his predecessor Andrew Scheer responded to requests from APTN.

Singh and Paul, and her predecessors, will come in “whenever asked basically on whatever topic,” said Ridgen.

As for Ridgen’s inclusion, both the Assembly of First Nations and the Manitoba Metis Federation say it was important. Ridgen is Red River Métis and an award-winning journalist.

Will Goodon, minister of housing and property management for the MMF, was part of APTN’s coverage of the English debate.

“Being able to ask those questions gives our issues that level of uptake into the Canadian consciousness that has never been there before because in this year, of any years, that should have been the number one issue right across the board,” said Goodon, who added he was “very, very proud” of Ridgen.

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who spoke to Windspeaker.com the day after the debate, praised Ridgen.

“I think that was important to have an Indigenous woman in the debate asking those questions. The symbolism of that was very powerful and, of course, she knows the issues inside out. I just think she did an amazing job. She was fantastic,” said Archibald.

“The public broadcaster, which we all pay for, which is supposed to be the wokest of the woke, opposed APTN’s participation .... until our dead kids were found this summer. Then they made space,” said Ridgen.

Windspeaker.com reached out to the Leaders’ Debate Commission, but received no response by deadline.

APTN has been in operation for 22 years, said Ridgen, and until this debate, they were the only one of the four national broadcasters not to be included.
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