The latest in the Diversitas speaker series featured Editor-in-Grand-Chief Tim Fontaine of Walking Eagle News, a satirical take on current with a focus on Indigenous news.
Fontaine had been a journalist since 1999, and he created Walking Eagle News after growing tired of not being able to truly speak his mind, and the desire to write more creatively.
“You cover a lot of very difficult stories,” he said. “A lot of very difficult stories about Indigenous people and about Canada. Day after day I was finding it harder and harder to go in. I didn’t want to dwell on all of this stuff anymore, at least not the way that I was doing it.”
Fontaine quit his job at CBC and started writing, but said that because of his long career in journalism all that came out were news stories. Jokes about the news that he had been carrying around starting flowing, and by the end of the night Fontaine had Walking Eagle News.
His first story was “Proposed pipeline will cross through every single Indigenous community in country.”
The site now has over 300 articles, and Fontaine said he tries to post daily, or at least as often as he has time for.
Fontaine didn’t start the site with the intention of being an educational source, but Walking Eagle has lead to opportunities to speak around the province and discuss satire and reconciliation with different audiences.
“I do enjoy doing things like this,” he said. “I enjoy getting out into communities that aren’t my community and talking to people about my experience because I think that is important. It’s not the end of reconciliation in any way, but it is an important step and it’s one that I don’t mind doing.”
“This is the added value to whatever it is that I do,” he added. “I feel very lucky to be able to do that because I know some comedians or other creative people that don’t have the same opportunity.”
Fontaine said his most popular stories are usually political in nature. One of the most popular Walking Eagle articles is from August 2018 titled “After major Trans Mountain setback, furious Trudeau threatens First Nations with ‘fiery reconciliation’”.
Another article about a water tower in Sudbury, Ontario that had been defaced with the word ‘skoden’ received some negativity from actual residents of Sudbury.
Skoden is slang that means ‘let’s go then,’ and Fontaine didn’t include that definition in the article, writing about how non-Indigenous residents were ‘terrified.’
“I made it seem like it was this really terrifying message that went up in the town,” he said. “I got some angry emails because there was a lot of people in Sudbury that said, ‘Who are these people that said they were afraid? Nobody is afraid here.’ People were outraged by something that wasn’t real.”
Fontaine said satire and comedy can play a role in the conversations surrounding reconciliation.
“The biggest thing that I get from Indigenous readers is that this is how they feel too,” Fontaine said. “It becomes a voice for people in that way. I don’t want to say that I’m the only voice but sometimes it is the voice of disbelief in something, or suspicion. Some of the stories talk about the suspicion we have of Canada’s reconciliation efforts.”
“It can say sometimes things more clearly than politicians or government can, or I could ever say when I was a journalist,” he added. “When I was a journalist one of the biggest frustrations I had was I could never call anybody a liar. You can say ‘factually incorrect’ or any number of really creative ways of saying it, but you could never say that someone is a liar. Now I can say someone is a liar, or I can say that they lied about whatever it was. Satire can do that.”
Fontaine said one of the other frustrations people have with the media is the inability to call something outright racist.
“They’ll say ‘racially tinged’ or ‘so-and-so said something was racist,’” he said. “For Indigenous people who regularly face racism it’s incredibly frustrating to see. When you see that and you don’t understand the rules around journalism, it looks like they don’t believe you.”
Fontaine said he usually gets support from Indigenous readers on stories that call people or organizations out in that way.
On the flip side, Fontaine has to deal with some people who either don’t realize his stories are satire or accuse him of writing specifically to fool his readers.
In such a politically charged climate, Fontaine said it can often be difficult to make up stories stranger than reality.
“There are some mornings when something comes out, like [Maxime] Bernier says something… or something happens in the [Donald] Trump administration, you realize how can I top this?” he said. “How can I because there are so many absurd things in the world right now that sometimes it is difficult to write things, because it almost becomes noise.”