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CONTRIBUTION · 11th November 2012
Sarah Hunt
The silencing effects of media bias in BC abuse investigation

Remember John Furlong, the man at the center of the 2010 Olympics? Sure you do. How about allegations that he abused native children decades ago in BC? Remember those? Likely not, and I’m not surprised. As with so many stories of violence against native people, it was out of the news in a flash.

Described as a Canadian business ‘trailblazer,’ Furlong’s record offers little in the way of pride to a number of residents of Burns Lake, BC. It was there as a young teenager in the 1960s at Immaculata elementary school that Furlong took part in a system determined to impose the rule of Canada, a system that relied upon white missionaries assuming positions of authority over unruly natives. Last month, media reports surfaced that some of Furlong’s former students had named him as their abuser. In their accounts, members of the Lake Babine First Nation bravely spoke of being physically beaten, knocked unconscious, locked up, and made to submit to Furlong’s rule.

The picture painted by these students’ statements bear a disturbing resemblance to the conduct of teachers in other day schools and residential schools, institutions intended to, as the saying went, ‘Kill the Indian to save the child.’ They collectively speak to the continuation of a legacy of colonialism in which native children were subject to an untold number of horrors.

Yet the RCMP investigation into Furlong’s conduct seems to have slipped off the media’s radar as quickly as it appeared. Indeed, the fleeting nature of such coverage of the stories from Burns Lake seems to be part of an ongoing silencing of Indigenous realities. The manifestation of colonial violence that is so persistent in the trauma carried in Indigenous peoples’ bodies as a result of inter-generational abuse spills over into the violent suppression of these realities in dominant media outlets. Dismissing or minimizing (or, dare I say, normalizing) the ugly truths of colonialism is one way to maintain hegemonic power relations and deny Indigenous people a voice as they attempt to break the silence and make their lives visible.

Laura Robinson’s article, “John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake,” broke the story about his time in Burns Lake, and its mysterious omission from his recent biography. It was one of the few media pieces that centralized native voices. The Georgia Straight article actually included the perspectives of Indigenous people in Burns Lake – their memories, their emotions, their lives. It humanized them.

Almost immediately after the story broke, media coverage was infused with sentiments of appreciation and empathy for Furlong, as Canadian politicians and non-Aboriginal citizens of Burns Lake rallied around this champion of the 2010 Olympics. Coverage included politicians saying they were putting full resources behind Furlong’s defense, because potential negative publicity could deter other business leaders from becoming involved in Canadian economic growth. Taking in the television and newspaper coverage of this ‘local hero’ categorically denying the allegations against him, one is hard pressed as a viewer or reader to see how he could possibly be guilty of such horrendous actions. The coverage is so swayed in his favor that the voices of native people are difficult to find, much less be compelled by.

Yet mainstream media coverage of this case is about more than the abuse perpetrated against small children in a rural schoolhouse in northern BC 40 years ago. It is about more than an educational system funded by the federal government that put inexperienced teenagers in charge of the ‘care’ and ‘education’ of a community of vulnerable children. Ultimately, it is about the lives and voices that count, and the ones that fail to matter, in present day neo-colonial Canada. The media coverage centering on politicians’ sentiments of support for Furlong demonstrates the widespread denial of violence that is at the heart of the colonial and settler project. In other words, it’s business as usual.

As a Kwakwaka’wakw person, on the other hand, I choose to value the stories and other forms of knowledge shared among Indigenous communities. Beyond what I read in the papers and online, I heard ripples through the moccasin telegraph that there were more than 30 people who came forward with allegations of abuse against Furlong, many more than the eight that were officially reported. Not only is the troubling scale of these allegations absent from the media’s coverage, the minimal number of incidents included in reports (two of a possible eight) are quickly justified away by the fact that corporal punishment was legal during the time Furlong worked at the school in Burns Lake.

In this time of supposed reconciliation, when the government is funding a national healing process for survivors of residential school abuse, we should question why stories like these still fail to matter. Or question why, because the abuse identified by the Burns Lake students happened at a federally run day school rather than a residential school (meaning kids could go home at night), it would somehow not be in the same category of abuse and thus left out of the official truth-telling process.

Whose knowledge and whose truths count? The answers shape how we come to know the world. And certainly how most Canadians have come to know this case has been through depictions of a powerful white male business leader known as a ‘man of high moral character.’ Underlying this media frame has been the dismissal of experiences of native kids from a small rural community in northern BC, people whose perspectives are generally kept ‘out of sight, out of mind’ anyway. The lack of representation of Indigenous perspectives in mainstream media denies our standing as ‘upstanding citizen’ or ‘local hero’ or even ‘legitimate person,’ particularly as non-urban natives. Ironically, one of the rare times nativeness gets treated as legitimate is when we perform some kind of consumable act for mainstream society, such as in the Olympic opening ceremonies (you’re welcome, VANOC).

So this is not just a matter of an ongoing history of abuse, the violence of Canadian law itself, the protection of people in powerful positions, or the kind of rhetoric that keeps us from knowing the truth. What this all really gets at are the kinds of subjects we’re able to see and acknowledge, the kinds of people we can empathize with, mourn for, grieve with, and whose voices and knowledge we value.

We need to ask ourselves whether we value the lives of native children in a small schoolhouse in northern BC. For me, the answer is obvious. In the face of continued silence around the troubling questions surrounding Furlong’s past, we must continue to ask what happened to this story and demand that ‘truth and reconciliation’ be seen as a call to action rather than a convenient pathway to forgetting.