Inviting commissioner Marie Wilson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to give the keynote address at the Reconciliation and Media conference in October was a clear choice for organizers. While many journalists in attendance may have been aware of Wilson’s prior work as a journalist, fewer may have known she worked to train journalists leading up to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission more than 20 years ago.
Betty Ann Adam, co-chair of the conference organizing committee, said Wilson was the perfect choice for keynote speaker. “We wanted her because, first off, she was a commissioner with the TRC. She lived, ate, slept and breathed the Commission and the stories of the survivors for seven years and so obviously she would have insight that few people would be able to offer, insight and authority, but also she comes from a journalism background,” said Adam.
Before Canada began to deal with truth, reconciliation and trauma caused by residential schools, South Africa held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of their own. Established in 1995, after the end of apartheid, the South African TRC had different powers than the Canadian TRC, but it raised similar challenges for journalists.
Wilson has served as a member and chair of the CBC’s Training Advisory Board. While working with the CBC, she travelled to South Africa to work with the South African Broadcast Corporation.
The focus of her training was to help journalists transition from advocacy journalism to independent journalism.
Many South African journalists had worked to oppose the racist apartheid establishment. The African National Congress came into power when Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1994. This presented a dilemma for journalists, many of whom were ANC members.
Wilson said this meant many journalists had to rethink their relationship to their government and be retrained to effectively hold the new government accountable. “You’re not part of the fan club. You’re not part of their team. You are a mirror on behalf of the public, holding up to what’s working and what’s not working and holding them to account on the promises they’ve made,” she said.
Wilson notices commonalities between South African journalists and Indigenous journalists in Canada in this period of reconciliation. Perception of conflict of interest is front of mind for many journalists, but Wilson said others need to recognize that Indigenous journalists have a strong stake in reconciliation.
Wilson recalled a poignant moment during a forum at McGill, where she was a visiting professor, when an Indigenous person turned to a non-Indigenous person and said, “For you it is an issue, or in the context of journalism a story; for us, it is our life.”
“That is a very, very delicate balance,” Wilson said.
“We get there by change - there has to be change.” - Marie Wilson
Seeing no wrong way of describing reconciliation, Wilson said moving forward she thinks people want to find peace in reconciliation. “How then do we get to that place of peace? We don’t get there by more of the status quo."
“And we do not get there through a kinder, gentler version of assimilation,” she added. “We get there by change – there has to be change. And that’s why the Calls to Action are about action and they’re all about change.”
Calls to Action 84, 85 and 86 focus on the media’s role in reconciliation. These calls address working journalists, broadcasters and journalism programs in Canada.
Wilson’s presentation at the Reconciliation and Media conference emphasized the important role that Indigenous and non-Indigenous journalists play in reconciliation. She dared journalists to step outside of their comfort zones and to challenge their assumptions about Indigenous peoples -- small steps towards making peace with our past.
Follow on Twitter: @janellemarieb