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Andrew Coyne: instance of racism #2

Written by Sherwin, published on February 9, 2013

Andrew Coyne wears a tie

For the purposes of this second argument, I will be referring to three articles written by Andrew Coyne for Postmedia News in January.

On my view, Coyne showed poor judgement in writing these articles.1

Argument 2: what Coyne said was racist

Premise 2.1: There is a common stereotype that First Nations Chiefs are incompetent and dishonest. This stereotype is racist.
Premise 2.2: If a journalist relies on, plays into or entrenches a racist stereotype by writing something, then their writing is racist.
Premise 2.3: Andrew Coyne wrote three articles which, on the whole, played into and entrenched the racist stereotype that First Nations chiefs are incompetent and dishonest.
Conclusion 2: Andrew Coyne wrote something that is racist.

Evidence for premise 2.1 and 2.2

By way of demonstrating the truth of premise 2.1, I will direct you to the Reporting in Indigenous Communities resources. This resource is funded by Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford and curated by Duncan McCue of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches Reporting in Indigenous Communities.

McCue points out that there are a number of stereotypes of Aboriginal People that are perpetuated by news outlets. One important way that these stereotypes are perpetuated in the news is by the selection of facts and the selection of stories that are included in the news. There are, for example, some common themes in news stories about Aboriginal people. These themes are also stereotypes. These include drumming, dancing, dying, being a warrior, being a “good indian,” a troublemaker, a gangster, a crooked or incompetent financial manager, or being drunk or an alcoholic. McCue opens his article by quoting Stephen Hume:

The myth of the drunken Indian has been retired in favour of the legend of the crooked band council.

This comparison of the crooked band council with the “myth of the drunken Indian” is powerful. And the notion that band councils might be corrupt or crooked has a deep history in Canadian media. In 2011, the authors of Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers wrote that the newspaper representations of Aboriginal people as depraved or morally lacking was one of three common racist tropes:

The idea that Canadians of Aboriginal ancestry epitomize moral depravity is as old as the press in Canada. The notion finds expression in a variety of ways, including identified sneakiness, poor parenting, thievery, whorishnes, dishonesty, laziness, ungodliness, and a tendency for debased afflictions associated with the body (such as sexual debauchery, alcoholism, and capricious violence).

But additionally, in 2005 Robert Harding wrote about the emergence of the “incompetent or corrupt financial manager” in conjunction with the emergence of greater public discourse about self-determination and self-governance. The most common “emergent stereotype found in this research is one which casts into doubt the ability of Aboriginal people to successfully manage their own affairs.” This is not an accident:

Since many Canadians are concerned that Aboriginal self-governance may result in a loss of “resources, rights and livelihoods” (157), the construction of common sense notions about the inability of Aboriginal people to assume full control over their lives is functional to the preservation of the current state of power relations. Common sense definitions of Aboriginal issues that emerge in news discourse represent acts of self-defence for dominant interests in a contest that has very real social and material consequences for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.

The view that First Nation chiefs are corrupt, poor money managers, or incompetent, is a prevalent, racist view that most will recognize. But just in case you don’t think these stereotypes are as common as Harding, McCue, Cronlund and Robertson suggest, consider these comments I copied from the National Post website. Bear in mind that these comments are ones that were not deleted – which is to say that these are not the worst offenders.2

Canada could double its budget to the natives and they STILL wouldn’t be satisfied because what they really want is absolute power, unlimited money and no accountability.

It seems that the band leaders have much to hide from their own members as well as the media.

Can you explain then, why they are over-represented in the justice system and in prisons …. do you think it might have anything to do with the number of crimes they commit (I’m just taking a wild guess here).

So the first nation community elected an incompetant person to run their community?

That’s right boy, it’s “bigotry” to point out that the few Attawapiskat natives at the top are are living as though they’re on “Lives of the Rich and Famous” while the rest of the reserve have to live in shacks and beg for scraps.

By refusing to hold band chiefs and councilors to the same standard that they would hold their own mayors, the Indian-industry has encouraged corruption, graft, nepotism and a waste of money that would be farcical if it wasn’t so tragic. Enough money has poured into Attawapiskat to pay off the national debt of a small African nation, with very little to show for it.

Comments like these are, unfortunately, easy to find in almost any newspaper comment section. And they make evident the analysis which concludes that the “myth of the drunken Indian” has been replaced, or possibly joined, by the myth of the incompetent and dishonest First Nations Chief.

Evidence for premise 2.3

It is important to note that the representation of Indigenous leaders by Coyne is not absolute. I mention this at the outset, because my argument does not require his representation to be absolute. Coyne does present Chief Atleo as courageous and pragmatic at times. Similarly, Coyne does also present Manny Jules in a positive light. But none of these instances falsify my premises – least of all Coyne’s presentation of Jules. For stereotypes to work, they need only be overwhelmingly the case. Coyne positions Jules as a “former chief” and a modernizer who has moved on from the traditional agenda and is willing to cooperate. Coyne positions Jules, in other words, outside of the larger representation of traditional First Nations leadership. And while Coyne’s representation of Atleo is both central to First Nations chiefs, and mostly positive, Coyne still cannot help himself from framing Atleo as a leader unable to unite a divided AFN, who is just barely holding on to his power, who is modern enough to cooperate with the Canadian federal government, but who really lacks any deeper democratic right to govern because he was “elected by a relatively small number of chiefs.”

So even though Coyne’s representation of First Nations chiefs is not absolute, he still manages overall to represent First Nations chiefs as corrupt and incompetent. To see this, let’s review a number of claims that Andrew Coyne makes over the course of his three articles that are relevant to this issue. I’ll include a small selection of more obvious claims here, and will put the full list below.

  1. “But as more and more putative leaders have jumped in front of the parade, from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to the …”
  2. “But the mundane reality, with the continuing revelations of just how thoroughly she [Chief Spence] has mismanaged her tiny hamlet, is that her career in the race hustling business is very nearly at an end.”
  3. “No one person has done more to damage the native cause with the general public, and no native leader who hopes to enlist the public’s support will want to have much to do with her [Chief Spence].”
  4. “Experience teaches the only thing that ultimately defuses extremist movements is incontrovertible evidence that they do not enjoy the support of the population in whose name they claim to act.”
  5. “It has been all too easy for the activists to attack Atleo as illegitimate so long as he remains elected by a relatively small number of chiefs.”
  6. “Rarely has the penchant of native leaders for what a former prime minister’s chief of staff, Derek Burney, has called “theology” been on such open display.”
  7. “But even if the government met every one of the native leaders’ demands, that would not begin to address the real problems facing aboriginal people.”
  8. “The emphasis of so many native leaders, even among the moderates, on legal, constitutional and political remedies — treaties, land claims, nation-to-nation negotiations and so on — reflects a misplaced fascination…”
  9. “…would still leave too many natives on reserve too captive, not just to the federal bureaucracy, but to their own chiefs and band councils.
  10. “…or from chiefs, who fear losing their power and perqs (but who are not above invoking the arguments of the ideologues).”

These criticisms of First Nations chiefs implicitly and explicitly paint a picture of incompetence and dishonesty. For example, in #1 Coyne says ‘putative leaders’ in reference to Chief Spence, which is an implicit yet clear way to signal derision for hers and others leadership: additionally, these alleged leaders have jumped in front of the parade which is behaviour unbecoming of genuine leaders. More explicitly, Coyne actually uses terms and phrases like incompetent, extremist, fundamentalist, fear losing their power, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and penchant for theology, disasters and misplaced fascinations. The picture that Coyne paints overwhelmingly is that Aboriginal people are held captive (his word) by their fundamentalistincompetent or fearful chiefs (also all his words).  These ideas strongly entrench and play into the stereotype that First Nations chiefs are corrupt and not capable of governance.

It is also worth noting that the tone of these articles by Coyne is full of contempt. This contempt seems to be similarly reflected in his various tweets on the subject. Actually, Coyne most often tweets about these issues by employing sarcasm, more sarcasm, diminishing humour, derisive jokes, more sarcasm and outright derision.

Conclusion 2

In conclusion, in so far as as Andrew Coyne’s articles played into and entrenched the stereotype that First Nations chiefs are corrupt and incompetent, Coyne’s articles were racist.

The full list of claims by Andrew Coyne

  1. “But as more and more putative leaders have jumped in front of the parade, from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to the …”
  2. “Having been defeated last summer in her bid to unseat Atleo as AFN chief, Palmater evidently sees Idle No More as a chance for a do-over.”
  3. “But the mundane reality, with the continuing revelations of just how thoroughly she [Chief Spence] has mismanaged her tiny hamlet, is that her career in the race hustling business is very nearly at an end.”
  4. “No one person has done more to damage the native cause with the general public, and no native leader who hopes to enlist the public’s support will want to have much to do with her [Chief Spence].”
  5. “…because of the machinations of one incompetent chief; neither is the Idle No More movement likely to diminish in intensity merely because its purported spiritual leader has been discredited.”
  6. “…not merely their “assimilation” or “termination,” in the ambiguous terminology preferred by other native leaders…”
  7. “The collateral damage could well include the native establishment, notably Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo, the people with whom Harper must work and the people most exposed in the current atmosphere of confrontation.”
  8. “As I’ve written before, it is Atleo and others like him, more than Harper, whom the more fundamentalist elements in Idle No More have in their sights, precisely for their willingness to co-operate with the government and its “genocidal” agenda.”
  9. “As Attawapiskat and other disasters make clear, the core requirement of self-government is accountability to the governed.”
  10. “Experience teaches the only thing that ultimately defuses extremist movements is incontrovertible evidence that they do not enjoy the support of the population in whose name they claim to act.”
  11. “…it is difficult to say just who speaks for aboriginal Canadians at present.”
  12. “We need to know more about what natives really want: whether they favour the sort of meat-and-potatoes, good-governance reforms the government and the chiefs have been jointly pursuing, or the constitutional castles-in-the-air of the fundamentalists.”
  13. “It has been all too easy for the activists to attack Atleo as illegitimate so long as he remains elected by a relatively small number of chiefs.”
  14. “Rarely has the penchant of native leaders for what a former prime minister’s chief of staff, Derek Burney, has called “theology” been on such open display.”
  15. “The whole future of the country seemed to hang on whether ministers and chiefs met in a hotel or in a government building, or whether the Prime Minister and the Governor-General attended at the same time or in sequence.”
  16. “In the process, it became more evident than ever just how divided the AFN has become…”
  17. “…among the other unresolved matters as I write are the future of AFN chief Shawn Atleo and, one has to think, the AFN itself, with much of the organization now in open revolt against his leadership.”
  18. “Ontario’s chiefs have promised to block every major road and rail line in the province next Wednesday, while a Manitoba chief went so far as a vow to ‘shut down this economy.’”
  19. “…we are not obliged to accept every proffered interpretation of these, no matter how extravagant. Native leaders may insist, for example, that the federal government has a constitutional ‘duty to consult,’”
  20. “But even if the government met every one of the native leaders’ demands, that would not begin to address the real problems facing aboriginal people.”
  21. “The emphasis of so many native leaders, even among the moderates, on legal, constitutional and political remedies — treaties, land claims, nation-to-nation negotiations and so on — reflects a misplaced fascination…”
  22. “…would still leave too many natives on reserve too captive, not just to the federal bureaucracy, but to their own chiefs and band councils.
  23. “The same applies to the chiefs’ latest demand, for a greater share of the revenues from resource development projects.”
  24. “…control of these revenues would remain in the hands of the chiefs and their retainers, leaving their constituents as much dependent on their good graces as before.”
  25. “Collectively, they need more control over how they are governed, meaning not just devolution of powers from the federal government, but more accountable and transparent government on the reserve.”
  26. “…or from chiefs, who fear losing their power and perqs (but who are not above invoking the arguments of the ideologues).”
  1. My first exploration of  racism in the writings of Andrew Coyne referred at length to an article published in the National Post on January 7th. The second related article was written on on January 9th: it was titled “Stephen Harper must bolster moderates as true voice of native Canadians” and was updated on January 10, at 1:26 PM. The third article was published on January 11th, was titled “Atleo was couragious to meet with Harper as his constituency openly revolts” and was updated on January 13, 5:43 pm.
  2. The links to these comments: http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/21/attawapiskat-chief-loses-30-pounds-since-going-on-liquid-diet-claims-band-audit-is-a-witch-hunt/#comment-774286219 http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/07/andrew-coyne-idle-no-more-movement-is-a-dispute-between-rival-factions-in-the-aboriginal-community/#comment-759656131 http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/11/theresa-spence-will-continue-hunger-protest-spokesman-says/#comment-764550866 http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/08/christie-blatchford-attawapiskat-audit-reveals-reserve-finances-in-complete-disarray/#comment-760944736 http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/08/theresa-spence-camp-wont-be-removed-from-victoria-island-despite-lack-of-permit-ncc/#comment-760925358 http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/21/attawapiskat-chief-loses-30-pounds-since-going-on-liquid-diet-claims-band-audit-is-a-witch-hunt/#comment-774395215 http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/08/christie-blatchford-attawapiskat-audit-reveals-reserve-finances-in-complete-disarray/#comment-760781828 http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/01/07/andrew-coyne-idle-no-more-movement-is-a-dispute-between-rival-factions-in-the-aboriginal-community/#comment-759656131 
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Archived comments

  1. […] There’s no question that in Andrew Coyne’s January articles he was expressing strong opinions about Aboriginal people. He developed a theory of fundamentalist movement with a traditional agenda within Aboriginal people. He told us that the failures within Idle No More could explain the problems, the chronic poverty, of Aboriginal people in Canada. Coyne explained that the traditional agenda was a movement of extremists, that Aboriginal leaders lacked accountability and competence, and the fundamentalists are “Divinely certain of the righteousness of their cause and undeterred by such niceties as the rule of law…”. If you’re unsure about any of this, see my other articles in this series. […]

  2. SM says:

    Thorough and well cited. Your explanation of how the stereotypes are a problem even when some semi-positive examples are included is especially astute.

  3. Q says:

    Thank you for doing this.

  4. Sarah says:

    Wow, those references about stereotypes in journalism are fantastic. Bookmarked for later.

    And thanks for going through this stuff point by point. The contempt and ignorance in the original articles make me feel pretty sick, and having this more careful, factual context helps me stay with it long enough to really see what Coyne wrote.

  5. Mel Brown says:

    Extreeeeemly well argued. I emailed Andrew Coyne with the link to this article. I would like him to respond!

  6. BC says:

    Important post, and very well researched. The people who drive media discourse in Canada are very heavily invested in maintaining colonial Canada.