Walking softly and listening first; approaching a community who doesn’t know my name

Above all else, we have a responsibility as storytellers to respect the people and the communities we visit

Being a reporter is one of the coolest jobs on the planet. The things we see, the places we go, the stories we hear – it satisfies this unquenchable thirst I have to constantly learn and experience new things. 

It goes without saying that every situation we enter into is rarely the same as the previous one. In fact, very few interactions I have as a storyteller feel like repetitions of the past. Each is unique, and some are more challenging than others. 

I had an experience last week that will stick with me, for a few reasons. 

It was a Thursday morning, and I was getting ready to attend the Red Dress Day walk in Stz’uminus territory. My instructions were pretty clear: park in a gravel parking lot near the start, and meet the group 1.5 km up the road.

Every time I receive an invitation to attend something, I’m excited, but also nervous. This time, I was especially nervous as this was my first ‘on-the-ground’ assignment for IndigiNews. And, it was my first visit to a community that did not know my name. 

I know that first impressions are important, and that honouring MMIWG2S is especially important for the Stz’uminus community. I was told leading into this that they have experienced this loss in the community. 

For those who aren’t aware of the MMIWG2S movement, you can read my full story on it here

Because I haven’t sought their permission, I won’t name who invited me, but I prepared a gift as a thank-you to them, for being so willing to share their time and knowledge with me. This act of gift-giving is new to me, but I’m beginning to understand that it’s okay to give someone a gift as a way of honouring them, and not expecting anything back. Or, simply as a way to say thank you.

Amplify Indigenous voices

We don’t shy away from the truth. We shine light on the dire consequences of inaction, we share stories of strength, and we feature the individuals who give us hope. 

As storytellers, we have a responsibility to serve the communities we report in, and ensure that our presence doesn’t make situations worse for  people. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. And this is what I kept in mind last week. 

Rain, a rolled ankle; reminders to slow down

A blue heron flies above the water of Kulleet Bay, in Stz’uminus on May 5. Photo by Philip McLachlan.

It was raining, and after I parked my truck I walked up the road following the instructions I was given. While walking along the side of the road, I was conscious of people looking at me as they were driving by. My anxiety was alleviated after a man driving a bus in the opposite direction slowed, rolled down his window and asked if I wanted a ride. I smiled but politely declined, knowing that I was just around the corner from the event. I should have accepted though, because not 30 seconds after he left I rolled my ankle in a pothole and completely soaked my right foot. 

I paused. Maybe something is telling me to slow down. I turned to my right and stared at the ocean for a few minutes, my face flush and foot wet, before continuing on at a slower pace. 

I rounded the corner and was met by a sea of people all dressed in red. My jacket was green. Oh my god, my jacket is green. Why didn’t I wear my red jacket? Why did I think wearing a red t-shirt under layers of clothing on a rainy day was a good idea?

I was so thankful that, when I met up with the person who invited me, they introduced me to everyone around them, and offered a red shirt for me to wear over my jacket. Thank god. 

Honouring our Knowledge Keepers through a humanity-first approach

I then offered them my gift, which included a package of printed photos from when we first met, when I took their portrait for a different story, also on Stz’uminus territory. 

After hearing a blessing from both a Stz’uminus Elder and Chief Roxanne Harris, we set off down the road towards the Big House. Normally, I would have gotten ahead of the group to take photos, but instead I kept my camera in my bag and walked near the back. I watched as other photographers, members of the Stz’uminus community, photographed the group. 

I waited until we were closer to our destination before I started to work my way to the front of the group. On my way up, I had several great conversations with community members, who agreed it was ok for me to take photos of the procession. Even with this, I was cautious, as some were openly grieving.

I remembered the teachings of my IndigiNews Aunties, who always teach us to respect our Knowledge Sources (the people we interview, photograph, and who share their stories and knowledge with us) and take a humanity-first approach to storytelling. I tried my best to give everyone space. 

I took half a dozen photos, mostly of people’s backs, and put my camera away. Inside, we all sat and ate, listened to singing, speeches, and drumming. The decision to photograph people’s backs is out of respect for them not knowing who I am, or what my intentions were on that day. I think as photojournalists we assume it’s our job to show up and start capturing emotion, but I’m coming to realize that it’s sometimes necessary to slow down. Establishing trust with our Knowledge Sources first, before we take those intimate photos, is important to us at IndigiNews. 

As we were preparing to conclude our feast, an Elder stood up and sang a song that they dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I remembered some of the words, and carried them with me as I left. I remember seeing the Elder sit down after singing, openly grieving, comforted by many people around them. I considered asking if I could use the words from their song, but I chose not to approach. My gut told me to step out, so I did. 

Outside, I waited for Chief Harris, who graciously talked with me about what the day represented to her community. 

To some, an unexpected visitor; to me, a good omen

I walked back to my truck, and started to drive away but stopped – walking down onto the beach, I photographed several beautiful blue herons perched on the water’s edge. 

As I was driving out of the community, reflecting on everything I’d witnessed that day, the dense brush to the right of my vehicle suddenly exploded with movement. Out came a massive bald eagle which swooped in front of my truck and rose to my eye level, flying parallel to my truck for the last few hundred feet of the road. Before it departed, it dipped to its right, tilted its head to look at me, and flew off.

Full body chills came over me. I pulled over, trying to process what just happened. It’s amazing to come that close to an eagle on a regular day, but to be “led” out of a community by one – on such an emotional day – was special. After I stopped yelling to myself about how cool it was, I rolled down the window and pulled back onto the road. When I shared this experience with my fellow Canoe Paddlers at IndigiNews, we all agreed it was a good omen. I must be doing something right. 

Photo by Philip McLachlan

I don’t consider myself to be religious, but I will say, that day was a spiritual experience. Being warmly welcomed, feasting with strangers who were grateful I was there, and being visited by a messenger on my way out of the community made the day very meaningful. 

It’s been a week since this event, and I’m proud of the piece we published on MMIWG2S in Stz’uminus. I’m glad that we took the approach we did, and I’m grateful for the direction I was given by the IndigiNews team. I’m looking forward to learning more about, and being within, the community. As Chief Harris told me, their community is on a healing journey. 

Huy ch q’u (thank you) for bringing me on that journey. 

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