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Journalists for Human Rights launches program in northern Ontario

Journalists for Human Rights is turning its attention to Canada for the first time in its 11-year history.

While the Toronto-based NGO has trained journalists mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, it launched a new program in northern Ontario that seeks to increase Aboriginal-Canadian participation in local and national media.

"Our hope is to train stringers who can report from their northern Ontario communities where currently mainstream media doesn't have local correspondents," said Rachel Pulfer, executive director of JHR.  "They will be able to add the context that a reporter who is just flying in for a couple of days won't have... ultimately it's about giving ownership on their stories to the communities that live there."

JHR will send two trainers to a total of six remote communities over the course of nine months to train interested Aboriginals. Fort Severn, Weagomow, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Attawapiskat, Moose Cree and Constance Lake have agreed to take part in the project.

"I don't think many people realize how expensive it is to report from those communities... it's 10 times more expensive for us to send journalists to Fort Severn than to the Congo," said Pulfer. "But this is a project we are very committed to."

Danny Kresnyak, one of the JHR trainers, says reporting from northern Ontario is "all about human rights" despite the fact that many Canadians may not be aware of these issues. He has worked with JHR in West Africa and says it was "about time" the attention was focused on Canada.

"Lack of affordable housing, education, clean water... these are all human rights issues and we need more reporting of this in mainstream media," he said. "I'm glad JHR is finally working in Canada because it's definitely needed," adding that if the project is successful, JHR should consider expanding it to northern communities in other provinces and territories.

JHR hopes to see a 20 per cent increase in the number of news stories in mainstream media, such as CBC, Shaw Thunder Bay and Magic FM; they have agreed to take content -- as long as it meets their standards -- from the stringers.

A field coordinator in Thunder Bay will also train local journalists in mainstream media on how to approach Aboriginal communities on the protocol before and while on reserve. The workshops will also encourage collaboration with the Aboriginal population in Thunder Bay, to explain how newsrooms work, how they can get their voices heard and increase the trust between Aboriginal communities and non-mainstream media.

"We basically want to give journalists the toolbox on how to report from northern communities that might be reluctant, on everything from housing crisis to access to clean water and elections" said Chris Kornacki, the field coordinator based in Thunder Bay. "We also give Aboriginal journalists the tools to work successfully as freelance journalists and make a living."

To that end, the project will create an online forum where all the training documents will be posted along with a resource for freelancers and mainstream editors looking to connect.

"This is such an exciting opportunity to get more reporting on northern Ontario issues that really affect all Canadians, like resource development, mining, and governance," said Mike Metatawabin, chair of the board of Wawatay Native Communications Society. "The north is a completely different world and (it would be great to) share our success stories and open the door for mainstream media reporting."

Kimberly Stinson, a JHR trainer going to Fort Severn has spent a number of years working as a journalist and teaching in Afghanistan where she says she "learned as much (from) my students as they probably learned from me."

Now that she's headed to northern Ontario for three months, she's also hoping "we can establish some of that trust with the media." Stinson added she'd like to see some of the trainees eventually take on the role of trainers when JHR has another initiative in those regions so that the program becomes self-sufficient. 

While the project is just getting started, it has already been recognized with a media innovation award by the Canadian Ethnic Media Association.

"We're just completely blown away," Metatawabin said. "But it goes to show the importance of the work we're trying to do here."

Tamara Baluja is the associate editor of J-Source, where this article first appeared.

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