The Nanaimo Daily News and other media outlets have a duty to uphold free speech, according to a prominent B.C. journalism ethics professor.
Ross Howard of Langara College spoke with the Daily News in the wake of controversy sparked by the Monday publication of a letter to the editor.
The letter, authored by Nanaimo resident Bill McRitchie, and the decision to publish the opinion, were panned by First Nations groups and individuals, including protesters who gathered in front of the Daily News on Tuesday. Others say publishing the letter has the potential to serve the public good, despite the anger and resentment it has stoked in the community.
A letter may be offensive, said Howard, but the media has a duty to uphold free speech.
"And it's in the public interest to know that there are some people who hold these views," he said.
"We often get it confused in our minds, but it's as important that we print opinions as that we print news that we think the public needs to know.
"We are a forum, as much as we are an educator and as much as we are a watchdog."
"It's really hard these days in political correctness not to look like what people accuse you of being, but people are forgetting the importance of media having the right to print all opinions, if you are being responsible about it."
Howard said a newspaper is justified in running a letter that represents views held by a number of people in the community, but added that sometimes the choice is not easy.
Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White said the letter represents the newspaper's willingness to "represent a viewpoint that is greatly troubling to me."
McRitchie's letter acknowledges that aboriginals "were treated terribly" by European settlers, but goes on to say that "no individuals or groups of individuals should receive special treatment in Canada because of their ethnic, religious or historical backgrounds."
Dr. Aftab Erfan, a University of British Columbia researcher specializing in trauma, reconciliation and First Nations, said the 'level playing field' referred to in the letter does not exist.
But, she said, publishing the letter can be justified "as long as it opens the doors for dialogue.
"The truth is, the opinion that this gentleman puts in his letter to the editor, it's not just his opinion," she said.
"There's a community out there that holds that opinion."
Erfan said the letter is poorly-informed and missing key facts, but said further writing and public response to it could fill in the gaps.
Daily News managing editor Mark A. MacDonald stressed that it is an opinion of a person living in the community.
"It's freedom of speech.
It's a letter to the editor.
It's not (the newspaper's) opinion," he said.
But White said the newspaper has given a platform to racist views.
"It represents an idea that it's OK to publish sentiments that some people are less than other people, that indigenous peoples are not as evolved as other peoples, that the history in Canada doesn't matter and that treaties don't matter and they should be torn up," he said.
"It's really counter to what we're trying to do in terms of conversation and dialogue in society to start to re-imagine a different way of living together."
Dr. Brian Thom, a University of Victoria researcher specializing in aboriginal land claim negotiations, said the letter "frames the injustices that aboriginal people have faced in Canada as a thing of the past.
"And I think one of the things that resonates so strongly with aboriginal people. .. is that there's a still a whole framework of social and political and economic difference in Canada that is pretty profound," he said.
"Injustices are ongoing. And so I think a lot of aboriginal people experience their lives through this lens of continuing to feel the injustices that have carried on, in many ways, since these earlier colonial times."
Thom said the letter also highlights what he called an "ethno-centric" belief that everyone should "assimilate to some sort of standard European or Euro-Canadian kind of model of life," a view that offends both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, he added.
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