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Protest as Pedagogy

Teaching, Learning, and Indigenous Environmental Movements


Gregory Lowan-Trudeau

Written during a time characterized by catalyzing Indigenous environmental movements such as Idle No More, political upheaval, and the final years of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Protest as Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Indigenous Environmental Movements was motivated by Gregory Lowan-Trudeau’s personal experiences as an activist, educator, and researcher. Insights from interviews with activists and educators in a variety of school, community, and post-secondary contexts are presented in relation to teaching and learning during, and in response to, Indigenous environmental movements. Looking toward future possibilities, the rise of renewable energy development by Indigenous communities across Canada is also considered. Throughout Protest as Pedagogy, these inquiries are guided by a theoretical framework built on concepts such as decolonization, Herbert Marcuse’s repressive tolerance, Elliot Eisner’s three curricula, and broader fields of study such as social movement learning, critical media literacy, Indigenous media studies, and environmental communication.

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Chapter 6. Critical Media Literacy and Engagement: Insights from Indigenous Environmental Movements and Educational Contexts

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Insights from Indigenous Environmental Movements and Educational Contexts

Indigenous environmental movements are increasingly featured in popular, independent, and social media; Standing Rock, Idle No More, and other manifestations of resistance often capture attention across North America and beyond. As described in previous chapters, I have participated in such movements and, as a result, with popular, alternative, and social media in a variety of ways in both a personal and professional manner (Lowan-Trudeau, 2017a, 2017b, 2018).

Through various media engagements, I’ve had experiences ranging from empowering to demoralizing and frustrating. I’ve had great experiences wherein I felt respected in sharing personal and research-based insights with independent and popular media outlets related to critical issues. I’ve also had the wording of letters to the editor slightly altered, quotes taken out of context, and misleading headlines presented in relation to my comments. With the support of media savvy colleagues, I’ve also learned that it’s possible to actively engage with media creators, for example, by contacting editors and producers to request retractions or changes if necessary. As a result of such experiences, I’ve learned to be cautious with, but not completely opposed to, media engagement—I often decline media requests, but not always, because I do believe that media engagement can be a powerful vehicle to speak truth to power and share important insights. ← 111 | 112 →

As an educator, I’ve also come to understand the potential for critically engaging students with media in a variety of forms. As described in the literature and interview-based insights presented in the following, I also recognize that students today are often presented with opportunities to become not only media consumers, but also producers, especially in digital formats (Kellner & Share, 2007).

In this chapter, I share further insights from the related studies discussed in Chapters Four and Five that explored the relationship between Indigenous environmental movements, teaching, and learning in Canada. As I described earlier, those inquiries were initially guided by theoretical frameworks informed by decolonization (Battiste, 2005; Smith, 2012), Eisner’s (2002) Three Curricula, and Marcuse’s (1965) repressive tolerance. However, in response to the emergent media-related themes discussed in the following, the interpretations presented in this chapter were undertaken using a more specific theoretical framework informed by the related fields of critical media literacy, critical environmental communication, and Indigenous media practice as discussed in the following.

Critical Media Literacy and Environmental Communication

Three important aspects of critical media literacy and environmental communication discussed below include critical media consumption; independent digital media production; and popular media participation by scholars, educators, and scientists.

Critical Media Literacy

Building on the earlier work of theorists such as Henry Giroux, the scholarship of critical media literacy theorists such as Douglas Kellner, with co-authors Richard Kahn and Jeff Share, provides strong insights for this inquiry with foundational connections to social and environmental justice. For example, Kahn and Kellner (2004) trace the rise of internet activism from the 1990s as connected to diverse, but inherently connected, social and environmental movements and initiatives ranging from the Zapatistas to the Battle of Seattle. They describe how the potential for increased interactivity of ‘internet 2.0’ was recognized early on by social and environmental groups and used to organized and mobilize both ad hoc and sustained initiatives. They also ← 112 | 113 → recognize the complexities of the interactive internet and its potential for misuse by, for example, terrorist organizations, while also acknowledging the rise of potentially oppressive government oversight. These observations are timely and prescient in both regards in light of the actions by, for example, the US and Canadian governments to impose internet monitoring on a massive scale, both publicly and covertly, and the potentially ‘chilling’ effect of such actions on public discourse (Penney, 2017; Stoycheff, 2016).

Kellner and Share (2007) take up similar considerations through a more explicitly pedagogical lens. They note that rapid developments in media and technology require enhanced media literacy pedagogies and posit that media and technology in the digital era have become a form of public education with transformative potential. In relation to such dynamics, Kellner and Share outline three common approaches to media education:

A protectionist approach, wherein the goal is to equip students with critical tools to guard against media manipulation;

Media arts education, which focuses on the aesthetic aspects of media production and assists students in becoming creators of their own media, and;

The media literacy movement, which builds on literary traditions to expand conceptions of literacy to the digital realm;

In response to the approaches described above which they found useful, but somewhat lacking, Kellner and Share (2007) developed their own conception of critical media literacy (and production) which ‘includes aspects of the three previous models, but focuses on ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality’ (p. 8). They also emphasize the productive element of critical media literacy and its potential to transform conceptions of literacy in educational contexts from early childhood to post-secondary while also fostering sociocritical engagement, empowerment, and voice for all students.

Canadian scholars Lorayne Robertson and Joli Scheidler-Benns (2016) remind us that media producers are not neutral actors in society, ‘as media texts can reproduce power relations or challenge them’ (p. 2249). From an educational perspective, they highlight that, while great progress has been made, educators face ongoing challenges in enacting critical media literacy in practice; they also note the persistent shortage of supportive literature. With reference to Kellner and Share’s foundational work and consideration of critical, interpretive/constructivist, transformative, and connectivist paradigms, ← 113 | 114 → they discuss changes in student-educator relationships in many contexts from a hierarchical model to one that is arguably more interactive and democratic. Robertson and Scheidler-Benns acknowledge that transformative pedagogy is most often a long-term process that, in this case, involves not only the critical work and interaction of students and teachers, but also associated societal shifts. In keeping with Kahn and Kellner (2004) and Kellner and Share (2007), they propose that in these technocentric times, transformative critical media literacy is a slow, but crucially important process—educators must first expand and disrupt students’ assumptions about and understanding of media, going beyond past approaches towards a participatory model.

Robertson and Scheidler-Benns (2016) also note that, while rapid technological developments have arguably transformed student-educator relationships, educators still occupy important roles in critical media education as expert facilitators of sociocritical understanding with deep subject expertise. Catherine Burwell (2010) supports a similar view in noting that engagement with and production of popular and digital media must be conducted through a sociocritical lens. Robertson and Scheidler-Benns also resonate with Burwell in making the insightful suggestion that, in critical media literacy contexts, a connectivist, rather than constructivist paradigm is a more appropriate and accurate depiction of the interactions of students and teachers with each other and various media sources. Moreover, they posit that facilitating critical media literacy initiatives can lead to transformative learning for students and educators alike when, for example, teachers gain deeper understanding of the role of technology in their students’ lives.

On a practical level, Robertson and Scheidler-Benns (2016) provide a critical literacy framework for educators with specific questions that can be posed to stimulate transformative thinking. They also note other important connections between critical media literacy, technology, and intersectional justice, for example, students with disabilities. Further, they draw insightful connections to the importance of considering curriculum reform and connections as a starting, not end point for transformative critical literacy, and the power of media to inform public consideration of key critical issues such as the reconciliation process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, a notion that bears great relevance for this inquiry.

Critical Environmental Communication

Scientists and academics also have an important role to play in promoting and fostering critical media literacy in relation to environmental issues, for ← 114 | 115 → example, in the realm of climate science education (Cooper, 2011). As Caren Cooper (2011) suggests, it is essential for scientists and science educators alike to not only participate in media in order to provide accurate sources of information to the public, but also to promote critical science literacy and active engagement through, for example, citizen science initiatives. Cooper notes that a multitude of possibilities now exist to engage learners through social and digital media. She also encourages us to reflexively consider our own ‘media diet’ and provides, with reference to the National Association for Media Literacy, suggestions for guiding critical questions that could be shared with students related to audience, authorship, content, technique, interpretation, representations, context, and credibility.

Vraga, Tully, Akin, and Rojas (2012) also note that trust in media is a foundational aspect of many contemporary societies and so, in a time rife with claims of media bias and ‘fake news’, increased critical media literacy which boosts people’s ability to assess news providers’ credibility may also lead to reduced hostility towards, for example, environmental news coverage that engages scientific experts. As such, they suggest that critical media literacy can assist in balancing personal biases to promote informed understanding of key issues. Similar dynamics are worthy of consideration in relation to critical social and environmental Indigenous issues and media engagement.

Indigenous Media Practice

Alongside an arguable growth in coverage of Indigenous environmental issues in the popular media, Indigenous peoples have become increasingly active actors in and producers of mainstream, alternative, and social media around the world in both professional and activist roles (McCallum & Waller, 2013; Sweet, Pearson, & Dudgeon, 2013; Wickstrom & Young, 2014). While such developments are promising, much work remains to foster critical understanding of Indigenous environmental values along with intersectional social and environmental justice analysis in education and media alike (Endres, 2009, 2014; Sowards, 2012; Tipa, 2009).

The misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and environmental issues is also a persistent challenge (Foxwell-Norton, Forde, & Meadows, 2013; McCallum & Waller, 2013) as discussed by some of the participants profiled below. Much of this misunderstanding and misrepresentation is rooted in ahistorical and deficit-focused narratives that freeze Indigenous peoples in the ← 115 | 116 → past without acknowledging our ongoing existence and the richly complex diversity of our contemporary lives and communities in relation to particular geographical regions (Brady, 2011; Katz-Rosene, 2017).

Indigenous journalists also continue to rise in prominence, claiming voice and providing powerful counter-narratives to mainstream reporting while also at times, facilitating language revitalization, and conducting journalism through culturally appropriate frameworks (Hanusch, 2013); Canada’s Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) is but one example ( Although practice in this area has expanded significantly, research is still very limited (Hanusch, 2013).

Although such developments are indeed promising, Indigenous communities and individuals must also remain wary of corporate and government attempts to modify messaging for ulterior purposes, such as ‘greenwashing’ in relation to government and industry-sponsored developments in Indigenous territories (Brady & Monani, 2012; Katz-Rosene, 2017). As noted by social and environmental movement scholars (e.g., Cooper, 2011; Gorringe, Stott, & Rosie, 2012; Ollis, 2011) and several participants below, it is also important for activists to develop media engagement skills in order to communicate messages on their own terms.

Despite a lack of initial focus in this area, media-related findings emerged strongly in both studies. As presented below, several participants in both studies discussed both the complexity of activist-media relationships as well as the rich potential, but at times confounding, complexity of engaging with and fostering critical media literacy and media creation and engagement in educational contexts.

Critical Media Engagement

One emergent theme in both studies was the challenge, but also potential power, of engagement with media. Several activist participants in the first study discussed the potential power of engaging with media to share information in support of their causes. However, they also discussed the nuances of participating in various forms of media. For example, while popular media may reach a broader audience, activists sometimes struggle for adequate representation in such venues, which often leads them to utilize other methods such as sharing information through independent news outlets and social media. However, as Chantal, an Indigenous political and community organizer, discussed during our interview, such fora are not ← 116 | 117 → without their own difficulties such as the potential for disputes amongst individual activists and groups on social media. With reference to a positive media engagement experience and connections to some of my own experiences as described above and shared during our interview, Chantal also emphasized the importance of building trusting relationships with media representatives:

That was one of the first times I’d engaged in that way, but it turned out to be good. And, like you said, it was largely because it was with a reporter who was recommended by a trusted colleague, and just the whole experience was good. … It’s wonderful to hear you highlight that because … I think it’s so true.

The importance of skillful interaction with popular, independent, and social media was a common area of discussion with many participants. As Ollis (2011) notes, ‘Activists need to have outstanding communication skills. (p. 222). Several participants, such as Chantal, mentioned not only the importance of forming functioning and trusted relationships with media outlets, but also the educative potential of media, both popular and social. However, engagement with media is a risky endeavour as there is always the chance of negative and incorrect messages being spread (Foxwell-Norton et al., 2013; Gorringe et al., 2012; McCallum & Waller, 2013). As such, several participants echoed Gorringe et al. (2012) who emphasize the importance of keeping media messages concise and straightforward, as well as being aware of the knowledge background of those who will be engaging with a given media source.

Several participants’ (Alison, Brad, Sam, Chantal) stories from both studies also demonstrate that Indigenous peoples and allies around the world are actively bypassing traditional media and embracing various technologies and media sources to build solidarity and connect with each other on critical social and environmental issues (McCallum & Waller 2013; Sweet et al., 2013; Wickstrom & Young, 2014). This is but one example of the wide and expanding range of activist activities occurring today.

Similar to Cooper (2011), a number of participants (Paul, Brad, Bill and Heather) also emphasized the informal educational potential of media engagement. They discussed taking advantage of mainstream media interest in critical socioecological issues to spread educational messages. Examples of such engagement include agreeing to on-camera interviews as well as actively seeking exposure through writing letters to the editor, editorials, and connecting with alternative news outlets and social media sites to ← 117 | 118 → further share your message. As Paul, a Euro-Canadian academic, enthusiastically commented:

It’s all about raising awareness of people, trying to build a movement, trying to get people to understand that we need to actually act or we’re going to end up in a future that we’re not that happy with.

Euro-Canadian activists Bill and Heather also emphasized the importance of taking advantage of mainstream media interest in order to engage in providing alternate and expanded stories and, hopefully, foster more comprehensive understanding of both contemporary and historical Indigenous issues (Foxwell-Norton et al., 2013; McCallum & Waller, 2013).

Brad, a Euro-Canadian professor, noted that when mainstream media interest is lacking or unreliable, social and alternative media have become key sites for dissemination of important counter stories and information to promote more balanced understanding. Brad also discussed his own practices of actively seeking opportunities to share his insights and opinions such as in newspaper editorials and also being sure to position himself clearly during media engagements to ensure understanding for whom he does and does not speak. He also emphasized the potential and importance of recording events and media engagements using digital methods for further dissemination and proof. Such strategies can prove crucial when, for example, activists are accused of inciting violence as described by Bill and Heather in relation to events related to hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) protests at Elsipogtog/Rexton, New Brunswick in 2013:

Heather:We had been to the demonstrations in Elsipogtog … And we came back and tried to disabuse people of the [mainstream] media’s message and … you know, to say that, well, it wasn’t violent. The violence came from the police … [The Indigenous] people … are defending their homes … and this is a threat to their very existence. And so we talked to our friends and people we knew about these kinds of issues. And, in fact, when we were at the demonstration the first time we went, we were taking photographs, and … Bill was interviewed by somebody from CBC, and subsequently sent her a photograph of the police lining up …
Bill:Thirty of them, across the street.
Heather:So, you know, we took advantage of the mainstream media’s interest in the issue, and gave them a point of view that was …
Bill:A little more fair and a little more balanced.
Heather:Yeah. That was also speaking up on behalf of the First Nations group that was … being accused of being violent … you know? ← 118 | 119 →

Heather and Bill also pointed to the implications for educators who wish to consider such issues with their students, a topic that is explored in greater detail in the following section.

Critical Media Literacy and Pedagogy

Several educator participants in the second study also described both the challenges of and possibilities for employing media to engage students in a critically informed manner. For example, some participants, such as Sam, a Euro-Canadian university instructor, discussed the uncertainty that they sometimes feel when sharing media with their students due to a lack of confidence in their own knowledge related to the historical, legal, and contemporary underpinnings of Indigenous environmental movements. As such, Sam emphasized the strength of sharing First Voice (Graveline, 1998) narratives from credible sources that profile Indigenous speakers on key issues in person and also through film. She commented:

The resource that I find the most helpful and that also takes up … the shortest amount of time [and] doesn’t require a lot of prep [is video]. You can bring it into the class, the students will pay attention, and it’ll prompt good discussion, because in a lot of ways all you really need is something that will prompt the discussion and then the discussion is where they’re actually going to integrate what they’ve learned with their own thought processes.

Brad, a Euro-Canadian post-secondary educator, described how he often shares his own media engagements with students as a hook at the beginning of class. He commented:

I am doing this … not because I am an egomaniac, you know, I am not just trying to say look at me. I am doing this because I know this … engages the students … It is a way for the students to appreciate the topic; the subject matter in the class is actually relevant to the real world. And you can walk into the class and … [say] ‘Hey, I was just in the news yesterday talking about this stuff.’ … It goes suddenly from the abstract to the real for them.

Brad also shared that he uses email networks to spread important news related to environmental issues and activist initiatives.

Sam and Alison, both Euro-Canadian post-secondary educators, discussed the important role of social media in their own ongoing learning and media ← 119 | 120 → engagement and as a primary point of contact with other critical educators and scholars. They both acknowledged that face to face interaction is preferable, but that digital media does present several options for maintaining contact and supporting learning; this was particularly important for Alison, who currently lives outside of Canada. Other participants such as Miranda, a land-based educator, author, and musician of mixed Cree and European ancestry, maintain their own websites to share their work and promote further connections.

Martha, a Euro-Canadian, professor and filmmaker, emphasized the potential impact and reach of digital multimedia. For example, she highlighted the success of an open studies massive open online course (MOOC) to promote awareness of Mi’kmaq history, culture, and language in relation to past and current issues linked to colonization (Cape Breton University, 2016). The course was extremely successful with several thousand followers (including me), some who had formally registered and received credit, and others who simply followed for their own interest and learning. Martha also shared insights regarding her experiences as a community-based filmmaker and researcher:

I got involved [with] community-based film making as a means of … exploring … questions in a way that was learning with people by attempting to support their struggles as opposed to sort of … grabbing [research findings] and run[ning]away … Film making is … central to my research practice. It isn’t the only tool in my toolbox, but I think that … the films I have made I think have been viewed more widely than [my publications; and] film making is fun. I like working with images. The communities that I have worked with have found the films that I have made to be useful tools for them, so that’s [also] motivating, to keep moving.

Melanie, a public art educator, also emphasized the potential power of engaging youth in critical assessment of popular media narratives through reflexive dialogue and creative protest. She reflected:

In [my] art practice … the aim is to … open a space where folks can participate fully to voice their needs in a community, and really go beyond that, beyond voting, you know? … To just kind of … spark a city engagement. … It just starts by really [assisting them in considering], ‘Okay … I am visible in this public space, I have a voice, I can connect with others to really reflect at what narratives there are about me, and how do we together looking from the ground, looking at new ways … and how [can we] engage people to really look at the big changes that are happening from the ground?’

As noted, the insights and experiences shared by the participants in both studies have significantly expanded my own understanding of critical media ← 120 | 121 → engagement and led me to explore new bodies of literature. They have also led me to consider future possibilities for research and practice in this area as well as the academic and societal significance of these topics.

Significance and Future Possibilities

Danielle Endres (2014), in exploring what she describes as ‘the crisis of voice in environmental advocacy’ (p. 11), suggests that, despite general consensus regarding climate change and other pressing environmental issues, there is often still public resistance to taking action. Endres points to confounding difficulties and pressures such as those arising from neoliberalism and intergenerational relationships. She also suggests that, given such complexities, further opportunities remain for important research in areas such as how environmental advocacy might become more effective, the experiences of insiders within advocacy movements, and how to use voice in new ways to create space and increase message impact. Endres’ observations and suggestions appear to resonate and expand upon those of the participants presented above and described elsewhere in related works (Lowan-Trudeau, 2017a, 2018) such as Martha, a Euro-Canadian professor and filmmaker, who reflected upon the deeper meaning of her work and broader societal dynamics in relation to participation in this study:

I think what’s interesting to me in terms of participating in this study is just having the chance to reflect a little bit more on my practice and what it means to work in solidarity, and what these kind of platitudes like being a good treaty partner and recognizing Indigenous jurisdiction and realizing that we all have these—that treaty rights come with responsibilities, and like what does that really mean? How do you go beyond surface level tokenistic, symbolic sort of statements, and symbolic gestures, and what’s that conversation, you know?

Given the insights provided by the participants in both studies in addition to my own experiences and persistent questions, I would also suggest that further opportunity exists for research in areas such as media engagement burnout for activists and academics; the complexities of both engaging with and creating socially and environmentally critical media with students of various ages; the prevention of biased media interpretations (Vraga et al., 2012) the use of social media by Indigenous and allied activists (Sweet et al., 2013); gender dynamics in media engagement and representation (Shor, van de Rijt, Miltsov, Kulkarni, & Skiena, 2015); and as noted by Folker Hanusch (2013), the experiences of Indigenous, and allied, journalists. ← 121 | 122 →


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