Melissa Ridgen Kicks Ass, Takes Names
Journalist is the first Indigenous woman to ever moderate a federal leaders debate
On Sept. 9, for the first time in Canadian political history, an Indigenous journalist will stand face to face with the country’s next prime minister and grill them in front of a national audience.
Melissa Ridgen will co-moderate the English language leaders debate next month and even though she’s calling this “Canada’s what the f**k” election, it’s no small honour for her to have a seat at the table. Ridgen is an investigative reporter at Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
She sat down with The Rover for an exclusive interview about our flawed democracy and the personal toll of covering a child welfare system that “feeds on” Indigenous families. But Ridgen also told us why she’s hopeful for the future of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada.
Ridgen is a proud Red River Métis whose been in the journalism game 24 years, reporting for the Calgary Sun and running the Brandon Sun’s city section before her time at APTN.
The Rover: For a moment on debate night, you’ll command a room full of politicians, terrified of what you’ll ask them. Is that the definition of happiness?
Melissa Ridgen: Kind of.
You know, APTN has been around for 21 years, we’re one of four national broadcasters and we’ve never been invited to this table. So I have to think some of these leaders will think, “What’s coming at me?”
TR: In past televised debates, the party leaders have gotten away with skating by on Indigenous issues. Moderators haven’t had much experience covering First Nations and that’s if they even bother asking a question about them. How are you going to set the tone that platitudes won’t cut it this time?
MR: I think we’ve all come to expect it, in these debates, to hear platitudes. Most Canadians get that it won’t really drill down to anything. You know, there’s going to be some showboating and fancy words and soundbites. What do we really ever get from a debate?
I think we like the showmanship of a debate but does anything that interesting ever come out of it? Do you ever get solid answers? Do you ever leave a debate having changed your mind about a leader? It’s a bit of a circus.
TR: That’s the challenge right. People say they want these substantive debates on policy but then when they get into the details, it’s really boring. The lizard part of your brain is…
MR: Changing the channel.
TR: Exactly. A part of me just wants to see the leaders fight. Why am I so awful? Why are we so awful?
MR: Like humans in general?
MR: Or voters at election time?
TR: All of us.
MR: The way the system works, it’s made us like that and it’s made them like that. The politicians. Maybe if you could just turn the entire system on its head. I don’t know how but it doesn’t bring out the best in us and it sure as shit doesn’t bring out the best in politicians. I think, as human beings on this planet, there’s gotta be a better way for government structures, politics to work better. To serve everybody better, to serve the planet better. And all the little critters too.
We just haven’t had that conversation. Instead we show up for the spectacle.
TR: When did you find out you’d be co-moderating the debate?
MR: August, I think. It all happened pretty fast and these decisions are well above my paygrade. My boss, Cheryl McKenzie, said “We’re going to be at the debate, at the table with CTV, CBC and Global. I want you to do it.” And I said “Of course.” Who would say no to it. I have questions.
TR: How did your family react?
MR: When I told them, they were like “Oh yeah” and kind of had blank stares. Maybe it’s not that big a deal but I think it is. APTN has a seat at the table after all these years. We’re Canada’s only national Indigenous broadcaster. But in my family, it was good news but it wasn’t huge news. It was like, “Okay, what’s for dinner though?” It’s starting to sink in, though.
TR: Maybe it’s just a reflection of how all of Canada feels about this election.
MR: Yeah, I don’t think anybody’s feeling it. I don’t think anybody’s in love with this government, I don’t think anybody hates this government — well there are people that hate this government but they hated it before anyone ever got into office. I don’t think this government has done anything so upsetting that the swing voters want them gone but I don’t think anyone will race to the polls to validate the government either.
People are solidly in, “What the F***” territory. It’s like, “I don’t care what any of you have to say right now.” We’ve got COVID fatigue, it’s just a bizarre time to do it. I feel bad for Canadians. I kind of wonder is anybody gonna watch this debate? There’s so much disinterest.
TR: Between now and Sept. 9 there’s so many opportunities for us to get mad about something.
MR: Maybe you’re onto something.
TR: Here’s a long question. News this summer of the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops woke a lot of Canadians up to some hard truths about our treatment of Indigenous peoples. When the bodies of those children were found, you saw a lot of people starting to use words like “genocide” and “crime” to describe the ongoing legacy of residential schools. But this isn’t news is it? For years your network has been reporting on the search for these remains and for years your network has been going to some incredibly dark places without much recognition. Why do you think it takes a CBC or a Globe and Mail to report on this before Canada takes notice?
MR: Because Canada probably isn’t tuning into APTN. This is what really bit my ass about the unmarked graves story. Your government laid this out for you. It’s in the (2015) Truth and Reconciliation Report. You can’t say, “I wish we learned this in school.” No, your own government handed you this information on a platter. You chose ignorance, you chose not to fill your brain with that. I suppose people are busy living their lives and they need a Globe and Mail or a CTV to spoonfeed it to them. “Oh there it is, it’s in my face.”
Canadians wilfully chose not to know about the atrocities beyond “residential schools are bad and there’s intergenerational trauma.” But even that might not be sinking in. How many times do people say “residential schools are bad but look at these bums downtown.” People aren’t making that link. I’ve seen people in orange shirts who say “Oh, every child matters” hand wring, pearl clutch and they still look down their noses at Indigenous people today.
TR: Do you think it’s difficult for people to begin squaring reality with this image we have of ourselves as the reasonable country in North America?
MR: It’s funny, after the unmarked graves story broke, I did a headline scan. In China, in Germany, in Spain the headlines are shameful. This is what the world thinks of you, Canada. This should shake you. You should want to reconcile this, to make it right. Stop pretending this country is something better than it is. This country has a dark stain on it and it needs to make up for it. It’s never even tried.
I think more Canadians are having those conversations. Maybe this is what makes the next page in Canadian history better than what it’s been. I’m not an optimist.
TR: I think part of being a journalist is that mixture of cynicism and an optimism that things can change. Sometimes it’s hard to square that circle. Maybe that’s why I drink.
Look, I’ve seen people I know and love say awful things about Indigenous folk. And it can be hard to know how to push back sometimes without ruining dinner. Although sometimes I think dinners should be ruined. Is it just that it’s hard, people aren’t evil but they don’t want to do the work of decolonizing their minds?
MR: That’s part of it. I think if Canada started living up to the treaties, if Canada actually had to give land back, if they had to have a true nation to nation relationship, that’s uncomfortable. The narrative of this country is that they do too much for Natives. Even newcomers learn that. There’s this narrative that First Nations are always taking and taking and needing to be propped up.
But if you lived up to the treaties, you’d have to change that whole dynamic. I don’t know that people have even started thinking how that would happen or what it would look like. It’s a lot more comfortable to think, “Oh we’re doing them favours.”
TR: Before we get back to dark places, I think it’s important to recognize how many creative Indigenous people out there are having their moment right now. You have the comedy Letterkenny, whose most popular character is (Mohawk actor) Keniehtiio Horn, FX just released Rezervation Dogs and it’s a huge hit, you have Rutherford Falls in the states, the movie Blood Quantum, Waubgeshig Rice’s novel Moon of the Crusted Snow. There’s a razor sharp humour and a playfulness that’s coming out of these communities and we don’t always see that in media representation of Indigenous people.
MR: We didn’t wait for someone to give us a platform, we took it. That’s resilience. I’m not waiting for you to give me the opportunity, I’m taking it myself. Thank god for social media because we don’t have to go through the gatekeepers anymore. It’s an incredible time to be alive.
TR: Often, all you see in the mainstream media is this sort of disaster tourism on First Nations. Everything is bleak. But when you visit them, you’re greeted with a joke and maybe a prank.
MR: There’s a vibrant energy.
TR: Well, a lot of what APTN captures is that energy and that hope.
MR: To me, that just tells us we’re doing our job. There’s bad news that needs to be covered but there’s so much good in our communities. We have to show that. Not just for outsiders looking in, not just for the nice white person who happens to be channel flipping. It’s important for us to see it amongst ourselves. That light shining through, people lifting each other up because that’s what keeps us going. We’re all in this together.
TR: And now, back to the darkness. The election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015 was a historic moment for Indigenous communities. You saw record turnout, more Indigenous candidates elected than ever before, Canada had its first ever Indigenous Justice Minister in Jody Wilson-Raybould.
MR: A situation that was promptly screwed up.
TR: You’re stepping on my punchline. But that momentum fell apart pretty soon after the actual governing started. What’s your sense of the promise of the Trudeau Liberals versus the reality of their record?
MR: I don’t think this government has done horribly on some files, they’ve done okay on some files and they’ve been abysmal on others. There was this excitement in the newsroom in 2015. I was wondering, “Why aren’t we being our jaded selves?”
TR: Nine years of Stephen Harper will make you cling to hope, maybe.
MR: Maybe. But here’s the thing, the Conservatives don’t pretend to want to reinvent the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people in a way that will radically improve it. Liberals will tell you all those things, like that boyfriend where you should have known better, and then you’re disappointed when you get burned. Which is worse? I didn’t understand the excitement. These people overpromise and underdeliver. The shine wore off pretty quickly after 2015.
That big red wave that we were a part of in 2015, it was a little wave in 2019. What’s it gonna be now? An orange wave? I suspect there’s an apetite among our people who voted Liberal to try out the New Democratic Party this time.
The NDP is showing up. (NDP Leader) Jagmeet Singh is doing the work. It’s more of a priority than I’ve seen in recent history. He goes to the communities and he gets a grasp of the issues. Is he going to be prime minister? Probably not. And a critic could say “It’s easy to care when you’re never gonna be in a position to follow through.” But people feel heard by the NDP.
Yes, 2015 was huge for the Liberals and Indigenous voters but that was also a condemnation of the Harper years. And Trudeau was saying the right things, he came to visit APTN and said “If elected, I’ll come back, this needs to be a regular thing, we’ll keep the dialogue going.” He never came back after being elected. Not once.
The Conservatives, we’ll reach out and say “We want to do a sit down interview.” They won’t even call you back or acknowledge the email. So what’s worse?
TR: I don’t know, I just work here.
When I started watching APTN News, it was a trip. You have this show that takes you to all these places that never really register in the minds of most Canadians. Can you explain what someone would see if they tuned into the show for the first time?
MR: I think people would be surprised. If you asked non-Indigenous people what they thought would be on our newscast, they’d say “Probably some protests, blockades.” Well, yes we have some of that but they’d be surprised by the depth of some of the other issues we cover. There are so many success stories, we’ve got artists, we’ve got business people, people doing good things in their community. People would be surprised to learn it’s not just complaining and blockading. They’d learn a thing or two and I think they’d be glad they watched.
TR: You’ve won a national award for your labour reporting at APTN, you were a finalist for the Canadian Association of Journalists award in 2019 for your reporting on the child welfare system and you’ve been nominated for a couple of Canadian Screen Awards. Your colleague Kenneth Jackson just cleaned up at last year’s award season for his reporting on deaths in the foster care system. It really feels like APTN is having its long overdue moment in the sun. But you cover this incredibly heavy stuff. Could you explain the kind of toll it takes on you?
MR: If we were to have this conversation with my family, I think you’d get a whole new appreciation for what it does to a person. Once you’ve gone down that rabbit hole of the child welfare system, you can’t unknow it. There are atrocities happening in this system. There are kids in state care who have no business being there, they weren’t abused or neglected.
It’s a system that’s set up to feed itself, it feeds on kids being in care. Once you realize that you’ve been lied to, that this system isn’t protecting every child and that it’s tormenting some of them, you can’t unsee it and you can’t unknow it. You watch these parents who can’t advocate for themselves because they’re poor. The system doesn’t feed on rich kids or middle class kids but it knows that it can feed on people who are struggling to get by.
TR: It sounds like you’re describing a Monster.
MR: It is a monster. I can’t tell you the number of sleepless nights, the emotional breakdowns from just seeing it, just knowing it goes on. The whole country is moving along and you want to get on the roof and scream “pay fucking attention!” All you can do is settled down because it’ll wash over you and pin you. So take a breather, take a step back, get your legs back under you and go tell another story. Keep going, keep going, keep going. I don’t know what the tipping point is for people paying attention but I have to keep trucking.
TR: At the beginning of the campaign, I was compiling a list of election columns that I could share on my newsletter. And with respect to these columnists, a lot of them are great, but almost all of them are white people of a certain age. You sort of have to do a bit of digging to find someone like Tanya Talaga, Connie Walker, Brandi Morin or Angela Sterritt. And they’re not all columnists so much as prominent Indigenous women in the media. Who are some of the journalists and pundits we should be paying attention to?
MR: Well you named some of them. I haven’t seen Brandi kicking around for awhile.
TR: I think she’s in the states. She was in Ferry Creek reporting on the logging dispute as well.
MR: I don’t actively go out looking for other media because there aren’t enough hours in the day. I used to. I would say I’m probably going through 800 messages a week, trying to mitigate those things but I’ll look at things when people pass them along. “What’s Waub (Rice) up to? How about Tanya (Talaga)?” IndigiNews, I really appreciate what they’re doing. They’re plugging the holes in the news desert we operate in. I have a lot of admiration for the work they’re doing.
There’s a lot of Indigenous news that’s being done by students and younger journalists who aren’t necessarily in big newspapers yet. We have a former student Robert Ballantyne who’s with our APTN Investigates unit and he’s wonderful. Most Canadians probably wouldn’t know where to go looking for this. We need a clearinghouse. I suppose APTN is. But the good stuff is out there. You don’t need to have the Globe and Mail letterhead to prove you’re a good journalist.
A Closer Look at Erin O’Toole’s “Pro Choice” Policy
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re going to be including more content from journalists, columnists and shit disturbers who aren’t me. This week, after Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was lambasted for his decision to defend the rights’ of doctors to be against abortions, we take a closer look at his stance. Some pundits argue that since the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion decades ago, this matter has been settled. But O’Toole’s words open the possibility that it might be harder for some women to get a referral for an abortion.
Toronto-based documentary filmmaker and journalist
sent me this column and I felt compelled to share it.
Would a Tory Government Restrict Access to Abortions?
By Alex Bailey
Erin O’Toole’s new catch phrase “The man with a plan” is true, but he won’t tell you what the plan actually is when it comes to abortions.
Your right to have an abortion is on the table this election in Canada - even though Erin O’Toole and his Conservative party will tell you that it is not.
At a glance, headlines such as “pro-choice” and the “rights of Canadians” will lead you to believe that Erin O’Toole is a breath of fresh air from the Conservative party. That for once the Conservative government would ease up on their decades long, relentless determination to roll back abortion access and funding in Canada by electing a leader who will you that he is “pro-choice” any time he can. This is a lie, and a well crafted one.
The a self proclaimed “pro-choice” party leader Erin O’Toole has announced that he will allow his party members to vote on “matters of conscience” — an intricate, snarled way of saying that abortion access and funding will be allowed to be voted on under a O’Toole lead government. Most importantly, O’Toole will not tell his party members how to vote. What does that mean? It means that individual MPs will be allowed to vote in favour of rolling back abortion access and funding for clinics and resources which could be catastrophic for abortion rights in Canada.
But it does’t stop there.
On July 30, 2021 O’Toole stated he would allow provinces to decide how funding for abortions would be delegated, which sounds harmless but is a direct nod to Premier Blaine Higgs’s of New Brunswick fight with Clinic 554. Clinic 554 is a private practice clinic that provides surgical abortions to people in Fredericton, New Brunswick along side three hospitals in the province. Premier Blaine Higg’s has refused to fund the clinic in a stark break with the rest of the country, arguing that the three hospitals for 700,000+ residents that live across 72,000 square kilometres is adequate access to abortions for his residents. New Brunswick is the only province that does not provide funding for abortions in private clinics . If Erin O’Toole is elected to power, these restrictions which are an active threat to healthcare access will thrive.
In July , 2021 The Conservative party proved that O’Toole’s public stance of “pro-choice” does not reflect how the party will vote. A majority of Conservative MP’s voted in favour of Bill C-233, a bill that many describe as a the first step of Conservative MP’s at rolling back abortion rights. The bill, which sought to ban doctors from performing an abortion based on the sex of a fetus, was voted in favour of by two-thirds of Erin O’Toole’s Conservative party even though O’Toole voted against it himself proving that allowing free votes on abortion issues will result in the Conservative party voting to restrict rights.
It does not matter what Erin O’Toole will vote himself if a majority of the party will vote to restrict abortion rights in Canada. And if he didn’t agree with them, why would he be their leader?
This week’s story took me to Montréal-Nord, where I learned how some community leaders are bridging the divide between activism and electoral politics. Give it a read below.
→ Young people of colour ‘belong in the political process’ in Montréal-Nord
Thanks for that great interview with Melissa Ridgen, Chris. If for no other reason than APTN being at the table on September 9th, I'll rush back from Rap Battles for Social Justice at Reggie's (5-7 pm): I may be a senior, but I am Shades Lawrence's no. 1 fan, and she's been invited again to perform with other like-minded folk.