Earlier this year, Rena Heer, a former reporter for CTV and CP24 in Toronto, hosted a gathering at her home for other fellow Canadian Sikhs who had experience in the communications and media professions.
This was not the usual Sunday afternoon chai and gossip session ubiquitous to South Asian households across the Lower Mainland. The guests had convened to discuss a chronic problem that had plagued this community since the 1980s: negative coverage in mainstream media.
Canadian Sikhs had just been broadsided by stories emerging from Prime Minister Trudeau’s trip to the subcontinent. India’s government was alleging that Sikhs in cities like Vancouver, and Toronto were raising funds for a secessionist movement (Khalistan) in the Indian state of Punjab.
The Khalistan movement died out in the 1990s but every few years since then, India’s government has lobbed these sort of allegations at diasporic Sikhs in Canada and the United Kingdom to check their rising political clout abroad.
This time, Canada’s prime minister, having previously bragged he had more Sikhs in his cabinet than India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had travelled to India with four of his ministers of Sikh faith. It touched a nerve with India’s "alt-right" Hindu-chauvinistic administration.
Indian politicians let loose with a series of flimsy allegations, including some that implicated Trudeau’s own cabinet ministers as "Khalistanis", and in particular, decorated Canadian war veteran and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Indian media lapped it up. Canadian media regurgitated it.
Canada’s predominantly white newsrooms ran with panic-stricken pieces about how there is a "revival of Khalistan terror", or how Canadian Sikhs are engaged in "blood hatreds"—or in an attempt to bundle Sikhs with ISIS terrorists—how Sikhs are "promised a place in paradise" when martyred.
Heer was one of a handful of journalists in Canada from the Sikh community who had worked in mainstream newsrooms and she found the reporting lacked not only nuance but overlooked obvious problems with the allegations—such as the glaring lack of any Khalistan-related terror incidents over the previous 20-odd years.
“Once you’ve been in the media industry you know how things are done, that sources should be checked properly, that the motivations of those sources should be examined,” Heer stated. “But with this Trudeau trip to India coverage I knew that wasn’t happening.”
Meanwhile a younger millennial generation of Sikhs (#AskCanadianSikhs) continued to plead on Twitter with various mainstream reporters and outlets to include their voices in the coverage. They found little success, and at times, open hostility.
Eventually their persistence contributed to the post-storm salvage efforts, such as when the National NewsMedia Council made a determination that the Toronto Sun columnist, Candice Malcolm, had made “a factual error” in her piece on martyred Sikhs ascending to heaven. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, not in Islamic or Christian notions of heaven or hell.
The Sun has since removed sections of the column. But by then the public had moved on and the damage had been done.
For Heer, the six-week blitz of negative coverage was a lesson that Canadian Sikhs needed to engage in media "pro-activism" based on how underrepresented they are in mainstream outlets.
“Newsrooms are tough environments, and people will ask why should anyone care when you bring up story topics, especially when they don’t relate to those experiences,” she added. “In order for these ideas to get across you need to have all experiences represented in newsrooms.”
But in Canada, it’s not just Sikhs, but all of the country’s minorities that are underrepresented in the country’s newsrooms, which some media watchers estimate are as much as 90 percent white.
To their credit, Canadian media outlets have also acknowledged this problem and sought, over recent years, to hire more reporters from diverse communities.
But because change has been slow to come, minority communities in Canada still remain susceptible to misreporting, tokenization, being ignored, or worse, being spoken over, as in the case of the apparent "comeback" of Khalistani terrorists.
And this remains the case despite the best efforts of diverse communities to work around newsroom whiteness via outreach hashtags and organizations like #AskCanadianSikhs, #SaveChinatownYVR, or the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
A century ago, Canadian news outlets could be unabashedly racist with headlines raging about the ‘Yellow Peril’. Today—aside from a couple of Canada’s publications trying to stir up anxiety via fake articles about Muslims refugees slaughtering goats in Toronto hotels—the intent behind misreporting seems more benign, but the results can still be negative.
An obvious part of solving this problem is diversifying mainstream newsrooms through the hiring of reporters from diverse communities.
In a country where almost two out of every five people is either born outside of Canada or is a second-generation Canadian (born to at least one immigrant parent), it is critical that newsrooms have reporters who can speak languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, or Tagalog, or staff reporters who, at minimum, have some cultural knowledge of Canada’s largest minorities.
By 2036, Statistics Canada forecasts that half the population will either be born abroad or be a second-generation Canadian in a country that is half-brown and half-white, and well on its way to becoming a Russell Peters shade of beige-ish. Perhaps by that time "diversity" will have pivoted away from race and will instead reflect a new sci-fi like reality of humans co-existing with AI replicants and other android lifeforms.
But at this point in time, "diversity coverage" still means reporting on issues pertaining to or including people of colour, while "mainstream coverage" implies broader news reporting usually featuring people who are more likely to be white.
So if you are white and still reading this, you may be thinking something like this: Sikhs being gut-punched by false coverage, Chinatown seniors being extirpated out of their homes by gentrification projects, Muslims ensnared in the crosshairs of alt-right media… well it all has nothing to do with you.
So why should you care?
Multicultural Canada is often glowingly described as a cohesive mosaic but I would argue our society is more a non-integrated patchwork of self-contained communities that, while peacefully co-existing, generally have limited interactions with each other.
But it is a misperception that the fallout from issues with a race or diversity element are, like the sights and sounds of an ethnic neighbourhood, confined to the social boundaries of those communities.
A Canadian defence minister (of Sikh or any faith) being slandered by the Indian (or any) government cuts to the heart of our foreign relations, which in turn affect jobs, trade, and the economy across the board.
Chinatown gentrification in Vancouver is at the centre of the housing crisis in that city and that affects every city resident, across generations and communities.
And Muslims being targeted by right-wing columnists in this country breeds an ugly form of populism while emboldening white supremacists.
And that will only lead down a dark path again to everyone’s loss.
Increasing diversity in newsrooms is not about ceding ground to identity politics, political correctness, or even being more "inclusive".
It is about better reporting. Full stop.
Without newsroom diversity, too many stories are missed, delayed in coverage, or misreported, and that has a negative impact on all of us.
So regardless of your skin colour, it is actually in your interest for mainstream newsrooms to hire more journalists from diverse backgrounds who reflect the immigrant and second generation realities of Canadian life.
Retaining them, however, may be another issue.
Journalism while brown
Among journalists of colour, it is a notable occurrence when someone from a diverse community is hired by a mainstream outlet. Given there are so few diverse reporters in these newsrooms, it serves as a sort of barometer for "progress".
Over the past decade, mainstream newsrooms have made some advances in this regard, particularly in broadcast news where Canada’s diversity is reflected on television screens across Canada.
But it’s also notable—and for all the wrong reasons—when a journalist of colour leaves the industry, and exceptionally so, when the reporter in question does so in the cause of diversity, while torching any hopes of getting a reference letter on the way out of the building.
That journalist was Sunny Dhillon who recently quit his job in the Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. In his recent blog post, "Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away", Dhillon explained that he resigned because of how his newsroom was failing in covering diversity.
The breaking point was when, on the eve of deadline, he was ordered by his bureau chief to rework an assignment on Vancouver’s recent municipal election into being a triumph for women rather than being yet another failure for racialized candidates. Eight out of the 10 Vancouver council seats were won by women and only one was won by a councillor of mixed heritage.
“I decided to leave The Globe and Mail because that final conversation inside the bureau chief’s office crystallized what I had felt: What I brought to the newsroom did not matter,” Dhillon wrote in his post on Medium that has since been retweeted thousands of times. “And it was at that moment that being a person of colour at a paper and in an industry that does not have enough of us — particularly at the top — felt more futile than ever before.”
Dhillon was one of a handful of journalists from a diverse background working at Canada’s larger-of-the-two national papers and quite possibly the only one from a Punjabi background. Approximately half of Canada’s two million residents of South Asian heritage come from Punjabi-speaking regions of India and Pakistan.
The Globe and Mail has not commented on Dhillon’s resignation.
As expected, his dramatic resignation has renewed discussions on how the diversity angle can be ignored or glossed over in mainstream newsrooms, particularly when the story is not a stereotypical "diversity topic" like an annual Chinese New Year celebration or a Vaisakhi parade.
In the Vancouver council story, for example, both the gender and race angles merit coverage, but not equally so. Based on historic data, the lack of diversity angle would seem more newsworthy given women have been equally (or almost equally) represented on city council for over the past four administrations going back to 2005.
In comparison, a South Asian candidate has not served on council in almost 50 years and there has never been a councillor from the Filipino community.
Regardless, however, of whether a story is revealed through the lens of race, gender, or some other prism, newsrooms are not democracies, as Dhillon was reminded in his clash with his editor. And even though mainstream newsrooms are increasingly using analytics to practice data-driven journalism that maximizes click-throughs, there is still a human element in how stories are assigned, angled, and ultimately headlined.
These remain in the very subjective hands of newsroom editors.
But like any human being, deadline-pressed editors—whose job requirements includes performing newsroom management and story assignment balancing acts—are prone to seeing the world through the lens of their own experiences, which in the senior management realm of Canadian media is even whiter than the ranks staffing newsrooms.
According to Dhillon, it was the constant struggle to table a diverse perspective in this lily-white cultural environment that eventually wore him out: “When a story or column does not adequately, if at all, understand or consider the perspectives of the nonwhite people it involves, what do you say?...When you ultimately stop pitching stories on race to preserve your own sanity, what good are you doing the very nonwhite people whose perspectives you deem yourself to be in the newsroom to share?
“How many battles do you have in you?”
For journalists of colour working with their editors, Dhillon’s frustrations are not all that unusual, as he was reminded recently by the large number of responses he received to his post from other Canadian journalists of colour. The friction each experienced ranged from overcoming stereotypes to figuring out when to speak up on race issues and when it was best to just keep their heads down.
Like them, I also had my moment of initiation into the whiteness of this world, back in the late '90s when I was trying to cover the Reena Virk story. Virk was the 14-year old Victoria teen who was attacked by seven teenagers she was hanging with and ultimately killed by two of them.
Although in South Asian media, the race angle was a prominent part of the coverage, it has been largely omitted from mainstream reporting where instead the story has been framed as a troubling case of teen girl violence, the bullying of an "awkward" teen, and the tragic tale of someone who just didn’t fit in.
When I pressed on covering this missing race angle, my editorial contact at Postmedia (then Canwest) explained that since one of the teens was of mixed heritage, the attack could not have been racially motived.
I was new to the industry at the time and I too made a difficult decision to bite my tongue.
Today—just as it was nearly two decades ago when Reena Virk was murdered—bringing up race in a newsroom can still have a chilling effect.
A range of quality
In the 1980s when outlets in Canada first began regularly reporting on diverse communities, the coverage was usually singular in topic, often negative, and usually excluded voices from those diverse communities.
This later evolved to including community voices but then even this was problematic. These media-approved individuals became the de facto one or two "community commentators" quoted in almost every story.
The stories were almost always written by white reporters who, once assigned to an "ethnic beat", became the experts on all things relating to that community. Other white reporters went to those white reporters on questions about "their" assigned ethnic communities.
It was sort of like an exercise in urban anthropology. But by covering ethnic communities through the mainstream’s screen of whiteness, it inevitably produced sticky stereotypes.
A perfect example of this is the lasting misperception of how there are two "schools" of Sikh religious thought in Canada—fundamentalists and moderates.
To be fair, language barriers made reporting on diverse communities difficult since few, if any, reporters at the time spoke Vietnamese, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tagalog, et cetera. The white reporters assigned to these beats generally did the best they could under difficult circumstances.
But the coverage alienated people from diverse communities.
In the Chinese community, mainstream coverage often centered on drugs and street gangs, and later in the '90s on "monster homes", a pejorative term to describe larger non-bungalow-sized detached houses. In the South Asian Sikh community, it was about terrorism. For years after the Air India terror attack in 1985, all coverage on that community—at least in Vancouver’s mainstream news outlets—seemed to link back to the bombing.
People in diverse communities, regardless of their professional status, years of gainful employment, or record of community service, became linked to the fringe criminal elements in their communities. It would be like someone in the South Asian community believing all white people were either bikers or their clubhouse homies because the only "white news" in Punjabi-language newscasts was about Hells Angels.
Thankfully, coverage of diverse communities has evolved since then, beginning with taking a U-turn away from focussing exclusively on negative news.
But coverage of diverse communities has still not fully matured from being treated as a separate-but-equal content section, like sports, entertainment, or fashion, rather than as a perspective that layers into a cross-section of stories.
Just as in the '80s, there still tends to be "mainstream" stories and "diversity" stories, and in between them is an artificial colour line.
This results in mainstream outlets often publishing neatly compartmentalized stories that feature individuals from a diverse communities but that have a limited appeal to readers outside of those backgrounds.
Here is a simple example: the recent coverage of a new chamber of commerce to serve Filipino businesses in Alberta. There are 175,000 people in Alberta that identify as Filipino.
Both CBC and the StarMetro, as well as an ethnic media Filipino outlet, Mabuhay Calgary, reported on this announcement. All three outlets gathered quotes from Filipinos associated with the new organization about how the venture will encourage business people within the community to work together through a formal support network.
But neither mainstream outlet addressed a fundamental question which a non-Filipino reader, especially a business person, would likely have had—how will this organization benefit them?
Will this chamber be of any help to non-Filipino businesses looking to hire Filipinos for their enterprises? Is there a possible export tie-in? Can business people who are not Filipino join the organization?
In other words, while this story likely appealed to Filipino readers of CBC and StarMetro, it lacked context to be informative to someone who was not from that community.
Given the increasing levels of immigration of Filipinos to Canada, there could be various tie-ins that would have helped ground the piece as newsworthy for other news readers (and that doesn’t just mean white people, but also includes South Asian, Chinese, Indigenous, and others).
Ironically, it was the Filipino ethnic news outlet, Mabuhay Calgary, that included a statement that should have been part of, or near, the lead in the mainstream coverage—anyone interested in joining didn’t have “to speak Tagalog” to join and that the chamber, which was fully inclusive, was “open to everyone”.
Though Mabuhay’s article didn’t expand on this, it stands to reason any non-Filipino Albertan looking to do business with this community, could find this organization a useful launch point.
Stories like this in CBC and StarMetro are often well-meaning and positive in tone, but can seem tokenistic, like orphaned pieces disconnected from a wider field of coverage.
It’s not that the chamber story couldn’t easily be contextualised with some additional quotes from other business chambers or non-Filipino business-people. It was probably just overlooked because ethnic coverage is seen as distinct, hermetically sealed from "mainstream" news.
The result of this lingering '80s-type of attitude is a wide variance in the quality of diversity related coverage in the mainstream.
There are productions that have "gotten it", where diversity is nuanced and blended into a story of wider interest to all readers and listeners, like in CBC’s Sold podcast about Vancouver housing, or Canadaland’s new series on Thunder Bay.
Then there are engaging pieces about diverse subjects that still have a wider mainstream appeal given the privileged first person perspective of the writer and the treatment of the subject matter, such as this analysis on Indigenous rights to self-government and self-determination or this reporter’s first-person take on covering the Jassi Sidhu murder case.
And then there are what could be called quota fillers, articles that, likely conceived with the best of intentions, end up being tokenistic, or thin "otherfication" pieces, such as how gun glamorization in bhangra music videos promotes South Asian gang violence in Vancouver, or this bizarre psycho-analysis of Canada’s Sikhs.
Another form of quota-fillers these days, particularly on TV newscasts, are racist-outing segments such as this notorious clip capturing a foul-mouthed racist doing racism at a Lethbridge Denny’s. While the segment is provocative Jerry Springer-esque click-bait, and seems virtuous in beating back racism, its value is marginal at best when it takes up airtime better devoted to coverage of bigger issues that include the nuanced perspectives of racialized people.
(And I say this despite the visceral pleasure I receive from watching some outed racist wriggle under the spotlight of a righteous public shaming.)
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the ideal "diverse" coverage should appeal to news consumers from all backgrounds. Not every story will make that standard, but publishing content that is read by only a narrow audience featuring subjects from that community is tokenizing and shouldn’t be allotted space on mainstream platforms.
This does not mean mainstream media should edit out coverage that features voices only from diverse communities, but it should start rethinking the ghettoizing way diverse voices seem to be expected to appear only in "diverse stories".
It this colour divide persists, stories that are critical to all us—whether you are a person of colour or white—will continue to be misreported, or missed altogether. And this comes at considerable social and economic cost.
Below are two deeper dives into what I mean by this.
It is no secret that Vancouver has been in the throes of a housing crisis for the past decade and has experienced a steep surge in property prices since 2003.
Today, Greater Vancouver is the least affordable metropolitan area in all of North America with a median home price of $800,220, 11 times greater than the median household income.
The situation has only gone from bad to worse since the early 2000s.
In Vancouver, where the factors driving house prices are still hotly debated, the list of people and things to blame is long. It goes something like this (in no particular order): the government (all levels), very low interest rates, foreign buyers, municipal zoning, greedy developers, greedy banks, Alberta migration, currency "smurfing", condo-king marketers, rapacious realtors, trust loopholes, speculators, entitled baby boomers, wealth inheritance, view cones, and stunningly beautiful mountains.
But there is one actor in this drama that is always missed, one who never gets their adequate heaping spoonful of the blame—Vancouver’s mainstream media.
In the past four years, local newsrooms have multiplied their depth and breadth of coverage of this hot-button issue and, in so doing, have produced some excellent investigative reporting on previously hidden stories about shadow flipping, blind trusts, speculation, and money laundering.
This reporting inevitably led to the previous B.C. Liberal government implementing a 15 percent foreign buyers tax, and now this BC NDP government implementing a number of additional demand-side measures in cooling the property market.
But local media was at least five years late in turning their attention to this issue and this was because of a lack of newsroom diversity.
As a Pacific Rim city, Vancouver has been a preferred destination for increasing quantities of offshore Asian wealth in the post Expo 86 years. This began with Li Ka-Shing’s controversial purchase of the Expo lands 1988 and Hong Kong migration pre-1997 British handover back to China.
That more wealth has continued to flow into Vancouver from Asia has not exactly been breaking news to the city’s nearly 500,000 residents of Chinese descent or to those of us who covered news in this community.
At the Asian Pacific Post, where I was the managing editor in the 2000s, we regularly published stories about large inflows of wealth from Asia washing up in Vancouver and being converted into local real estate assets. In 2006, for example, the Asian Pacific Post reported on a pair of bankers who were indicted in the U.S. for defrauding the Bank of China of over C$500 million and who were stashing the loot in properties Richmond and Vancouver.
As a small independent weekly The Post lacked the circulation to make a deeper impact with this coverage. Though our newspaper’s pieces on honour killings, or drunk Sikh priests who earned DUI’s, were often attributed as source material for stories appearing in Vancouver’s mainstream newspapers—or even won Jack Webster journalism awards—our offshore wealth coverage never found traction in the mainstream.
Meanwhile, through the latter half of the 2000s, house prices continued to rise and younger residents, priced out of the city, began penning breaking-up letter with the city that seemed indifferent to committing to them.
As recently as 2013, reporters like Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd suspected foreign earned wealth and capital inflows merited a closer look but seemed unsure about how or if it could be done.
“Journalists are like most ‘nice’ Canadians and are very fearful of offending any ethnic or immigrant group,” he stated in the first story published in The Hongcouver, a blog authored by South China Morning Post reporter Ian Young.
Ironically that interview would be the turning point in this narrative, not because of Todd’s comment, but because of the reporter filing the piece.
Ian Young was a journalist of Chinese heritage who was knowledgeable about Asia and had the cultural dexterity to report on the local Chinese community but for a mainstream audience. Over the past five years that has included extensive coverage of Vancouver real estate, capital flows from Asia, immigration, and even musings on Generation Z flexers like nine-year-old Internet phenom Lil Tay.
Young’s work focused meticulously on the influence of foreign capital—money earned in Asia but spent in Vancouver—and not on the undue influence of foreigners. This is a critical difference in a city with an ugly history of exclusion, and racist housing covenants against Asian immigrants, particularly those from Chinese and South Asian backgrounds.
Young was also blessed with working for an English-language Asian publication that based in Hong Kong, knew firsthand the inflationary effects large inflows of foreign wealth can have on a city’s livability and house prices.
Hong Kong’s income to property price ratio is a staggering 50 percent greater than Vancouver’s.
Young’s Hongcouver blog opened the Pandora’s box on the Vancouver real estate issue by lowering the "bias meter", a term used by one senior new editor in describing the backlash non-Asian reporters, could face if reporting on offshore Asian wealth inflating the local market.
As Young covered the Vancouver real estate beat, his work uncovered a variety of other underreported but related issues: the flaws in Canada’s Immigrant Investor Program (IIP), the backdoor loophole for this program via Quebec’s provincial version, and that many ultra-wealthy Chinese immigrants while wanting to secure assets in Canada didn’t actually want to live here—a phenomenon referred to as doing time in "immigration jail".
Today’s B.C. NDP government policies to rein in the housing market have the strong support of up to 75 percent of B.C. residents, according to an Angus Reid poll taken earlier this year. These measures were spurred in large part by the comprehensive coverage of this issue by the city’s media.
Had there been a few more Asian-knowledgeable reporters in the newsrooms of the city’s two major dailies as far back as 2000, it’s conceivable this debate about the positive versus negative influences of foreign earned wealth would have been covered far sooner than 2013 onwards.
It's possible our local governments would have formulated by now a long-term vision for how Vancouver can benefit as an open-for-business Pacific Rim city while balancing the livability needs for all city residents (or a definitive answer if this can be done at all).
It could also be argued the opioid crisis may not have reached its current state. Illicit cash proceeds of this street trade are regularly laundered in the real estate market according to a practice NDP Attorney General David Eby recently referred to as "the Vancouver Model".
In 2017, 335 people died of a drug overdoses in Vancouver, with 75 percent of those deaths connected to fentanyl abuse. These rates are nearly six times greater than the annual averages prior to 2013, when there would be approximately one overdose death per week in the city—now the average is a staggering one overdose death per day.
As disconnected as these two issues may seem, greater newsroom diversity in Vancouver’s mainstream media could have prevented some of those needless deaths.
Misread: municipal politics
Approximately half of the 300,000 people who immigrate to Canada each year end up residing in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and in particular, their satellite cites like Brampton, Mississauga, Richmond, and Surrey.
Half of Brampton’s population of 600,000 people are immigrants.
Reporters who speak neither Mandarin nor Punjabi, or who do not understand the inner workings of Chinese and South Asian communities, will face greater struggles in covering the municipal politics of these immigrant-centric cities.
And getting ahead of stories, and rumours—such as the WeChat vote-buying story in the recent Richmond election—is impossible without language skills.
Like Richmond, Surrey also had its own vote-buying scandal in this recent municipal election.
And again, better knowledge of the intrigues and alliances within Surrey’s South Asian community would have altered how the city’s recent municipal election was covered by mainstream outlets (and one outlet in particular).
In that race, a three-term incumbent councillor, Tom Gill, was trying to become Surrey’s first nonwhite mayor. He had the endorsement of Surrey’s former star mayor, Dianne Watts, along with financial backing, and a credible slate.
But though he was a leading candidate, and South Asian in heritage, his candidacy was vigorously opposed by Surrey’s Punjabi-language media. Weeks away from election day, a prominent South Asian anticrime activist group, Wake Up Surrey, alleged that Gill’s campaign was behind up to 15,000 absentee ballots being tainted by acts of voter fraud, a serious allegation given voter fraud is unheard-of in Canada.
The actual number of suspicious ballots would turn out to be 67 in total—99.5 percent fewer than the initial charge.
Meanwhile, call-in listeners on Punjabi-language radio repeatedly slandered Gill, as did videos and commentary fanning across Whatsapp private group chats like Russian-style disinformation campaigns.
Perhaps bolstered by the notion that where there is smoke there must be a dumpster fire, Global News, one of the Lower Mainland’s established mainstream brands, and the most popular evening newscast in the Lower Mainland, decided to also single out Gill’s campaign in a story on voter fraud that ran on the 6 p.m. newscast.
That story, which ran two short weeks prior to voting day, was based on allegations made by two South Asian men, Mr. X and Mr. Y, who fingered the Gill campaign. Global did not reveal the identities of these two men. Other mainstream outlets, meanwhile, avoided implicating any candidate until the Surrey RCMP released its findings.
In their interim report released a week after the Global story, the RCMP stated their investigation did not find any connection between the 67 suspicious ballots and any of the candidates or parties.
Gill has always maintained the voter-fraud allegation was a smear campaign.
Given the serious nature of the issue, it merited a deeper probe by newsrooms covering the election, but it seems reckless, bordering on unduly influencing an election, of Global to have implicated Gill with the RCMP report still pending.
Global’s coverage would certainly have influenced on-the-bubble voters, white and nonwhite, who were vacillating about electing the city’s first nonwhite mayor.
In the end, Gill plunged from being a favourite and ended up losing by 17,000 votes to Doug McCallum.
If the broadcaster found the confidence to go ahead with the anonymous-allegation story based on the hearsay on Punjabi-language media and social media, then that was a misguided decision. Given a time machine, and a better understanding of this community’s inner politics, Global would likely have cut this story out rather than rushing ahead believing they had scooped the competition.
There is little media oversight in the world of South Asian ethnic media where commentators hold sway over thousands of listeners by routinely nudging the facts out of the way of a good story and where radio stations circumvent CRTC licenses by leasing bandwidth from U.S. stations just across the border.
But while this voter-fraud story was being mishandled, mainstream outlets reporting on the Surrey election missed a wide array of stories that were more relevant to this election.
These included investigating the overly cozy relationships that all of the leading mayoral candidates had with wealthy Surrey developers, or how the white mayoral candidates had as much (if not more) support from the South Asian community than South Asian candidate, and the extent to which viewing the Surrey election as a proxy war between camps of uber-wealthy South Asian developers could explain the biased Punjabi media reporting.
In Vancouver, every contribution by developers like Peter Wall, who bought billboard ads for a mayoral candidate Hector Bremner, apparently without informing him, was closely monitored. Yet in Surrey, which is also a major development hub in the Lower Mainland, the deep-pocketed contributors behind each campaign escaped scrutiny.
This missed story of the backroom relationships between developers and politicians in Surrey was punctuated when McCallum, in his victory speech, stood at the podium and explicitly thanked developer Bob Cheema as the “person (who) is the reason why I am here today”.
For those new to the world of Surrey developers, Cheema was a big donor to McCallum’s 2014 mayoral campaign. Cheema-owned companies Bill’s Development and Popular Group Investment provided just shy of $80,000, or over 30 percent of the campaign contributions, to McCallum’s then-failed mayoral bid. It is still unknown what he donated this time around.
In 2013, Cheema was the developer behind the proposed South Surrey Gateway casino. He came within one vote of getting approval. It stands to reason that if a new application process is opened under McCallum’s administration and his council majority, that Cheema, or anyone who applies for the licence, may find a friendlier reception this time around.
As for the residents of Surrey, where crime prevention and policing were major election issues, they may have voted differently had Global and other mainstream media outlets reported on McCallum’s campaign more closely, rather than chasing the voter-fraud issue that turned out to be a wisp of smoke.
Andree Lau, the editor-in-chief at HuffPost Canada, was recently interviewed on CBC regarding newsroom diversity. She was asked why there are so few people from diverse communities leading newsrooms across this country.
“I think they [people of colour] get to a certain level and they get frustrated. Because they're not seeing enough change, or change is not happening fast enough, and they get discouraged,” explained Lau, who is one of the few journalists of colour in a senior position in Canada.
“Those very talented people are the ones we need to move up into the next level, and they end up leaving.”
Fabian Dawson, a multiple-award winning journalist originally from Malaysia, was one of the few diverse journalists who persevered and climbed up all the rungs of that media ladder. When he arrived in Canada in 1988, media outlets would not recognize his journalism experience and credentials. So he found himself working double-shifts: tending a cash register on graveyards at 7-Eleven during the night and stringing together stories as a freelancer during the day.
Not only did Dawson start from the bottom, but he first had to tunnel his way into that cellar.
Eventually he cracked the Province newsroom from where he began his steady ascent to numerous journalism awards and to a senior management post as the deputy editor of the Vancouver Sun and Province from 2010 to 2016.
His previous years of working in Asia would be critical in recognizing how Vancouver was becoming a refuge for criminals like Rakesh Saxena and Lai Changxing. At the time of Saxena’s arrest in Whistler in 1996, Dawson was the only person in the newsroom who recognized him as the wanted financier who had brought down a major bank in Thailand, sparking what would become the Asian financial crisis. What would have been fodder for a one-paragraph brief buried somewhere deep in the paper, Dawson spun into a front-page story.
Dawson recognizes the struggles of journalists of colour in the industry, but he attributes it more to deeper structural problems. “Diversity in newsrooms has suffered not because of hiring practices but because of the falling fortunes of the traditional newspaper business,” he said.
In other words, for Dawson, if lack of newsroom diversity is a kitchen fire that needs to be extinguished, it is located inside a house where the roof is burning down.
Yet regardless of the root cause of the problem or which of the mainstream media’s ailments should be treated first, the outcome is still the same: stories that impact all of us—white and nonwhite—get overlooked.
These are from a wide range of areas, from immigration to public transport to health care. These include opposition to Indian student migration from the local Punjabi Sikh community, how a small cabal of South Asian taxi owners continues to keep one the world’s biggest tech companies, Uber, from entering the Vancouver market, and how Filipino immigrants are changing the caregiving industry in this country.
And there is still that elusive question of why diverse candidates in city elections perpetually fall to the bottom of their slates in a city as multicultural as Vancouver.
As Canada’s population grows and continues to diversify, the news media is the leading institution to reflect the country’s changing face, in which everyone sees something of themselves smiling back.
But that work begins first in newsrooms telling stories where diversity is more layered and nuanced, and not segregated into a corner.
One of the journalists responding to Sunny Dhillon’s resignation post, was veteran Vancouver broadcast journalist, Simi Sara.
“What it comes down to is this: I have never seen the colour of my skin as a "difference". But others have seen it that way for me,” she was quoted in a follow-up blog Dhillon posted to his Medium account.
“I believe I am like everyone else because perspective is diverse and we all have something to contribute to that discussion. It shouldn’t be segregated as a ‘diversity’ issue. It’s all of us. It’s our communities.”
Some wise words there, and a good place to start again.