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U of R and First Nations University students investigate First Nations water issues in Canada-wide journalism project

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: February 24, 2021 9:00 a.m.

Students from the University of Regina School of Journalism and First Nations University of Canada combined their investigative efforts.
Students from the University of Regina School of Journalism and First Nations University of Canada combined their investigative efforts. Photo: Kaitlyn Schropp.

A Canada-wide investigative journalism class did a deep dive into Canada’s First Nations water quality issues.

The collaboration, which included students from both the University of Regina’s School of Journalism (J-School) and First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), uncovered disturbing findings that culminated in a student-produced investigative current affairs program and a dedicated website filled with stories, infographics, and research.  

For FNUniv student Darla Ponace, taking part in such an in-depth class helped her focus her goal of being a journalist.

“When I first signed up for this course I didn’t know what to expect,” says Ponace, a Saulteaux woman from Zagime Anishinabek First Nation. “But from day one, our Regina-based class connected with journalism students from across Canada and learned that we would all be researching First Nations water issues in different regions of the country.”

Along the way, Ponace and her classmates also learned about the many different aspects to journalism.

“We learned what research can uncover,” says Ponace, who took the course in fall 2019. “I got so into the work that I just wanted to know more, do more, and find out more.”

Ponace, who is working on a diploma in the Indigenous Communication Arts program with a minor in the Saulteaux language at FNUniv, says  having so many students working toward the same goals and contributing to this massive project made her feel like part of a real newsroom.

“We met online to discuss research and story ideas. And as the course progressed, I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom. It was the most interesting class I have ever taken, and that it was a cross-Canada course made it even better. I loved it all.”

The FNUniv and U of R students worked alongside students at 10 other universities, learning from seasoned journalists and journalism educators from across Canada, coordinated by the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia. Students were taught the fundamentals of journalism, including how to interview and how to use equipment and digital media tools.

In the J-School’s intermediate broadcast course, led by Trevor Grant, students put their skills to the test, producing an hour-long current affairs program. Students taking investigative research courses at FNUniv and the J-School, taught by Patricia Elliott, assisted in reaching out to 122 water treatment plant operators.   

“In the beginning, talking to people and interviewing was the scariest part for me. I was like, you mean I have to phone someone and talk to them? I didn’t know how to do that, but the instructors taught us. They taught us so many skills, like how to make surveys, how to do water testing, how to knock on people’s doors and engage with them,” says Ponace.

Ponace credits the course with giving her with a real confidence boost.

Darla-in-Montreal.jpg

Darla Ponace in Montreal working on survey
questions with Andrea Wong, a student
from Mount Royal University
Photo: Patti Sonntag

“What I loved most was connecting with people in their communities. Some people have had issues with media. Some people don’t think media portrays them in a good light. But when they learned we were student from the First Nations University of Canada they became really supportive.”

Ponace says there is a real need for Indigenous journalists in Canadian media.

“As an Indigenous person, I could tell people trusted me, and were impressed that I was training to be a journalist,” says Ponace. “People would always ask where we were from, and they almost always knew someone in our families. We started finding relatives while we were conducting interviews. I would give them information about me, there was usually a connection, and that helped them open up to us.”

Right after the course ended in December 2019, Ponace and INCA intern Jaida Beaudin-Herney travelled to Concordia University in Montreal to take part in a paid internship where they worked to design the investigation, including developing a nationwide phone survey of treatment plant operators.  

“We worked in a newsroom-type setting with other students from across Canada where we gathered more research for the story, building the foundation for students in the next collaborative investigative class who used our research to conduct interviews.”

Ponace says the class uncovered a lot in a short time, such as learning that Canada does not have a national water standard. She says she hopes the work she and her classmates have done will make a difference in people’s live.

“I know I want to be a journalist, and it’s all because of this course and my mentor, my investigative instructor Patricia Elliott. She’s an inspiration,” says Ponace.

Ponace added that Elliott was down to earth and always took time to explain even the smallest processes and details to the class.

“This type of project is also an experiment in creating new methods for journalism in a time of reduced resources and widespread media distrust,” said Patricia Elliott, associate professor of journalism at the U of R and a lecturer at FNUniv. “Large scale collaborative approaches, along with community outreach and engagement were key parts of the picture.”      

Ponace recommends this course to any student with an interest in journalism.

“This course was the most interesting class I have ever taken. It’s opened up a lot of doors for me beyond journalism, and I’m just so glad I took it. And I would take it again – and again!”

The StarPhoenix, Global News in Saskatoon and Regina, and APTN began releasing a series of Saskatchewan-based stories that had their genesis in the student research, on Monday. Canada’s National Observer, the Tyee and Le Devoir are also part of the project.  

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