How do we talk to the world about the Prairies?

In the wake of tragedy, the international media has described life on the Canadian Prairies as idyllic, pleasant and innocent. Is this correct?

Last month, a British magazine, The Economist, published an article about Saskatchewan, referring to the province as “remote.”

The article describes Saskatchewan as “Canada’s heartland, full of cheerful, guileless folk who are just a generation or two off the farm if not still on it.”

The article was about how the province’s economy benefits from the supply chain disruptions caused by the Ukrainian War. The Russian and Ukrainian economies are similar to Saskatchewan (and Manitoba).

The magazine sparked a Twitter discussion of what it means to be remote. And you can see the highlights of that discussion here.

I’m curious what readers think. Are we generally cheerful on the Prairies? 

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The word “guileless” means we Prairie folk are innocent. I find it fascinating how global media describes us. 

GETTY IMAGES.

Unfortunately, two weeks after The Economist article ran, this remote part of the world grabbed international headlines because of the stabbings in James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, proving maybe we aren’t so innocent after all.

World leaders offered Saskatchewan their condolences for the tragedy–from Serbia to Sweden. 

The New York Times ran the headline In Canada’s Bucolic Prairie Region, a Mass Stabbing Shocks the Country.

I had to look up what bucolic meant. It’s a word that implies rural life is idyllic and pleasant.

Weldon is described as a sleepy farming village. Is rural life on the prairies idyllic and sleepy?

Two of the NYT writers, Dan Bilefsky and Ian Austen, are Canadians from out east. Austen is based in Ottawa, and Bilefsky is out of Montreal. Amanda Bracken is an Edmonton photojournalist who is very experienced in covering first nations issues. 

After these establishing adjectives, the article eventually mentions how Canada has been grappling with violence and systemic discrimination against Indigenous people.

The article states, “In Canada, a country that prides itself on its civility, the knife attacks in Saskatchewan were one of the worst mass killings in recent memory.”

As a journalist, I find it interesting that there is this tension between wanting to live up to what could best be described as stereotypical Canadian values and the complex reality.

The comments under the article took issue with the wording:

“The Times continues to treat Canada as a cute curiosity rather than as a country that is grappling with the same issues as the US and the rest of the world,” one person, who called themselves “Another Perspective,” wrote from Toronto.

“This is a story about a horrid crime with many victims.  As a news story, it’s not clear why opinions like calling the countryside ‘bucolic’ or mentioning Canada’s supposed ‘civility’ fit into it. Crime can and does happen anywhere, and making generalizations about any area is a mistake,” Dave Godinez wrote from Kanas City, adding that the Canadian reporters are presenting a “fairyland image” of their country.

And a commenter named John, from Victoria, B.C., wrote: “Bucolic? I can’t imagine a less apt word to attach to this story. ‘Canada’s bucolic prairie region’ What a strange backdrop to give this story. Something out of a primary school geography book or a travel brochure. The real backdrop is that this is part of an ongoing tragedy.”

In journalism, we call such descriptions, like the New York Times gave, colour. But that doesn’t have to oversimplify an area.

On Twitter, Austen shared photos of the landscape near Weldon: farmers harvesting under a pink sunset. Perhaps this was the colour needed for the article. Despite the violence, tragedy, and all of society’s horror, the land must continue to be worked. People face the brutalities that life here can bring and carry on despite it. 

How would you describe the Prairies to the rest of the world?


The latest in the James Smith Cree Nation tragedy is that the RCMP identified the 10 people killed in the attacks.

One crucial bit of information is that only one GoFundMe was created by Rob Clarke, a former MP and RCMP member, officially linked to James Smith Cree Nation. The community does not endorse any other GoFundMe campaigns. 

There have been several stories that came out profiling some of the victims:

Journalists write these stories to show that the people who died were real and much more than just a number. 

Meanwhile, ten patients remain in the hospital, three of whom are in critical condition.

Myles Sanderson’s parole record was reported on:

According to a parole board document, he had a “two-decade-long criminal record and a propensity for violence when intoxicated…

“Sanderson’s childhood was marked by violence, neglect and substance abuse and led to a ‘cycle of substance abuse, seeking out negative peers and violent behaviour,’ the document said. He lived between his father’s home in an urban centre and his grandparents’ house on a First Nation. There was violence and abuse in both households, it said.”

His life was far from “cheerful.”

Other related stories:

Until next time…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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