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Forming or framing: Public opinion
Posted Thursday, February 23, 2012 1:17 PM
 
EVENT
 
By Toby Cygman
For The Bulletin

On Tuesday, February 14, Fiona MacDonald gave a talk in University College’s Concourse Lounge entitled “Smart Strategizing or Selling Out? Indigenous Justice, Issue Framing, and Public Opinion in Canada.” Her argument was that how we frame issues, in this case issues related to Indigenous justice, is how we think about them.

An assistant professor in the department of political studies whose work focuses on Canadian politics, MacDonald was quick to point out that this project is in an exploratory phase. Currently, she is proposing rather than answering questions on the issue.

Though Canada is consistently ranked in the top 10 of the United Nation’s human development index that measures standards of living for countries worldwide, Indigenous people in Canada are not so prosperous. There is a huge difference, MacDonald pointed out, in the well-being between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, the former often experiencing high levels of poverty, non-potable water, and other issues that contribute to a lower standard of living. However, politicians are not responding to this. And neither is the public.

The problem, MacDonald believes, is how these issues have been framed. The emphasis on Indigenous issues often focuses on the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. There is an imbalance with many non-Indigenous people believing that Indigenous people are being given more rights than other Canadians. This does little to mobilize public will and, if the people are not behind it, the government isn’t behind it either.

She used the example of the gay rights issue in Canada, which, framed in terms of equality, had the support of the public. The government therefore backed it and gay marriage was legalized. (In the US, gay rights is framed as an issue related to the family, and hence, there has been more resistance to it.)

Indigenous rights, however, are seen in terms of inequality, she said.

The media does not help either. MacDonald referred to a study where researchers coded articles on Indigenous justice in leading Canadian newspapers from 1995, a year in which there was a great deal of protests and collective action. They found that the dominant frames for these issues were criminal and unlawful ones. The media often perpetuated negative terms using words like “Indian radicals,” “terrorists” and “guerrilla.” This negative discourse also contributed to the lack of government action.

It is time to change the framework, MacDonald argued. She plans to run focus groups this summer to gauge how Canadians are currently thinking about this issue and hopes to begin to answer the questions she is proposing.
 
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