EDMONTON—A fisherman, a government employee, and a housewife walk onto a reserve.
Then what? From left, Avonlea, Don, Ashley, Ross, Dallas, and Jamie-Sue — the six participants on the APTN show First Contact. That’s the premise of a new show called First Contact , a docu-series from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that premiered this week, and has already sparked controversy over how the white participants’ perceptions changed — and how they didn’t.
The show takes six Canadians, who hold what is described as “stereotypical” views about Indigenous people, and brings them to different First Nations communities in Winnipeg, Nunavut, Alberta, Northern Ontario, and the coast of British Columbia. The participants spent 28 days visiting with people in five different communities.
Jamie-Sue Sykes, a financial planner from Ontario, said she’d grown up hearing stories of how “dangerous” reserves were and was skeptical about her safety.
“You just don’t go there as a white Canadian and that was literally what we were going to be doing for the next 28 days,” she said. “I think we were all a little bit on edge with the uncertainty of it, and, obviously, we all had some misconceptions of safety, for sure.”
The show, filmed last summer, opens with beautiful cinematography detailing Indigenous experience, both colourful and bleak.
A dramatic narration introduces the contestants and the journey into Indigenous communities that will turn their perceptions “upside down.”
First stop is Winnipeg, where the six participants are welcomed by Indigenous families who live off reserve. The contestants take meals with the families, who share their experiences with the education system and struggling with their identity.
But while some viewers have applauded the show for its efforts to start a conversation about the lack of awareness of Indigenous issues, others have been equally critical for the way its storylines force Indigenous people to rehash their traumas and validate their problems to white people.
David A. Robertson, a Cree author who lives in Winnipeg, tweeted Wednesday that: “It is potentially traumatizing for Indigenous Peoples to see and hear these people spout their racist ideology, and it’s problematic to show the lengths that have to be taken to change their minds. What message does it send?”
Some of the attitudes expressed are indeed racist.
During the show’s opening credits, the six contestants — who were chosen after several Skype interviews — describe Indigenous people as prone to “alcoholism” and “angry.” One claims “they are a lost cause,” while another notes that “welfare is not a career.”
Ross Jackson, a 50-year-old Edmontonian, is seen carefully gardening in his house in the first episode and holds strong opinions about the conditions Indigenous people live in. He told StarMetro the experience did not change his opinions because he already knew everything about Indigenous communities before.
“I’m quite well-travelled and well-read, so I kind of have a good idea of what’s going on. I just think how important family is to them. They look after their grandkids. I would think family is No. 1 to them,” he said. A scene from the show First Contact, which is being aired on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. But he also said he was “shocked” when a chief told him he didn’t consider himself to be Canadian, and Jackson said he felt education about Indigenous peoples was being forced on schools.
“It seems like 30 years ago, you didn’t really hear what they are up to. I don’t know what it is nowadays, but they are pushing it. Now it’s in schools. You know, they say everybody needs to know about residential schools,” he said.
“You know, I don’t know a lot of things, what goes on in Toronto […]
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