The misreporting and overreaction to the bizarre confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in mid-January, an event labelled the Covington Affair, may be the worst example yet of so-called “fake news”. The chasm between what really occurred and the reporting of it could hardly have been wider. In this instance, however, the media/social media/social justice mob’s panoply of real-time video, instant communication, and digital networks was equally available to supporters of the Make America Great Again-hat-wearing high school boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.
Initially cast as white supremacist provocateurs, it soon emerged that the boys had been set upon by a group of older and bigger activists yelling, among many abusive terms, “faggot” and “cracker”. The drum-beating “native elder” featured in the ubiquitous video clip of his face-to-face confrontation with the boys turned out to be a convicted criminal and serial liar. The boys were initially thrown to the wolves by their school and even their church leaders, but others rallied to their cause, especially after the full 15-minute-long video of the students’ ordeal was released. They have since filed defamation suits against CNN and the Washington Post, which “broke” the phony story, and are considering similar action against scores of other sources who vilified them, including the native drummer and at least one member of Congress. A lot of Americans consider them heroes for standing up to the bullies.
Scarcely more than a day after the Covington confrontation and over 4,000 km to the northwest, a similar event occurred in a Canadian cultural monument of sorts, a hockey arena in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Fort Mac seems an unlikely location for an eruption of Canada’s social justice/racism/cultural appropriation/fake news wars. But the place and the people involved show that nothing is immune to misrepresentation and nobody is safe from the mob. Today, anyone’s life can be ruined in a matter of hours.
It started in the dressing room of the Fort McMurray Midget ‘A’ Junior Oil Barons. A handful of the teen-aged teammates started goofing off and dancing awkwardly in their skates – apparently imitating native dancing – to the beat of Electric Pow Wow Drum, by Indigenous hip-hop band A Tribe Called Red. One boy thought it a good idea to video and upload the performance to Snapchat. Almost instantly, the vid migrated to Facebook, which set off a firestorm on social media denouncing the kids as racist, insensitive, guilty of cultural appropriation and a host of other terms used by progressives to demean, marginalize and destroy. That one of the dancers had bleached-blond hair sealed the case for racism. The video would be viewed 240,000 times in two days.
The Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association’s (FMMHA) board elected not to remain calm and gather all the facts before reacting. Instead, clearly terrified and, like the Covington kids’ school and church, strangely predisposed to believe the accusers, the association released a groveling statement to local online news portal My McMurray. It reported the incident as follows: “In light of the recent scandal in the states, many are saying the video is inappropriate, and already over 70,000 have viewed it on Facebook. Comments from the video accuse the players of being disrespectful and for that reason the FMMHA said in the statement that ‘Their actions are in no way indicative of our values or the values of any of our House League or Elite Stream Junior Oil Barons teams. It is wrong and will not be tolerated. The display of ignorance is sad and gravely unfortunate.’”
It took a couple of days to bring at least some of the truth to light. To her great credit, City TV Edmonton reporter Rachelle Elsiufi reported that, “City News has learned that the players dancing say they are actually Indigenous and are dancing to the music of their culture.” But, she added, “some saw offense, claiming it was cultural appropriation because one of the players was blond. Comments from the video accuse the players of ‘disgusting behaviour’ and having ‘no respect’, the players even receiving death threats.” Elsiufi then made the big reveal: the boy with bleached-blond hair was himself Indigenous (later revealed to be a member of the Fort McMurray Métis Local #1935, grandson of a prominent Métis elder, and the team’s captain). He had reportedly dyed his hair to support a friend undergoing cancer treatment. Once again, Twitter trolls had jumped to poisonous conclusions and launched a barrage of condemnations and threats, including the hideous hope that the boys would meet the same fate as the Humboldt Broncos.
Despite Elsiufi’s diligent and fair reporting, City TV revived the original narrative by inviting Jessica Kolopunek, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, to weigh in. “The kids were doing a traditional aboriginal pow-wow dance,” said Kolopunek. “Well they weren’t, actually though. They were sort of doing what they thought is like the stereotype of a traditional dance.” Kolopunek’s convoluted inference seemed to be that these Indigenous kids were inadequately schooled in their own culture, and by merely appearing to be white kids doing an awkward mash-up of Indigenous dance, were themselves acting racist or advancing racism.
Both the Covington and Fort McMurray stories followed a familiar script. The mainstream media or a social media platform reports a thin, out-of-context slice of an event, anger erupts across online, then the story is recycled and amplified through interviews and discussions with people far removed from the story. In the mainstream media, these discussion forums are commonly referred to as “outrage panels”.
Sometimes these stories are not merely exaggerated or misrepresented, but actually invented. The month following Covington also saw the farcical unravelling of actor Jussie Smollett’s claims to have been attacked on an icy Chicago night with bleach and a noose by huge, white (though masked) thugs wearing MAGA hats. In fact, police later alleged, Smollett made the whole thing up and hired a pair of Nigerian acquaintances to help stage it all. He is now facing not only criminal charges but outrage and ridicule from a heartening number of African Americans, including Chicago’s chief of police, prominent social commentators and former professional athletes. These premediated “hate crime hoaxes” are startlingly common, according to University of Kentucky political scientist Wilfred Reilly, who has assembled over 400 of them in a book of the same name.
The massive pushback on the Covington and Smollett stories in the U.S., coupled with polling data that finds huge and growing public opposition to political correctness, suggests Americans are growing fed up with attempts to stoke racial tensions.
As usual Canadians seem behind the U.S. curve. While our media have yet to generate anything quite as spectacular as the Covington and Smollett fiascos, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Some newsrooms even assign journalists to the hate-hunt beat, such as the Toronto Star and CBC’s growing roster of reporters “specializing in social justice reporting”, where they are ever on the lookout for hateful ideas and behaviour.
Among the stories they have instigated or inflamed was the 2015 decision by the University of Ottawa to cancel free yoga classes, citing concerns of cultural appropriation and colonial oppression, because the instructor was not of Indian descent. Two months later, classes were reinstated under an ethnically-appropriate new instructor. In an interview with the CBC, the new teacher disingenuously wondered whether “they hire[d] me because I’m Indian?”
In 2017, Toronto artist Amanda PL’s planned exhibit of her work paying homage to the Woodland painting style of Norval Morrisseau provoked similar reactions to the Fort McMurray hockey players’ pow-wow dancing. It made little difference that the non-aboriginal PL was taught by an Anishinaabe painter and received kudos from Indigenous Canadian senator Murray Sinclair for her appreciation of the style. The media pile-on was relentless and the gallery cancelled its exhibit.
Later that year, during the Halifax Pop Explosion festival, a white female photographer and festival volunteer was thrown out after refusing to heed Canadian-Colombian performer Lido Pimento’s instructions to move to the back of the auditorium to make room for “the brown girls.” A week after the incident, amidst a storm of social media outrage, a festival promoter issued an apology. To Pimento. “We are sorry that one of our volunteers interrupted your art, your show, and your audience by being aggressive and racist,” read a Facebook post signed by festival vice-chairman Georgie Dudka.
Not to be outdone by Dudka, last summer the Montreal Jazz Festival cancelled performances by Betty Bonifassi midway through her run. Bonifassi’s crime, according to a Canadian Press article published by Flare magazine, entitled “We Need to Talk About this *Super* Racist Show at the Montreal Jazz Festival”, was being white whilst performing a set of songs composed by black slaves.
The boys of the Junior Oil Barons – whatever their ethnicity – were participating in one of the great race- and status-blind institutions of Canadian culture, a hockey team. Identity politics crudely invaded, seeking to find racism where none existed, and tear apart the thing that brought the boys together. Children aren’t born racist; bigotry has to be taught, and that is precisely what identitarians are trying to do throughout society.
And they are succeeding. Although the families of the Fort McMurray hockey players obtained legal representation and are apparently organizing lawsuits, no prominent political leader has spoken up on their behalf, and the hockey association has not seen the light. In February, the FMMHA, over the objections of parents, cancelled the remainder of the boys’ games over “safety concerns”.
Jason Unrau is a journalist based in Ottawa and a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.