Category Archives: Lead Story

Caught in the headlines – how Canadian journalism failed MMIWG

Red Dress

The red dress is a symbol to remember and honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. These earrings were made by Bryson Syliboy. Photo courtesy Bryson Syliboy

One year on from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG),1  the world has changed but too much of Canadian journalism has not.

Even as news reports offered extensive coverage on the publication of the conclusions and recommendations, commentary focused on one word: genocide.

The response by major Canadian news outlets remains a source of shame and embarrassment, but it was not a surprise.

“The report on missing and murdered Indigenous women was searing and important, marred only by its inaccurate genocide charge” (Globe and Mail, June 4, 2019)

“’Genocide’ appropriation makes reconciliation harder” (National Post, June 11, 2019)

My personal belief is journalism means reporting, not commentary. A particular problem last year was editorials and commentaries. They weren’t needed and were at the expense of critical reporting of the inquiry’s findings.

“Critical” doesn’t mean criticising the inquiry’s very existence. There are countless questions we could have asked before about racism and its consequences within Canadian borders. And there are endless questions we should ask about how the “calls for justice” could be implemented, why they weren’t decades earlier and how they’ve been ignored in the past 12 months.

There were demands for action worthy of journalism’s attention in the hundreds of pages in the final report, such as safe and affordable transit (4.8) or an annual liveable income (4.5).

Both of those are now being discussed widely because of the coronavirus pandemic, i.e. only once it affected the majority, not a minority. That is a hallmark of racism, that we care about a problem only within the context of the white majority.

One passage that particularly stuck out for me last year was this, on page 10 of the executive summary of the final report:

In describing the relationships that were important to understanding the violence experienced in their own life or the life of their missing or murdered loved one, families and survivors drew attention to specific moments in those relationships they felt were especially important to understanding the circumstances, causes, impacts, or details of that violence – what we have characterized as “encounters.”

This concept of “encounters” refers to powerful moments that occur within relationships that families and survivors showed to be significant. These encounters represent a time and space through which the vision, values, and principles that shape families, communities, and individual lives are created. We see these as transformational moments, too; in other words, these encounters can lead the way to harm or to healing, depending on the context. To engage in encounters like these represents an important responsibility and an opportunity to shape the terms of a relationship in a good way.

That sounds like good journalism to me: we interview people about their encounters, good or bad, to report a truth based on what we are told and what is known.

Whether because of racism or their comfort with judging certain peoples, groups or nations as less newsworthy, columnists and editorial boards last year failed to recognise that the inquiry report met higher standards of journalism than most papers hold daily.

My profession should always aspire to be as thorough as the inquiry. With more than 2,380 people taking part, that is more than read many of our stories now. Even fewer will read or engage with Canadian news organisations after last year’s failures. It was a missed opportunity that would take years to rebuild from, if it was possible at all..

The very idea that some columnists and editorial voices carried more weight than 2,380 is the definition of privilege, and a superiority complex which underlies the hundreds of years that preceded the MMIWG report.

I was trained in journalism in the UK, outwith the obsessive concept of “objectivity” in North America. Walking Eagle News was entirely correct last year when, even in satire, it pointed out Canadian news outlets would look for pro-cancer voices.2

We have accepted there is no need now to offer the “other side” of climate change. Why is it still necessary for murder? Why does genocide require only one side when elsewhere in the world but not at home?

Then as now, I accept the findings of the inquiry, and the conclusion of genocide. I appreciate whether I do or don’t accept it doesn’t matter to the truth of the experiences shared with the inquiry or its conclusions. But as a reporter, particularly after the response from privileged white voices in Canadian media last year, I feel it remains important to sit apart from their positions.

Reporters, I believe, must comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent. That means we must report on loss, murder, racism, genocide AND what is being done in response to it, or not.

It is complacency that has ensured the genocide of Indigenous peoples within Canada continues long after the language of politicians changed to ones of apologies, even if their actions didn’t match up.

And commentators or editorial boards who argued against the word genocide seemingly decided their creed is to “comfort the comfortable, afflict the afflicted”.

That approach also fails principles of accuracy, justice must be seen to be done, promote responsible debate and mediation, and more.

As the pandemic has pushed some news organisations to close and others to even further cuts to their journalism, the same voices who refuted the word “genocide” last year have survived. Columnists who spout hate always do.

I absolutely want more resources for reporting, but not if it’s going to break what should be basic pillars of our work. If we can’t recognise the reporting inherent in the MMIWG inquiry, then we have no business doing journalism ourselves.

Meeting the demands for change of the TRC and MMIWG inquiry requires much better action than my profession has shown. That was true in 2019 and remains true 12 months on.

Journalism must survive the pandemic. But it should change fundamentally from the profession that allowed or encouraged racism for more than a century against Indigenous nations within Canadian borders.

Canadian journalism has to do better. We have to report the ways to make lives better, and report on those who stand in the way.

Death and the Newsmen: The weight of reporting pandemic loss

Glasgow's empty streets

Glasgow streets have been empty or quiet during its lockdown (Photo: Tristan Stewart-Robertson)

In the film Citizen Kane, summarising the mystery of “Rosebud”, Thompson says:

“Mr Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, I don’t think it would have explained everything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”

I spent a few hours recently going through more than 120 pages of intimations in daily regional and local papers, as well as weekly papers. Known as “hatches, matches and dispatches”, they are far fewer in number than they once were now that social media affords the opportunity to alert everyone to a loved one’s passing.

Some of the dispatches are on page 2, commanding a front corner of a paper. Some are hidden after international news and before endless comment pages. Others are buried in the back, after classified ads and before the currently near-empty sport.

Most of the words used to notify of death don’t say coronavirus or Covid-19, but we know from the increased numbers and from some press reports that these undoubtedly are part of the pandemic.

“Due to current circumstances …”

“When circumstances change there will be an opportunity to celebrate David’s life.”

“We cannot be together at this time but will remember with joy many happy memories.”

“Suddenly but peacefully …”

“It is with regret that due to the current health restrictions, the cremation will be private. We ask that you remember Margaret in your own way. R.I.P.”

“Midwife, skier, walker, camper, poet and dog lover, a life well lived.”

“A celebration of his life at some point in the future.”

“A remembrance service will follow when times allow.”

“Eileen finally lost her battle with life.”

“Peaceful in the fondest care …”

“Peaceful in the loving care …”

“You deserved a better farewell.”

Some of the intimations refer to the “government restrictions” or “guidelines” forcing funerals to be private. Some families have invited friends and the community to stand, almost as guards of honour, spaced six feet apart, along funeral routes as the safe and acceptable alternative to gathering huddled together in churches or clinking glasses together in memorial toasts.

Reporters have assisted in letting communities know about those arrangements.

We are often accused of running towards accidents or tragedy. It is a necessary part of journalism, and more so now.

On my first trip back to my Canadian home after moving to study and work as a reporter in the UK, I explained the term of the “death knock” to the shocked faces of my siblings. It is an accurate term for a horrible task, but one that is part of our jobs. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t do it at all. It’s harder to explain why, and perhaps I didn’t explain my profession well enough back then or frequently since — and that’s why it’s so hard for some to accept anything journalists do.

To knock on someone’s door after a death is the worst part of any reporter’s job. During a pandemic, we can’t do it. So we have to make the approaches online and over the phone.

We have all put our foot wrong at some point in these requests but overwhelmingly do it with the care and compassion we would want if someone came to our own door.

Death does sell papers, it’s true — though nowhere near what we once did. But to suggest we morbidly want death to knock presumes reporters don’t have families, don’t love, and don’t miss our own departed friends and family.

Many others have celebrated the art of the obituary writer, a formal position that has largely been lost from anyone below large daily newspapers. But many of my profession take very seriously the act of writing a tribute piece, of marking a life.

When I directed a Holocaust play while in university, I told the cast and crew to imagine swimming down into a pool. There’s a penny at the bottom but you have to swim into the darkest depths to be able to grasp it and then return it to the light above. In reporting on and writing about death, we are not wallowing at the bottom of the pool — we’re reaching for the value of light at the top.

A care home boss, in refusing to confirm how badly it had been affected by the virus in the past two months, told me recently:

“The death of anyone in any situation for whatever reason is deeply distressing for everyone.”

Of course it is. I replied that I did not enquire to cause further upset, but merely as a matter of public interest on where lives have been lost and how carers have been coping with that. The boss then emailed:

“I understand that you have a job to do and you see it in the public interest, however I see the reporting of the number of deaths, even if one, as cruelly distressing for the relatives of residents who are unable to visit. It is distressing enough to see daily deaths counts in the media.”

I struggled for a while with what to do with such a statement. Should all deaths be ignored? Should the press pause because the pandemic is too distressing?

The public will read or watch war reports from abroad for months and years — the difference is an audience can and does comfortably ignore the victims because of race, nationality or distance. A pandemic brings an almost war reporting style directly to your street. The terminology is one of the “front line”. And we rely on journalism because the majority must stay at home and can’t see or appreciate what that front line looks like.

Reporting every aspect of that, even with so many restrictions against us, is such an essential task that a great many of us feel it in the bones. We feel the professional need to get out and report, with the personal need to stay home to protect our own health — I’m a diabetic, for example — or to protect our families.

Do I fear death? Of course, riddled with the fear of not accomplishing enough in whatever I have left. But I have also written about death so much in recent months, including the weekly localised statistics, half of them in Scotland coming from care homes.

Yet not all have been Covid-19 fatalities.

Interviewing the father of and then writing about the 15-year-old boy who died of cancer1 was perhaps the most heartbreaking day of my career. But that’s my job.

I interviewed a woman about the passing of her 96-year-old aunt in a care home2 but down to age. I had met her when she was 95 and a victim of theft and wanted to follow-up to paint a picture of a long life well lived before she was ever a momentary statistic of crime. That’s my job.

And I interviewed a care home manager about how she has coped with loss3

 — 11 from suspected Covid-19 but denied access to tests by what some might call those “government restrictions” in newspaper intimations. That is my job.

The home was kind enough to pass a request to those 11 families for interviews should they wish us to celebrate the lives lived. I said there what I repeat again: newspapers are memory.

Newspapers are a jigsaw puzzle of memory, each piece the imperfectly shaped life that fits together to form a community. Look closer, and each piece is its own jigsaw made up of the events of a single life. The reporter’s job is to choose the words to summarise those pieces, its colours, its flaws. No single word can explain a person’s life, but journalism tries to get as close as possible.

In our pandemic world, the puzzles seem endless in number, and the challenges of fitting the pieces together are great.

But unless we focus on those pieces, unless we report them to the world, how will we ever see and appreciate the portrait that was, as well as the bright and living images around us now.


This blog was originally published as part of The Pandemic Journal4 of journalism experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic around the globe.

Domino’s apologises for TV ad depicting ‘Inuit’

This investigation contains words, images and videos which may be offensive to some readers1

"Winter Survival"

Screen grab of TV advert for Domino’s Winter Survival Deal depicting “Inuit” admiring a white family eating pizza. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

  • Banks RBS and Clydesdale and car rental firm Enterprise use children in headdresses for ads
  • Strathclyde Pension Fund investigates share holdings in oil developments opposed by Indigenous groups after questions raised by Tomorrow
  • Government agency Education Scotland celebrates claiming of Canadian land and Scots who founded more than a century of genocidal policies
  • Catalogue giant Argos and Exeter Chiefs rugby team also examined in exclusive Tomorrow investigation

Food giant Domino’s has apologised for causing any offence with a “light-hearted” TV ad depicting Inuit licking their lips as they watch a white family eat pizza.

The commercial is one of several examples in the United Kingdom where Indigenous culture is used to sell products or services.

A lengthy investigation by Tomorrow examined adverts from major banks, items sold at small markets or through catalogue stores, and government-promoted education about colonialism.

And questions from this probe have led to one of the UK’s biggest public pension funds to investigate more than $3 million invested through mutual holdings towards a firm connected to the Standing Rock fight in North Dakota.


For sale: Making a killing from Britain's colonial crimes - Part 1

Banks RBS and Clydesdale and car rental firm Enterprise all use children dressed with feathered headdresses while an upmarket home furnishing company has a luxury brand of “teepee wallpaper”.

While Washington DC’s American football team has had its trademark revoked for being racist, the team won new approval for the UK and across Europe.

And rugby team the Exeter Chiefs have seen their annual turnover increase from more than £19,000 to more than £13 million since changing their name to make use of Indigenous imagery.

Indigenous peoples on both sides of the Atlantic interviewed by Tomorrow agreed Britons should educate themselves but would find it easy to buy the products and services on offer without accepting the modern reality as a direct result of colonialism.

"Red Indians" for sale

Figurines on sale at the German Christmas Market in 2015 in Glasgow, UK. Similar figures are on sale in 2016. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

Artist Shelley Niro told Tomorrow: “It is about ownership and possessiveness and making it okay to play with kind of imagery. In the end, it’s really racism.”

Author and activist Brandon Pardy said Inuit might eat traditional food, but also eat Domino’s, tacos and oranges.

“It’s fine if someone makes fun of themselves, but Inuit aren’t in deerskins only having hard winters sitting around chewing the fat – that’s not all we are,” he said. “And if you lock us in history like that, then it diminishes the fact that we have doctors and lawyers and somebody that’s just finished open heart surgery on you might be Inuk and they might want to go home and eat some Domino’s because they’ve had a really hard day.”

Domino’s did not answer questions about who made their “Winter Survival Deal”, which was cleared by the Advertising Standards Authority as “factual”. They also would not answer suggestions by Mr Pardy or even accusations under the video on YouTube that the actors are not actually Inuit.

Louise Butler, brand and digital communications manager, said in an email statement: “Our winter advert intended to be light-hearted in humour and so we would like to apologise if this has caused any unintentional offence.

“We undertake substantial advance consumer research and go through a strict regulatory approval process for all our adverts and at no point was this raised as a concern. Domino’s will also be using a fresh creative for its adverts this winter onwards.”

In almost all examples examined by Tomorrow, children are the target for the products or are used in commercials “playing”.

Activist and author of Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel, said: “At this point what I have to do now is convince people that we’re human, that we’re worthy of respect,” she said. “And that’s always a weak position when you have to convince other people of your humanity. And that’s what we’re often forced to do, and I really resent that.

“Why should British people care? Well, they don’t have to care because they have all the power to not care.”

“You can’t just take the fun bits and leave out the all the awful things that happened because those awful things that happened are still having an impact on our health and our education, our access to water, our access to human rights.”

[Tweet “”What I have to do now is convince people that we’re human, that we’re worthy of respect””]

Strathclyde Pension Fund, which is involved in funds with shares in major US pipelines opposed by Indigenous peoples, told Tomorrow: “These particular stocks are not direct investments by the fund, but are held passively through an index tracking portfolio – which does limit the influence the fund has, in comparison to direct investments.

“However, the fund notes the concerns raised and is currently seeking further information from the portfolio manager and its responsible investment advisors.”

As well as headdresses, figurines and t-shirts depicting Indigenous peoples easily found on sale, Indigenous peoples are also mocked in education and training settings or the colonial claiming of the land celebrated.

Scotland’s education department website promotes the wealth of places within Canadian borders named by or for Scotland. A group of teachers in Exeter celebrate their rugby team, the Chiefs, with a drum chant, mirroring that for the Atlanta Braves, long derided by campaigners in the US.

And far-right and anti-immigrant political groups in the UK and Europe continue to make use of Indigenous history to manipulate their own arguments for racial purity across the continent – something with a long history in propaganda and popular entertainment, particularly in Germany.

“I hate that we have these images that are just a complete joke,” said youth activist RJ Jones. “People are not taking us seriously because of these images. Or they’ll take our images but they don’t want to take the suffering that comes with it.”


For sale: Making a killing from Britain's colonial crimes - Part 1

  1.  Tomorrow has chosen to use all words, team names, logos and items without restriction. This is not done casually but under our duty to educate, it is impossible to educate readers ignorant to what is offensive without clearly indicating what is considered offensive by others. Similarly, under our core principle to comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent, if words, images or actions of the complacent are afflicting others, then that must be highlighted and challenged.

For sale: Making a killing from Britain’s colonial crimes – Part 1

This investigation contains words, images and videos which may be offensive to some readers1


Screen grab of Hibou Home webpage selling “teepees wallpaper”. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

Covering the walls at £70 a roll

TWO banks, a car rental firm, a pizza company, a rugby team, school playground equipment, a Christmas German market, a wallpaper design. All different, all in the United Kingdom and all making money from using the images of Indigenous peoples of North America.

Tomorrow has collected more than a dozen examples of advertising and products using tipis, feathered headdresses or other aspects to make money.

Ranging from cartoonish figurines of “Red Indians, £22 each” to children’s wallpaper adorned with tipis and arrows at £70 a roll, the imagery is big business.2

Banks, at least one of which helped fund the expansion and claiming of Canadian lands and is now 70 per cent owned by the British taxpayer, use children “playing Indian” to promote their products and services.

Sports teams have made millions off the back of Indigenous names and logos. One has dropped the most offensive term, recognising its “negative or divisive connotations”.

UK branches of major US firms use Indigenous stereotypes to sell business from car rentals to pizza.

Education programmes, schools and teachers can be found mainstreaming the “Doctrine of Discovery”, cultural appropriation and even potentially illegal mockery of Indigenous peoples.

And far-right groups and politicians continue to use similar images and ‎narratives about Indigenous North America to promote racist anti-immigrant policies, mirroring Nazi Germany.

Why is Indigenous imagery so popular for commercial ventures? Why is it more acceptable in the UK? And what role do consumers have in the future of relations with peoples first colonised generations ago and still suffering and dying as a result today?

‘Perfect for your mini adventurer’

In March 2015, a press release trumpeted the latest design from Hibou Home, a wallpaper and fabric firm based in the south-east corner of England.

“Teepees, arrows, tribal motifs and feathers adorn our native inspired wallpaper. Perfect for your mini adventurer!” read the description, with promotional images showing felt headdresses and feather-adorned teepees.3

The “sustainably and ethically sourced” “Teepees wallpaper” sells for £70 a roll ($89USD, $118CAD).4

"Teepee wallpaper"

“Teepee wallpaper” from Hibou Home sells for £70 per roll. Screen grab of website.

Chelsea Vowel’s first reaction to the tipi wallpaper was, “I want it”, followed by “Ugh”.

The Métis teacher, author and activist originally from the Plains Cree-speaking community of Lac Ste Anne, Alberta.5

As Indigenous people, we don’t get to really go out to a store and buy products that represent us in any way,” Ms Vowel told Tomorrow by phone. “And so, unfortunately, we’re stuck with whatever’s out there, the representations that do exist. They’re few and far between, they’re almost always very stereotypical but it’s at least making some sort of nod to my existence.

“And it’s the same thing when looking at buying toys or anything like that. You see a little figurine dressed up as a Native – it’s so rare to see yourself represented that way – that even when you cringe away from it because the portrayal is so awful, part of you is still like, ‘Yeah but it’s still for me’.

“So it’s this very conflicting thing. It’s really just rooted in wanting to see more actual representation, for me, for my kids. 

“But the second reaction of course is sort of disgust and despair because it’s always going back to this very stereotypical, Plains, homogenised Native American stereotypes that we don’t really want to perpetuate.”

Hibou Home did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Ms Vowel said the stereotypes rooted in fictional views of Plains culture are so widespread that even if an Indigenous artist made them, she would be uncomfortable.

“It’s still filling that niche market of the stereotypical Plains Indian,” she explained. “Even if you have a Plains Indian doing it, it’s still just really appealing to that aesthetic. And that is really unfortunate for me because I come from a Plains culture – this is my culture – and so I feel I don’t have the opportunity to celebrate the symbols of my culture because they’ve so been over-exploited, they’ve so been used to homogenise very, very diverse Indigenous cultures.

“And I think eventually, once there’s more awareness, once people are more aware of the diversity of our nations, that that’s not going to be an issue. But that’s an issue now.”

Canada has more than 600 distinct Indigenous nations and at least 50 languages,6 while the US borders contain another 566 “tribal entities” as designated by the US government, and more than 150 languages7 repeatedly suppressed or criminalised and struggling to survive today. Only a handful of nations traditionally used tipis compared to other housing and ceremonial structures.

Artist Shelley Niro8 lives on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory in Ontario. She said examples such as the wallpaper are using child themes to make racism okay. But it could be used positively for learning.

They’re cartoon images representing another nation and I don’t think we would be able to show those in Canada without some kind of uproar,” she said. “It seems like the people who are marketing that seem to be a little bit behind the times.

“If a child is exploring that, I think that’s fine. But exploration comes from the direction of an adult. I think it just depends on what direction the adult is taking that in.”

Stephanie Pratt is a cultural affairs ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota based in Exeter, UK, and former associate professor of art history at the University of Plymouth.9 Born in the US, she has lived in the UK for more than 20 years, with a particular interest in depictions of Indigenous figures in art. Over that time in Britain, she has watched periods of appropriation ebb and flow as people test the water. “What if we just use kids?” or “What if we just have it on a little wallpaper for children – that’s going to be ok and nobody’ll notice it, it’s in the background, it’s very small.”

But it’s returned to the mainstream, she said, with examples such as Victoria Secret models in very little except headdresses, musician Pharrell Williams pictured in a headdress on the cover of UK Elle magazine, and the annual issue at music festivals,10 where the Indigenous person is an “envelope in which you can put anything you want”.

And I am shocked that it has come back so quick from the 1990s and the 2000s where I feel we were much more switched on about what was appropriate and what wasn’t,” she said.

Native ceremonies are run through charity, not profit, said Dr Pratt. And £70 for a roll of wallpaper could pay for weeks of food for a family.

“This whole idea that you would take something Native and then make money on it, is so antithetical – it’s like slapping you twice or three times,” she told Tomorrow by phone. “First we have to look at your crummy things you’ve made in a factory, and then you get to make money off of it and then you get go off and la di da. That’s really, really rude to be doing that right now.

“To see somebody like that making £70 per roll, that’s just … I think it’s just despicable, I really do. I think those people should be educated about it.”

Children – and teams – playing

Hardly limited to wallpaper, appropriation or exploitation of Indigenous culture ranges from TV commercials to school playgrounds.

Headdresses, names and logos have been the subject of high-profile debate in North America, particularly around sports team names, such as the American football team in Washington.11

In the example of the wallpaper, the problem is not just the commercial sale of Indigenous imagery, but children playing with the products without knowledge.

“I do feel there are levels of outrage,” said Dr Pratt. “In one sense, to me, it’s all outrageous because first of all a tipi is a lodge usually associated with ceremony or a person’s lifestyle and their home and something that is very sacred on a number of levels.

“It would be one thing if we were having a day where we were going to study and look at tipis and how to build them and how long it takes to actually put one together. There is a danger there.

“But I think the actual dressing up and the use of logos is probably the most outrageous to me, the most shocking display of almost throwing it in your face that you no longer exist, that it doesn’t matter because, ‘You guys are all gone. We can call whatever name we want because no-one’s going to fight back, no-one’s going to say anything’.

“The [Washington] Redskins are obviously a derogatory term – you can’t dress it up to be anything prettier. Even if people did use red colour dye in their skin and they did use it ceremonially, that doesn’t mean someone can call you a ‘red skin’.”

She continued: “I’ve been called that to my face and I’ve been called it here with people who believe it’s a real thing, like this is a traditional way, ‘You people were called Red Indians’. No we weren’t called, first of all, ‘you people’ and second of all, we weren’t called ‘Red Indian’ – that was a term made up by the British to distinguish us from other Indians, East Indians.”

And names do matter, said Dr Pratt, with an increasing drive to use the real language of the people being referred to.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity on one level and there’s a lot of complete, blatant racism on the other level and it’s really hard to reconcile where we really are with it.”

[Tweet ““To see somebody like that making £70 per roll, that’s just … I think it’s just despicable””]

Professor David Garneau12 is head of the visual arts department at the University of Regina as well as being a Métis artist, painter and writer. He previously mounted an exhibition called “Cowboys and Indians (and Métis?)”, adding in representations of Métis to the two-sided stereotypes. He said the tipi wallpaper is a nostalgic part of that tradition he refers to as “white imaginary”.

“It belongs to a larger class of things, perhaps where you’ve got non-Indigenous folks who are interested in the Indigenous, usually in a nostalgic or not very direct way,” he explained. “So you’ll see items of clothing or things that reference aboriginal folks from the high plains era of the 19th century or something like that.

“It’s clearly playing within white imaginary, which has its own interested charm. It’s not outright offensive, in my view, that kind of thing.”

Prof Garneau said the use of a child playing with a tipi and headdress in a commercial was “probably crossing the line”.

“In terms of children’s play, children will do all sorts of things and they don’t mean offence and they’re trying to engage in imaginative play,” he told Tomorrow by phone. “And yes, the responsible person would situate that play in a larger context. And who knows what they’re acting on or what they know.

“What people do in their private space, like with that wallpaper or I suppose if somebody’s doing a tipi, that’ll take care of itself in the sense that people will ask them questions and they can comment or defend.”

But if there are few or no individuals to police the use of such images and products in the UK, is it an issue? If the depiction is meant to be nostalgic, does that allow British businesses, consumers and governments to abdicate from any engagement with current Indigenous populations on the serious and frequently life-threatening issues they face? Do they even know the different proper names for a tipi, such as mîkiwahp in Cree?13

No businesses questioned by Tomorrow about their ads or products for this investigation confirmed any communication with Indigenous individuals or groups.

Ms Vowel said within the debate about appropriation, Indigenous peoples get sidelined or simply erased as current voices.

“I would remind people that we exist, on the internet, quite a bit,” she said. “There are all sorts of primary sources you can go to, different news organisations, different communities that have launched campaigns to raise awareness about these things. Lots of Native people are speaking for themselves.

“Go hear it from the horse’s mouth. And for some reason people are like, ‘Oh wow! I didn’t even realise that you guys are on the internet.” But we are. Go look at what we’re saying.”

One of those voices on the internet is activist and artist RJ Jones, 23, a Saulteaux-Cree youth living in Ottawa.14 They have used an arrow in the symbol for a previous podcast, an image that represents them in the Plains nation.

In an interview with Tomorrow by Skype, RJ said the examples of wallpaper and other commercial products and depictions in the UK were more likely ignorance than deliberate offensiveness, but all represent misappropriation of culture. It is a Hollywood, simplified view.

RJ said the intention of a parent – for example, “I didn’t intend offence” – wouldn’t matter.

“I definitely don’t think parents are going to actively go out and teach the kids about what it means,” they explained.

“The fact that they purchased the tipi for their kids to play in is already an act of ignorance so that would already tell me that they’re not going to go out of their way to educate them. And to buy that is going to enforce ignorance and a lack of education.

“A lot of people are ignorant but in some ways it’s not their fault. But at the same time, when you’re called out on being ignorant, the least you can do is take responsibility and maybe listen and educate yourself. But that doesn’t happen.

“And I’ve rarely – battling cultural appropriation online for years – seen anyone just be like, ‘Ok, I did something ignorant, I am sorry, I am going to take the steps to educate myself’. It’s more of a, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s freedom of speech’ and pulling every excuse out of the hat.

“To me, it’s like their intension is never to do the thing that will benefit Indigenous people the most. They want to do whatever benefits them.”

A lifestyle taken

What’s lacking in the use of the tipi image may be a sense of history, not only of Britain’s role in colonialism, but also the people who lived in the structures themselves.

Scott Frazier is Dr Pratt’s Hunka father, both Crow and Santee Dakota, living in the US state of Montana. He insisted to Tomorrow he’s not an elder: “I’m never going to be an elder. No way. I’m going to be a kid all my life. I might be an elder when I’m dead. I think too, you’ve got to have a good message. I used to have messages but I don’t have any messages right now.”

Mr Frazier said Indigenous symbols and images have been used since the two cultures met hundreds of years ago.

And while the tipi might be associated with Indigenous lifestyle, most tribes were out of them by the end of the 19th century.

“That’s an image of serenity and home and being able to move freely,” said Mr Frazier, “and it’s an image we don’t get to have anymore as a lifestyle. It was a very holistic lifestyle, and then it was not.

“I think some people get upset about seeing tipis in non-Indian hands because they feel victimised by the conqueror, colonialism. We haven’t been able to get away from that trauma long enough.

“We’re only about, say, 120 years from the last struggle, but it’s been, for some tribes, 500 years since they were able to practice their culture the way that they have for thousands of years.

“A lot of the use of symbols and mascots and logos get Native people uncomfortable because of the trauma, colonialism, misunderstanding, and losing their culture.

“A lot of us, we’re not in those lifestyles anymore – we’re not wearing headdresses … And most of us live in houses and we’re away from the nomadic or migratory lifestyle that we had.”

Some Britons, however, enjoy the tipi lifestyle denied to others.

The social media “event” of the 2017 Glastonbury music festival in the UK includes a main image of tipis, one with Chief Red Cloud on the side. Some individuals called out the photo as offensive. But one individual claimed he and his friends living in “Tipi Valley” were not “playing at ‘being Red Indians’”. This self-declared “tipi folk” had been living year round in one for 37 years and had been creating a circle at the Worthy Farm, home to the festival, since the 1970s.

He insisted: “We are just trying to live simply, as our own ancestors did for very many thousands of years, in a round house around a central hearth. The tipi is a wonderful dwelling enabling us to do it. Tipi like structures occur in many cultures, though I admit we use a design perfected by Lakotas.

“Cultural appropriation of Native Americans more relates to the misuse of their feathered head-dress,[sic] not to this type of wonderful tent.”15

But Britain’s sale of Indigenous culture is not limited to the “wonderful tent” at festivals or on wallpaper for upmarket children’s bedrooms. The profiting goes further – and children and education are frequently at the heart of the exploitation.

PART 2: Feathers on TV

  1. Under our core principle to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent”, the balance in this case must fall with afflicting the complacent, who may be otherwise oblivious of how the words, images and videos afflict others. The use of the content is minimised as much as possible while still giving full exposure for the purposes of accuracy and education.
  2. Tomorrow has chosen to use the “tipi” spelling but the product is referred to as “teepee”. Traditional dwellings should, in practice and where possible, be referred to by local Indigenous names.
  3. Hibou Home website, initially accessed March 9, 2015, reconfirmed September 19, 2016.
  4. Exchange rate calculated on December 4, 2016 through
  5. Chelsea Vowel’s website accessed most recently on September 25, 2016.
  6. The Canadian government department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs states 617 First Nations and 50 languages, as well as Inuit in 53 communities in four territories and as well as individuals living in urban communities or Métis peoples who are outside the government’s “status” designations. Website accessed September 25, 2016.
  7. “Tribal entities” set out in 2015 list from US Bureau of Indian Affairs, accessed on September 25, 2016. The US Endangered Languages Project lists 167 at-risk languages in the US. Website accessed September 25, 2016
  8. Shelley Niro’s website, accessed most recently on September 25, 2016.
  9. Dr Stephanie Pratt’s LinkedIn profile, accessed more recently on October 15, 2016.
  10. Victoria Secret models used headdresses at a 2012 shoot, as pointed out on the Native Appropriations website, accessed on October 15, 2016. Mr Williams apologised for the cover after a swift backlash on the cover, as reported widely, including by Rolling Stone, accessed October 15, 2016. The official Facebook “event” page for for Glastonbury 2017 uses tipis for the main image. Accessed most recently on October 15, 2016.
  11. The name of the team has been designated as racist and will feature in this investigation through interviews and references to teams and decisions. As stated at the start of the feature, the use of offensive terms will be limited where possible.
  12. University of Regina webpage for David Garneau, accessed more recently on October 16, 2016.
  13. From Online Cree Dictionary, accessed most recently on December 4, 2016. This is just example from one language and shouldn’t be taken as the only term.
  14. Artist site for RJ Jones, accessed most recently on December 4, 2016.
  15. Screen grab of Facebook event page and comment. Site most recently accessed on October 14, 2016.

We the people: Oklahoma Primaries, Super Tuesday

If politics is about people, who are the people politicians are fighting to represent?

Tomorrow sent reporters from the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication1 in the US state of Oklahoma to find the people while polls were open for “Super Tuesday”.

A total of 13 states and one territory held primaries on March 1 for the Democratic and Republican parties to choose their presidential candidates. As with We The People for the 2015 UK general election, we asked no political questions and did not confirm if citizens had voted in the primaries.

These are some of the people who make up America.

11.15am – John Teal (JT), in Norman, Oklahoma

JT lived an athletic life while growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas, before he moved to Norman. And that was when everything changed for him. 

From the time he was able to walk, he was involved in all different sports in Texas. His freshman year of high school, when he moved to Oklahoma, his athletic lifestyle took a turn for the worse until he found a direction in life he credits to a multi-national health and sports supplement firm, Herbalife.

“I just got involved with the wrong crowd, the people I was hanging out with,” he said. “Something I learned in Herbalife, but it’s really true now that I look back, is that you’re a product of the five people you spend the most time with. The people I got involved with were not good in school, not making good decisions in their life. I just got involved with that crowd and finally my junior year I realised that I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to get back into sports and get back into being more healthy.”

The 20-year-old now spends his time working at a nutrition shop and as a fitness coach to help people reach their goals of living a healthier lifestyle.

“Currently my day is usually very, very simple. I work as a personal wellness coach, meaning that really all I do all day is I try and find and continue helping people looking to lose weight or simply get into the best health and shape of their life.

“Every morning I get up at 4am and I’m in the gym by 5am and I do my workout and after I leave the gym I come straight here to Nubody.2 I am pretty much here working all day, helping clients, working the nutrition club, making shakes and teas, networking with people, and really trying to continue to build my independent business of helping people with their health and their goals.”

He thanks an old friend of his for introducing him to the supplements company in his sophomore year of college. JT ended up quitting his job and withdrew from school to work full-time for Herbalife. He said once he dedicated his life to them, he never looked back.

“Herbalife changed my entire life, it changed my way of thinking, it changed my actions throughout the day, it changed the way I interact with people and it has taught me so much about how to be a leader, how to be a better person, a better business owner, and it really just changed my entire moral and thought process.”

12.34pm – Michelle Gates

Michelle Gates worked in the healthcare field for more than two decades before she decided to act on the desire to start her own business in the culinary industry.

“I just reached burnout, so I did a career change,” said Michelle, who works at Hurts Donuts,3 in Norman.

Michelle worked in the radiology department for numerous hospitals, performing MRIs and CAT scans. She worked in the radiology business for 25 years before her work took a toll on her.

“Just the grind of it everyday,” she said. “Not everybody makes it. It takes a toll on you when you see sick people everyday and people that are hurt everyday and people that die everyday. It just takes a toll on you. Sometimes, it’s just time for a change.”

After working for so many years she still recalls the life changing moments she witnessed.

“The first time you see a child die you realise how precious life is. And that death doesn’t know an age,“ said Michelle.

[Tweet ““The first time you see a child die you realise how precious life is.””]When Michelle decided to make a career change she decided to pursue the idea of becoming a pastry chef. She turned her baking hobby into a “lifestyle”. 

“It is just something I have always done on the side,” she added.

Michelle is now pursuing a career in the culinary industry but is also working at the donut shop to pay the bills.

12.56pm – Tobin Vigil

Before Tobin Vigil can even remember, he has always had an interest in bicycles. Now at 42 years old he owns Buchanan Bicycles4 and has competed in competitions cycling between 50 and 100 miles in a single day. But all of his personal accomplishments aren’t the ones that fulfil him the most – it is other people’s accomplishments.

“I’ve seen it change a lot of peoples lives,” he said. “Actually a good friend of mine, who is a doctor, when he first came in here he was like 300 pounds. And now he is triathlete, ultra-marathon runner, and just a completely different person. It was really awesome to watch that transformation.

“For him, to completely change his lifestyle and he’s happier and healthier. We’ve done that over and over and over we have watched that happen many times over, and it’s really, really cool.” 

2.05pm – Brooke Charbonneau

Brooke Charbonneau

Brooke Charbonneau works in a postcard and stationary shop. Photo by Savannah Hurst.

Brooke Charbonneau graduated in December with a degree in environmental studies and is holding down two jobs as well being an independent contractor for the university and applying to posts with state governments.

The 22-year-old in Norman said she enjoys selling stationary and postcards – sometimes a lost art.

“There’s a lot of regulars that come in that are pretty extraordinary people,” she said.

“I think I prefer writing letters to people rather than texting them – I think it’s putting in extra time. Like texting takes two seconds but writing a letter and thinking about what you’re going to write takes a lot more time.

“Talking to people face to face or writing letters, for me, I think I would prefer that to a two-second email.”

She added: “I mean, honestly it’s really hard to pick a favourite card just because I think all of them are pretty funny and they are very individualised and very stylistic.”


4.30pm – Shay Awosiyan

At just the young age of 14, Shay Awosiyan, moved from Nigeria to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, with his single mother.

Shay is a student at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and faces multiple obstacles each day that most students at OU don’t face.

“Americans’ ignorance – no offence to Americans – but they think if you don’t speak proper English they think you’re a dumb ass. That’s what Americans think, you don’t speak proper English then you are most likely not as smart as them. So they tell you to speak to you slower, they treat you differently. But it’s all good, it’s what Americans are,” said Shay.

He said he still deals with it everyday, but now he doesn’t let others’ comments get to him. After years of hearing criticism of his strong Nigerian accent, he decided to put it all behind him, move forward and shy away from the negativity.

“I got tired of defending myself and having to prove myself. So I think I decided to be me,” said Shay. 

Shay Awosiyan

Shay Awosiyan, 21, a student at Oklahoma University, moved from Nigeria to Broken Arrow in the state at the age of 14. Photo by Shea Smith.

He continues to be strong and work hard, but he admitted to dealing with hardship.

“America is not as dangerous [as Nigeria]. But mentally, America will drain you and break you down. Physically, I’m all good, but mentally it’s just … it’s not because I’m weak.”

[Tweet “”Mentally, America will drain you and break you down. Physically, I’m all good, but mentally it’s …””]After attending OU for almost four years, Shay is only a few months away from graduating and sees it as an accomplishment for his mother as much as himself.

Although Shay only met his father once, he doesn’t believe he would be any different if he would have had his father in his life. He credits his achievements to his mother and thanks her for playing both roles in his life. To him, “blood doesn’t mean you are family”.

He plans to continue living his life the way he has been, and accomplishing his number one goal: “Money is good, being rich, being famous is good. All this flashy stuff, driving a nice car, having a nice house, it’s all nice but when it comes down to it, it’s just make my mom proud. That’s all I want.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.


No relevant issues on principles 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 or 10.

3. Independence and accountability: Firms mentioned as places of employment by interviewees are included as part of accuracy and completeness, but no financial incentive was passed to reporters or Tomorrow for this piece.
5. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the complacent: There have been repeated commentaries about why individuals are voting for particular candidates in the United States. The reporting and editorials did not ask who the people were or their stories. Tomorrow continues to argue that some reporters must continue to go in a different direction from the majority to challenge the complacency of media outlets, of politicians and of the public.
9. Observe and Engage: While this reporting is observational and without comment, reporters did engage with the public and remain happy to meet with readers digitally or in person to discuss coverage.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: What issues does this reporting raise? How should journalism – not commentary – respond to elections?

  1. Journalism school website.
  2. Facebook page for the Nubody Nutrition, in Norman.
  3. Facebook page for the outlet.
  4. Website for Buchanan Bicycles.

Balibo Five remembered to afflict the complacent

Malcolm Rennie

Malcolm Rennie, 28, from Neilston, Scotland, was murdered on October 16, 1975, by the Indonesian military in East Timor. Image courtesy campaigners.

As a young reporter starting at the Barrhead News more than a decade ago, I got a phone call or letter in the mail – I can’t remember which now – about the murder of a reporter from Neilston, East Renfrewshire, on my patch.

Malcolm Rennie was 28 when he was killed during a “terror-and-destabilisation” campaign by the Indonesian military in East Timor. He and four colleagues with Australian TV were brutally shot and stabbed, then mocked up to look like armed and legitimate targets, and then supposedly victims of crossfire between opposing forces.

It was neither. It was murder, and in 2007, after years of delays and campaigning by families, a New South Wales coronial inquest heard from 66 witnesses and concluded that the five men were “shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah”. The government was advised that Australia had jurisdiction to prosecute. It has not. The UN has also refused to issue arrest warrants.

Rennie, Brian Peters, from Bristol, and Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham are today remembered as the Balibo Five, for the town where they were killed on October 16, 1975. A film, Balibo, was made in 2009 and is widely available.

These men were not the only reporters killed in East Timor – Roger East in December 1975 and Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes in 1999 were also victims of Indonesian forces. And all, for their efforts, are remembered by people of what is now the independent Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

Why do the people of Timor-Leste remember when many beyond that corner of the world do not? Because the reporters were carrying out some of the most important roles journalists have: as witnesses, as investigators, and as comforters of the afflicted.

The classic US journalism line is “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. But when I wrote the core principles for Tomorrow, I amended it to “afflict the complacent”, because complacency is what allowed Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste for a quarter century. It is what allows those responsible for anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths – potentially one in three of the population – to evade justice. And complacency allows the reporters of the start of that invasion and everything that happened after to be forgotten.

As a reporter, and admittedly a very comfortable one compared to those who throw themselves into war zones, I feel the deaths of my colleagues because they were doing what is, at its best, more than just a job. Being a reporter is who you are, bearing witness, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the complacent – those course through our veins.

And so I remember Malcolm Rennie today. And I remember his colleagues. And I remind myself why journalism matters.

But behind all journalism is people. And I give the final words to Margaret Wilson, one of Malcolm’s cousins and someone still fighting for justice.

“We are very aware of the significance of this anniversary, and I wish I could tell you that there is progress being made towards achieving justice, but I really can’t,” she told me by email.

“I think people should, and must, still care, because this remains of the most blatant examples of political and commercial expediency trouncing human rights. This administration made all the right noises over the Charlie Hebdo affair, but when I wrote to the Prime Minister [David Cameron] to applaud his support of journalistic freedom and condemnation of violence to suppress it, and to remind him that a similar outrage concerning British citizens had gone unpunished for 39 years, all I got in reply was a standard note from a civil servant thanking me for my letter.

“At the moment, we are in contact with the Foreign Office and have been promised to be put in touch with a British police liaison officer, with a view to the police here considering the feasibility of pursuing a prosecution  here, but this is a painfully slow process.”

#Artpoli: Canadian federal election 2015

Tomorrow welcomed residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to work with artist in residence Jason Skinner to tell voters and politicians what issues matter most in the Canadian federal election.

Rather than politicians talking to media, we let art do the talking with collages from magazines and comics glued to polystyrene sheets.

Hosted by Cafe Cempoal Calavera Negra1 on Agricola Street and co-owner Chris Cookson, Tomorrow made a Saturday morning of art and politics in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mr Cookson joked that, “I always judge a country by where I would like to get arrested” but expressed his own election issue as a desire “that the votes of everybody get counted and everybody votes”.

Jason said: “I think an event where a small group of community members share their political views is a greater representation of Canada, which I believe is a collection of communities. And that’s what’s often forgotten about in the Canadian federal election when we are selecting our local representative, not a leader.”

Cutting politics


Jason Skinner prepares to welcome voters to make their Saturday morning collages.


Jason Skinner uses a collage process for his art for Tomorrow and worked with voters in Halifax for #artpoli.


Saturday morning at Cafe Cempoal Calavera Negra preparing collages on the Canadian federal election.


Artist in residence Jason Skinner prepares his first collage for #artpoli.

Abstract votes

These two works are by a voter who asked for their name to be withheld as government employees are not permitted to comment on politics.

Their first work, “Layered forward” is described as, “we are not paying attention to the key issues that have impact on life”.


“Layered forward” by an anonymous resident of Halifax.

And in this second work, which was easily the largest piece of the day, the voter said, “people are at the table but they’re backwards in their thinking”.


“Backward thinking” by a Halifax resident who wished to remain anonymous because of her employment at #artpoli.

Heather Mac, 36, who works for the Nova Scotia Health Authority on mental health, offered this untitled work about what matters to her in the Canadian federal election.


An untitled work by Heather Mac


Andrew Hare, 44, works at St Mary’s University and titled his collage “Change doesn’t have to be dramatic”.

He explained: “It can be smooth. I think there are small changes that make things better. The squares get an earthquake but they’re on an upward trajectory so things are getting better.”

Andrew Hare

Andrew Hare shows his “Change doesn’t need to be dramatic” collage at #artpoli.


“Change doesn’t need to be dramatic” by Andrew Hare.


Carmel O’Keefe, 51, teaches at Dalhousie University, and said her work was titled “A wolf with a bond”.

She described a politics that is “tyrannical with his dollar” and like a dog with a bone, in this case, the bone is money.

She said: “I feel we are being held prisoner for our thoughts and our emotions in the name of profits. So our thoughts in the entire infrastructure of research and in our hearts because of the child care and educational slaughter of programmes and the confines of profit.”


Carmel O’Keefe with her “A wolf with a bond” at #artpoli.


“A wolf with a bond” by Carmel O’Keefe.

Jobs jobs jobs

Artist and receptionist Tori Fleming, 24, titled her collage “Let’s make the economy sexy again”.

She explained: “I know many people who don’t have a job and the quality jobs are not there. I would like to see more effort put into getting people actual jobs that last longer than a summer.”


“Let’s make the economy sexy again” by Tori Fleming at #artpoli.

Journalism as art

As cohost with Jason, I created these two works, one about the differences between Canada and the United States and issues of open expression and privacy, and the other about how eyewitness news and observing brings choice and helps community.


A second collage by Tomorrow reporter Tristan Stewart-Robertson on the differences between the US and Canada and thoughts and privacy.


“Eyewitness transparency” by Tomorrow reporter Tristan Stewart-Robertson for #artpoli.

Issues as art

Jason Skinner, after completing his two works, concluded: “I think the event went well – I couldn’t be happier: making art with strangers, sharing opinions with strangers, learning from strangers, who in the end are not strangers anymore.


Artist in residence Jason Skinner’s first collage for #artpoli.


Artist in residence Jason Skinner’s second collage for #artpoli

Thanks to everyone who participated in the morning, but the election is far from over. Got an issue you want to raise through art? Get in touch by any platform and we’ll add reaction.

  1. Visit the cafe’s Facebook page for more information.

US presidential candidates use 295 trackers to campaign

United States flag

American flag flying over Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Candidates vying for presidential nominations in the United States use almost 300 trackers between their 23 websites.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal eclipses all others with up to 52 pieces of code loading from his campaign site, the most of 163 world political party and candidate websites surveyed. His official website as governor has only one tracker, which can be facilitated by cookies and other coding.

Bobby Jindal website

Screen grab of Bobby Jindal campaign website

Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Ben Carson have 23 and 21 respectively while Scott Walker has 20 trackers compared to Democrats Bernie Sanders with 19 and Hillary Clinton’s 14. Jeb Bush, brother of former president George W Bush, uses 13 trackers, Marco Rubio has four and Donald Trump has just two. Overall the Republican National Committee carries 18 pieces of code compared to four for the Democratic National Committee. The Green Party has five and one of the main websites affiliated with the Tea Party, the influential conservative wing of the Republicans, has 20.

Tomorrow examined the campaign websites across the officially declared candidates as well as 28 of the biggest Super PACs (political action committees), most backing particular politicians.

Many of the sites showed significant variation in the number of trackers displayed, through plug-in Ghostery. Bobby Jindal’s site sometimes had as few as nine and a maximum of 52.

Read the full investigation

Tomorrow has reached out to the campaign for comment. Their privacy policy states:

“We use these technologies to learn how our site is used, save your preferences and improve the performance and offerings of our Website. These technologies do not collect Personal Information, as they do not include your name or contact information. We may share information collected via these technologies to improve our offerings, to advance our mission, or for other purposes.”1

Ian Koski, adjunct professor at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management teaching digital strategy,2 said the digital efforts from campaigns will continue to grow as the field narrows and resources are pooled. Technology use can vary greatly depending on the size of an electoral race, from local or congressional levels up to senatorial or presidential.

Once you become the nominee for the party,” he explained, “your opportunity to raise increases, your coordination with the actual party – the RNC or the DNC – will increase. It just becomes part of the daily routine to coordinate between the two.

“Sharing data between the campaign and the party, making sure field operatives, whether they volunteer for the party or for the campaign, are working from the same pool of data, just becomes mandatory.

“Certainly once you get into the general election you start to see an increased amount of it. But the larger campaigns, the more serious campaigns, are already investing in that kind of infrastructure now. It may not have a full 50-state strategy yet because you’re just trying to win primaries, but if you are doing it right, you are building infrastructure that will make that possible later.”

Mr Koski pointed to the digital and database strategies of President Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign in 2012, known as Project Narwhal,3 versus Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s Project Orca,4 widely considered to be a key component of his loss because it was too late being built, tested or deployed.

View the Google Spreadsheet HERE or click the icon below to download a zip file of the spreadsheet and all 314 screen grabs

Download spreadsheet and screen grabs of website trackers

Amongst the Super PACs, the website with the most trackers is Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and For America (Carly for America), backing Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, with 28. Her campaign website uses 16 by comparison. And while Bobby Jindal’s campaign site can carry the most code, the Super PAC supporting him has nine. Some campaigns do not yet have Super PACs or lack an obvious website presence.

Legally, Super PACs are meant to be entirely separate from political campaigns and candidates but could spend on targeted advertising based on information their websites collect or that of sites with ad spaces for sale.

US presidential candidate trackers

Many of the trackers used by campaign sites are for analytics or social media tie-ins. But advertising and marketing specialists such as, Perfect Audience and Krux Digital are also present.

Krux’s website states:

“Krux’s next-generation Data Management Platform (DMP) helps you zero in on and connect with your customers more efficiently, no matter which channel they are on or which device is in their hands.

Krux offers true one-to-one marketing with personalization that scales. Our solution interconnects seamlessly with your own data systems and those of your partners, enabling you to activate and control your marketing activities across any consumer touch point.”5

Read the full investigation

  1. Privacy policy page of the Jindal campaign website, with at least 12 trackers.
  2. Ian Koski’s GWU profile page, with three trackers.
  3. This long-read on Narwhal gives further details on the systems – 27 trackers.
  4. Some of the criticism of Orca can be found at RedState – with up to 37 trackers.
  5. Some of Krux’s self-promotion about its work, with 16 trackers

Data politics: Do web trackers win votes?

Exclusive Tomorrow investigation examines 1,113 trackers used by 163 political parties and candidates around globe

Tracking, by Jason Skinner

Tracking, by artist in residence Jason Skinner. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

Political party and campaign websites are tracking voters with up to 52 different pieces of code, a Tomorrow investigation has found.

Some countries show huge variation between the largest parties as each compiles information on visitors or tracks them around the internet.

Green parties have more than other parties combined in Canada, Chile, Brazil and England and Wales, while Labour parties top lists in Scotland, Australia and New Zealand for use of trackers, which are facilitated by cookies and other coding.

A crowded United States presidential race is using almost 300 trackers between them, with an additional 272 coming from some of the biggest Super PACs (political action committees) as campaigns get more sophisticated.

And in Canada, currently in the midst of a national election campaign, the official website of the prime minister loads more trackers, many of them from advertising and marketing firms, than the other G8 leaders combined.

Even world bodies show significant differences, from the United Nations using just two trackers to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deploying up to 21 when you load their website.

Major spy agencies already being scrutinised for their surveillance of personal data, officially use no trackers or two at most.

Diego Naranjo, advocacy manger with the European Digital Rights (EDRi),1 said: “Regardless of people understanding or not what cookies are and how they function, people do not have a real choice rather than press ‘accept’ if they want to continue accessing a website.

“Politicians and anyone else using tools to count visitors should use tools which do not allow them to identify individuals.”

And former chief electoral officer of Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley,2 said the use of data may need to be reviewed after the election.

But political watchers in the US said no campaign could do without technology and none would “unilaterally disarm”.

Tomorrow used privacy browser extension Ghostery3 to examine 163 political websites across 25 countries, as well as another 70 from international organisations, banks and news media.

The free extension allows visitors to see how much tracking code is found on any website you use, and switch them off.

Trackers serve a variety of functions, from counting the number of hits to a site, to enabling social media plug-ins for comment sections, to following the public around the web, allowing advertising to be targeted and re-targeted to them based on their browser history.

Almost all websites – including Tomorrow – employ at least one basic analytics tool to count visitors. And some sites can load ads or trackers via linked accounts, such as YouTube videos, outwith the control of the sites themselves.

But how many are needed on political websites? How is data being used and how aware are voters? And is new technology the only way for smaller or opposition parties to get to voters?

Top 10 political parties for number of trackers

  1. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), India – 26
  2. Australian Labor Party – 25
  3. Tied: Green Party of Canada / Green Party of England and Wales – 22
  4. Eesti Reformierakond, Estonia – 21
  5. Tied: Movimiento Ciudadano, Mexico / Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), Italy – 19
  6. Republican National Committee – 18
  7. Scottish Labour Party -17
  8. Tied: Scelta Civica (SC), Italy / Propuesta Republicana, Argentina / Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Pakistan / Welsh Labour Party – 16
  9. Accion Democratica, Venezuela – 15
  10. Partido Verde, Brazil – 14

View the Google Spreadsheet HERE or click the icon below to download a zip file of the spreadsheet and all 314 screen grabs

Download spreadsheet and screen grabs of website trackers

Ian Koski, adjunct professor at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management teaching digital strategy,4 said most campaigns will use the technology to get a second chance to reach voters once they’ve clicked elsewhere.

“The use of internet technology is now ubiquitous,” he told Tomorrow by phone. “You have to do it, no matter what race you’re running here in the United States and increasingly internationally. It depends very much on internet penetration, broadband penetration and people’s comfort level. Here in the US though, digital is an absolutely fundamental part of just about every electoral campaign.

“What you do with it though could be anywhere on a pretty wide scale.

“The reality is, though, that no-one’s going to unilaterally disarm and not employ the types of re-marketing technologies and targeting technologies that could be what allows them to reach the right number of volunteers or donors or voters to win their election.”

Select a link below for more detail or continue reading

Canadian politics

US politics

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In almost all the countries surveyed, the main political parties or those with legislative or executive power, do not have the most trackers on their websites. It is usually opposition and in particular smaller parties deploying the technology.

While left-wing parties lead the field in many countries such as Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Israel, conservative parties are top in France, Argentina and Turkey.

In only four countries surveyed are the parties currently in government using the most trackers, in Estonia, Wales, Turkey and Tunisia. Germany and Nigeria are the only countries with equal use across all examined homepages, with German parties using just one each.

Other nations show less developed deployment of trackers, with just one between three main parties in Kenya, for example.

Union websites, banks, world sporting bodies and others all use varying numbers of trackers on their homepages. Most official government websites have just one or two pieces of tracking code. Spying agencies such as MI5, the NSA and the CIA – who have been embroiled in controversy over the extent of their high-tech surveillance – have none or one.

But the number of trackers on political websites is minuscule compared to those used by the media, with several approaching or beyond 100 different trackers. Some sites have so many that they drag the loading of pages for several seconds with developers increasingly being aware of so-called “bloat” on site design.

Tomorrow only considered website homepages, which can show significant variation in the number of trackers from visit to visit and differ even more within a site, such as individual news article pages.

Ghostery, whose press representative declined to comment for this story, details about 2,000 trackers in existence, breaking down broadly as:

  • advertising – a tracker that shows you ads
  • analytics – one which counts visits and general location, browser and other information for websites
  • beacons – single-pixel, clear images used to watch behaviour, known as “attribution measurement”; they are also used to determine if someone has opened and seen an email you’ve sent
  • widget – these can range from “share” buttons or comments sections

Some cookies have been found with duration periods of almost 8,000 years compared to an average of one or two, with a quarter of websites not offering notice of use of them and more than half not seeking prior consent of the user, according to EDRi.

While European legislation requires websites notify users about the use of cookies and consent to their use,5 rules vary around the globe with many sites assuming consent based on use. Most privacy rules will apply to certain uses of information, such as medical records, or rely on self-regulation across an industry or within individual organisations.

In the other direction, data is being pushed to not only help media publishers gain income from clicks and site visits, but also as law enforcement experiment with “predictive policing”. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton recently declared that using data to calculate potential locations, victims or perpetrators of crime, was the “wave of the future” and already a reality.6

EDRi warned that unless someone is using Ghostery, Privacy Badger, Disconnect or other browser plug-ins, there is no way to know if you are being tracked.

Seth Ulinski, a senior analyst covering advertising and marketing technology at US-based TBR (Technology Business Research, Inc)7 explained there were a number of types of data collection, tracking and functions.

“If you’re a publisher,” he told Tomorrow by phone, “you’re really looking to monetise your audience. Creating content takes work and good content doesn’t just grow on trees – people need to produce it, it’s a business.

[Tweet “”Good content doesn’t just grow on trees – people need to produce it, it’s a business.””]”News sites, other media owners, publishers, etc, having a better understanding of their audience allows them to then go to advertisers and say, ‘Hey, now we can prepackage different audience segments and deliver more value to you versus you’re going to buy a run of site and target everybody who comes to our site’.”

Dr Jason Turner, lecturer in advertising at the Dundee Business School at the University of Abertay,8 said everyone was “obsessed with measurability” and advertisers want to reach customers as directly as possible.

“Re-targeting has proved to be a useful online strategy and will continue to grow, targeting browsers based on their identity and specific buying behaviours,” he explained. “The advertising content on websites will continue to be re-marketing across social media channels to connect and re-connect to existing and potential purchasers alike.

“However, advertisers cannot lose sight of the fact that relevant and engaging content is integral to successful digital campaigns, whether that is through consumers driving the advertising content or the advert being integrated in an appropriate way into a consumers social identity and social timeline.”

A web user can be an advertising target based on being part of a market segment or based on their interests from surfing the web, whether they have signed up to a particular service or just by their search engine history. But if web users don’t feel content is relevant, they will switch off, Dr Turner insisted.

Mr Ulinski said that while industry bodies such as Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) explain how re-marketing or re-targeting work, the other side of the argument is that trackers shouldn’t be used at all.

“It is a high-wire act as far as giving people notice and choice but not to the detriment of being able to analyse and do all the smart marketing that advertisers are looking to do,” he continued.

“So far the industry has done a pretty good job of self governing. But as far as do consumers understand? I think they know a lot more now than they did maybe three years ago, particularly with something like re-marketing or re-targeting. They might not get all of the mechanics behind it, but I think at that level people definitely have a better understanding as far as why things are going on.”

As the level of awareness increases, so does the number of people switching on ad blockers. Ad blocking software is estimated will cost $22 billion US dollars to publishers this year, with a report by PageFair claiming 198 million people worldwide are now using such tools. That number is up 41 per cent in a year and more ad blocking possibilities are on the way.9

So how much responsibility lies with a website publisher, such as a political party or candidate, and how much with the voter or web user?

Ian Koski, at George Washington University, said trackers don’t exist in isolation in political campaigns and the question is how digital technology broadly is used. And while internet users should be paying attention to such issues, many don’t care.

They assume that the bounds of their privacy are being tested and most of the time it’s for convenience,” he said. “It’s tough to limit that, tough to regulate that. Privacy is a difficult line to walk.

[Tweet ““The bounds of their privacy are being tested and most of the time it’s for convenience.””]“How you use those platforms, how they link together, how they talk to each other, how your Facebook followers are pushed to join your email lists and how your email subscribers are pushed to take other actions. That’s really where the digital space has moved.

“It’s not necessarily just about inventing a new platform or getting on a new social media site – it’s about coordinating all of those investments and tactics and leveraging them for actual electoral outcomes. It’s the strategy that’s getting more refined and what we’re seeing is websites that are coded in a more sophisticated way to take advantage of those strategies, that work together.”

Mr Ulinski said as more people move to mobile devices, which don’t easily support third-party cookies and trackers, the identity of the devices themselves will be more important.

Instead of a line of code or ‘cookie’ being stored on the consumer’s computer, a non-personally identifiable (non-PII) device ID is assigned and saved on ad tech platform of the publisher, advertiser, or agency,” he explained. The trackers used on desktops will decrease as new options rise.

With technology inevitably moving so quickly and the ability to reach voters changing constantly, can legislation keep up? Should it?

Diego Naranjo with EDRi said legislation usually follows what society needs, but what society needs to do is “adjust law and reality as soon as possible”.

ABC News website

Screen grab of ABC News, loading up to 122 trackers, more than any other of 313 sites surveyed.

“In an era when technology has gone far from what most people would expect only a few years ago, we need to develop policies which tackle these new issues around technology in the best way possible,” he told Tomorrow by email. “In particular in the field of privacy this means having policies which are effective, suitable for the technologies that exist and that may develop in the future, and be long-lasting policies.

“We are living in a crucial time for privacy not only for our generations but for those to come. The way we define privacy now will define how private we will be allowed to be in the future.”

But Jean-Pierre Kingsley said society and governments could only react if a problem was proven to exist. Comparing it to allowing smoking in public places or driving regulations, he said bluntly that people die before rules change to adjust to new realities.

We let people smoke all over the place and then we have to try to find out how do we cut that back,” he said. “It’s like the telephone: we find out we’re killing more people by letting drivers talk or text on the phone while they’re driving than we are with alcohol and then we say, ‘Okay that’s a problem we have to solve’.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Update August 28, 2015: Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was missed out and has now been added to the spreadsheet and total.


No relevant issues on principles 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 or 10.

3. Independence and accountability: Tomorrow publishes its Google Analytics data regularly and we remain open to any and all questions about how we use trackers and plug-ins.
6. A duty to openness: This feature and the spreadsheet analysis includes this website as we must be open about our own use of trackers, even as we examine their use by others.
8. Be a safe harbour for the public and staff: Tomorrow is looking to upgrade to https and at switching from Google Analytics in the coming months to Piwik so we maintain more direct control over collected statistics about site visits, thereby meeting the requirements of this principle.
11. Promote responsible debate and mediation: How many trackers are enough? Which ones are appropriate? Should political parties use them differently from businesses? Is more transparency required? Or education of the public?

  1. European Digital Rights, which uses no trackers.
  2. Archived Elections Canada page on Mr Kingsley, no trackers deployed.
  3. Headquartered in the US, Ghostery shows three trackers on its homepage.
  4. Ian Koski’s GWU profile page, with three trackers.
  5. European Commission details on cookies – with one tracker.
  6. New York Times video of the speech, with two trackers
  7. Profile page Seth Ulinski, with 1 tracker
  8. Profile page of Dr Jason Turner, with five trackers.
  9. PageFair report available here, with 19 trackers

The Raccoons: An animated story

The Evergreen Forest, as remembered 30 years on by the artists who drew the trees


This is story of The Raccoons: unique, successful, Canadian. That is, until television changed.

Life would be simple in animated forests except for, technology. And tech might be overwhelming for the industry except everyone still remembers the creativity of The Raccoons.

The television show, following three specials, premiered in 1985 and was given prime time space on Canadian screens and picked up around the globe.

When it first debuted, the half-hour programme was so popular it pulled in three quarters of Canadian eyeballs aged two to 11 – a market share that would make advertisers giddy today.

But putting together a show didn’t just involve animators. Storyboard artists, background artists, inbetweeners, opaquers, matchers, layout artists, colour checkers, final checkers, xerographers, as well as sound and music staff and those providing voices to the characters and others were all vital. And it was all under one roof, to this day one of the only such set ups alumni experienced – and appreciated.

“It’s wonderful how The Raccoons, its fingers of delight, have stretched out into so many communities,” Kate Wallis, an assistant on the production, says looking back.

“How wonderful it is to have that Canadian cultural touchstone, like Littlest Hobo or Beachcombers. Raccoons is right up there with Canadian classics.”

Tomorrow looks back three decades to the start of The Raccoons, how it changed lives and how animation has changed even as the passion remains.

“Run with us”

The Raccoons,1 created by Kevin Gillis, was a first job for many straight out of Sheridan College in Toronto, Ontario,2 or after a drought of unemployment in the early 1980s. Car loads of graduates drove to Ottawa in 1984 for interviews for a new production.

Most started out assisting or “inbetweening” – if an animator would do drawings one and five in a sequence, then an assistant would do drawing three and the inbetweener two and four. The more images in a sequence, the more straight forward it is, and you can get promoted as you learn, explain alumni of the show.

Gerard de Souza,3 a self-professed “animation nerd” remembers at the age of six declaring he wanted to be an “animated cartoonist”. By junior high, his dream had evolved to “cartoonist”, living just down the road from Sheridan College.

Armed with the naivety that life would be “9 to 5” based on the example of his parents, Mr de Souza discovered the animation course at Sheridan – they didn’t have one for cartoonist. After graduating in 1984, aged 23, he was one of the many heading to Ottawa to work for Atkinson Film-Arts.

Robert Waldren4 graduated from Sheridan College in 1983 and the next summer got recruited to start work in October, a year before the show eventually premiered in Canada.

Nik Ranieri5 also headed up to an interview with fellow Sheridan graduates, and remembers a bumpy start.

My first job on The Raccoons was actually in layout and that lasted about a week,” laughs Mr Ranieri by phone from California. “I did one layout and they were like, ‘Okay this isn’t going to work’ and I’m like, ‘Good because I didn’t enjoy this at all and I’m not really a layout artist’.

“So they put me in inbetweening and assisting first. I was right out of college so I don’t think they really thought of me as an animator at that time. But of course I really, really, really wanted to animate, so I would do everything I could just to work my way up.”

Mr Ranieri only worked on the first seven of 11 episodes in the first series before he moved on, but still remembers the living quarters – in the same building as the second floor studios, the Colonel By Towers.6

“A lot of my memories of Raccoons were just, it was freezing in Ottawa, and waiting for buses, and the fights for higher wages.

“And even within all that I still managed to save a good sizeable amount of money so I was able to travel to England to get that first job on [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit because actually I pretty much lived at that studio – and I mean literally lived at the studio.

“Some people, you never left that building for weeks – they’d sleep, they’d come back down in the morning and go to work. It was such a bizarre situation having an animation studio in a residence.”

Colonel By Towers

Colonel By Towers from Bronson Avenue in Ottawa. Many staff lived in the floors above the studios.

Colonel By Towers

Colonel By Towers, with a Scotiabank on the ground floor, The Raccoons studios on the second floor, paper covering the windows to be able to better see the art.

On the ground floor was a Scotiabank branch and, while cashing his pay late one Friday as the bank was closing, Tim Deacon7 was confronted by two robbers.

“I turned in the line to stare down a revolver barrel,” he says by email. “The follies of youth sometimes make you feel invincible but I kept my cool and studied his features. Seeming unnerved he motioned everyone into the walk-in safe and both quickly left with the alarm blaring. I quickly began sketching up both men and went police to station to identify them later.”

But amongst more fond memories was the ball hockey rivalry between the animators and the background artists.

“This went on for many years in the form of cage match tournaments for the coveted ‘Raccoon Cup’ trophy and bragging rights,” adds Mr Deacon, who was a layout artist designing and drawing in pencil scene locations and camera moves. “All the artists were a close-knit group sharing as much fun time outside the studio as possible.”

Animated hockey

Most Canadian photo ever? The ball hockey players who animated The Raccoons.

Carolyn Gair8 was another Sheridan graduate and had risen from being an assistant on Care Bears specials before starting at The Raccoons.

“Being a junior animator on The Raccoons,” recounts Ms Gair by email from California, “I remember thinking that I’d wished we had more animation training at Sheridan.

“The three-year course that I enrolled in 1979 taught students how to make an entire film, from story concept to animation and layout, to cell painting, filming, sound mixing and editorial.

“When we graduated in 1983, it was into a world where there was an animation job drought. Many of my classmates took what expertise they learned during the filmmaking process and took jobs in other departments, camera, sound, editorial, layout, background, special effects, as there just were no jobs in animation itself.

“Also, we were largely unprepared to join the job market as, yes, we could make an entire film from start to finish, but we had no idea how to be animation assistants or clean-up artists – the entry level jobs that would get us into a studio.”

Kate Wallis9 was already in Ottawa but started her TV life at the opposite, yet equally cartoonish, world of politics on Parliament Hill. Working for the morning programme Canada AM, she applied for a starting position at The Raccoons.

And it was a wonderful experience there,” she says. “It was wonderful to be working in the days [before] we were sending digital images around the globe to save money. I remember the first time we decided to send cell to be opaqued overseas. We sent them by FedEx after the inking was done and they came back by FedEx but they hadn’t been sent in the right shipping area of the airplane. And when those boxes were opened, all the paint had popped off all the cells so we had boxes and boxes of cells, essentially unpainted, and paint chips – pound and pound of paint chips.”

“We remember Rocket Robin Hood,” she adds. “We remember stuff we saw as a child the way we remember nothing else. And I wanted to be a part of making that really good.”

Mr Waldren says the first episode, treated as a special, allowed plenty of time for junior animators and assistants to learn and get it right, from storyboards and recording, to splicing, cell painting, backgrounds and more, before it became cheaper to send work to the Far East. Gradually a library was built up of backgrounds and character expressions that could be reused as the series went on, streamlining the process.

Storyboards were pinned up around the studios so everyone knew what they were working towards, with the first episode taking up to four months – everyone remembers it taking a different length of time. There were self-deprecating and show-deprecating sketches as well.

A team of eight writers put together the scripts with funders CBC and Telefilm Canada having approval of shorelines. The Raccoons reportedly took hockey advice from Hockey Night in Canada’s Danny Gallivan and the New York Islanders’ Mike Bossy.10

And the music for the TV series, as with the three specials that came before it, was from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, led then by John Gazsi, who died in a car crash in 1984 and was the origin of the dedication still seen at the end of all the first season episodes, now sold around the globe. Gazsi’s name also lives on in the Friends of the National Arts Centre Orchestra John Gazsi Memorial Award, presented annually for 30 years at the Kiwanis National Capital Region Festival. It was won this year by Ethan Balakrishnan.11

Nik Ranieri

Nik Ranieri – and the real one next to him in 1985.

From ball hockey to bank robberies, animating for The Raccoons was about more than technical skills – it offered life lessons as well, as Mr Ranieri admits.

“There was a lot of things that had to be sort of excised from your expectations,” he says. “I eventually did get promoted to animator just like some of my colleagues as well. But for the first one or two shows I think, I was still an inbetweener. I was very cocky. It was one of those situations where I would rate the animators on how they did – I felt I knew it all and didn’t need to learn anything.

“Basically the head of the assistants department, Roger Way,12 came to me one day and he said, ‘Look Nik, you have an ability to animate, but if you’re going to get anywhere, you’ve got to change your attitude and you’ve got to start being a little more respectful’.

“And I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong at the time, obviously. But in hindsight, you just don’t treat people like that. From those experiences I learned people skills and I was able to take that into my next job as well. 

“There was a point in time in the Raccoon show, I think it was episode seven, I was working on a Cyril Sneer scene and he was in a boat and he was yelling at somebody and grabbing the pig and shaking him or something like that and I brought the scene to [storyboard artist] Chris Schouten13 and he looked at it and he goes, ‘Nik it’s a really good scene, I really like it, but there’s just too many drawings’.

“And at that moment I knew it was time for me to leave and I knew I needed to expand my knowledge and I went as far as I could on that show, as far as honing my craft.

“I wanted to work on fuller animation that was bigger budgets, features. At that point we were all gung ho – a lot of us were really jazzed about animation.

“A bunch of us got together during the production and we actually wrote a script for the show and we submitted it and gave it to Kevin Gillis, who rejected it. But we spent evenings writing this thing just because we thought, ‘Let’s try to make this show something cool and we had this great idea and maybe he’ll buy it’.

“They didn’t want to hear from us. And then after that happened, a lot of us got discouraged and we started to look elsewhere.”

Was it truly Canadian?

The first appearance of Bert, Cyril and gang was in The Christmas Raccoons in 1980 after Mr Gillis and Ottawa lawyer Sheldon Wiseman sold it to CBC and stations in the US. A huge success, it was followed by The Raccoons On Ice in 1981 and The Raccoons And The Lost Star in 1983 before a first series gained a reported $4.7 million in funding from Telefilm Canada, the Walt Disney Co, Embassy Home Entertainment and others.14

Airing first in the United States, the first episode of the 11-part run debuted on October 21, 1985, and achieved 1,734,000 viewers in the prime-time, 7.30pm slot, according to Nielsen ratings published at the time.

By the second episode on October 28, the numbers climbed to 2,280,000 million, of whom 1,710,000 were aged two to 11.

Raccoon backgrounds

The backgrounds captured the beauty of the Evergreen Forest.

At the time, Kevin Gillis15 – the show’s then 35-year-old creator who wrote much of the music and oversaw the scripts, colours and merchandising – said raccoons became more human than rodent: “The characters grew from childhood memories of what certain people reminded me of – as well as looking at my own personality. You tend to hold your characters around people you like and people you wish you were like.”16

Mr Gillis recently announced he was looking to restart the show for a new generation. He did not reply to an interview request for this feature.17

Sheldon Wiseman at the time argued the show wasn’t Canadian, just the quality.

He told the Ottawa Citizen in 1984: “There’s nothing distinctly Canadian in the show. It could be Northern Ontario or South Dakota. But there is a Canadian perspective to the production. It’s the same quality that has caused a disproportionate number of Canadians to be successful in American television and films.”18

But did the soft environmental message – the various storylines about protecting the forest from money-obsessed, cigar munching Cyril Sneer – make it Canadian? Or was it the setting in a forest or animals? Why did that work for international audiences?

“I think what is distinctively Canadian does connect with people,” Ms Wallis tells Tomorrow by phone from Ontario. “It was distinctly Canadian – its messages.

“And it seems The Raccoons – I hesitate to characterise Canadians as wholesome – it was kind and big hearted and funny and not without an eye to the evilness of Cyril Sneer and capitalism and ulterior motives. But I think in the end the messages were of kindness and acceptance and inclusion and, I think that that’s certainly what Canadians like to think of themselves.”

She adds: “Maybe part of the reason that the show had the impact it had was the tremendously high quality of the animation. It was done by excellent animators – not that there aren’t many overseas but I think often times there’s a communication break that lessens the fine interpretation of expression, of body movement.

“If you send a tobogganing scene to Korea, you don’t get the same subtlety of understanding that you do from a tobogganing scene done in Ottawa where half the year they’re tobogganing. It’s our human experience to do winters and to do those things. I think it benefited from that and I think people felt that and recognised that, even at an intuitive level.”

Robert Waldren doubts The Raccoons, if made today, would be Canadian.

“I kinda doubt that. It would be set in Vermont now, not in Gatineau Hills,” he says by Skype. “It has to be recognisable around the world and you have to worry about your markets in the Far East and everybody knowing what you’re talking about. There are still people who don’t know that it’s set in the Gatineau Hills and that sort of thing, but it was. It was designed that way to be a Canadian show.”

“We’ve got everything you need” – almost

It was “truly a golden age in the Canadian animation industry” says Tim Deacon. Ever since, the animation and games worlds – and a few other professions – have been full of Raccoons alumni.

After Raccoons, Carolyn Gair worked in Vancouver for a few years but before animation took off in the city, returning to Toronto to work on the Babar TV series with Nelvana and then productions in the US.

Nik Ranieri says many on The Raccoons focused on getting work in the US and he eventually made it to Disney, working on some of the most well-known animated characters of his time. His 25 years there came to an end in 2013 when a team was made redundant but found a role with The Prophet,19 out in the US on August 21, 2015. He is now involved in the gaming industry, producing World War Toons.

Gerard de Souza left for a period and then returned in 1988 to the show, later working for Disney Canada when it expanded north for a period, worked in gaming for the company that became Electronic Arts Canada, taught and most recently worked on The Prophet with Mr Ranieri.

“But I’m kind of an odd duck,” he adds, “because I’m 53 years old and I’m working with people who are my childrens’ age, in their early 20s, and co-workers – they’ve been a great help to me technically and I go off on tangents telling them my curmudgeonly philosophies.”

Robert Waldren says animation is making a comeback, particularly with networks such as Disney XD, Cartoon Network and Teletoon insisting on “lively animation”.

“It’s cheaper to be done here rather than overseas,” he explains. “It’s gone back to more of the spontaneity that really was lost for a while. It kbecame very homogenised.”

Karen Munro-Caple

Karen Munro-Caple, then an animator.

Karen Munro-Caple was picked up for The Raccoons while volunteering at the International Animation Film Festival in Toronto, rising eventually to the role of animation director, learning both animation and diplomatic skills. After The Raccoons she worked on TV and film productions such as Babar and The Railway Dragon. But she later turned to a different path.

“I loved the people and the expansive creativity that those studios encouraged,” she tells Tomorrow by email. “I did grow weary of other people being in control, over producing, no money, they want it yesterday… after a while I had enough and started my own massage therapy business.”20

The camaraderie, almost growing up together as young animators, has kept connections going for three decades, say animators. Ms Wallis is currently production managing Dark Sunrise, a live-action film from Hilary Phillips and Greg Gibbons, who both worked on The Raccoons.

“I don’t think I’m romanticising it at all,” insists Mr de Souza. “I have a lot of fond memories of it, and I was too stupid to worry about what I was getting paid and I have a lot of fond memories of the people and the work.

“And I’d be saying this even if I didn’t reconnect with them on Facebook – we seem to be buddies for life. A lot of warm memories, a lot of things, and I think it informs a lot of my opinions of animation and I think a lot of animation today is overworked and over-produced and a lot of redundancies, that I didn’t experience when I first experience, like I keep going back to that and liking it to be that way.

“And I would love to work again where everything happens under one roof and everything is sympathetic towards the animation, talking department wise, artistically. It was a very positive experience. And friendships that seem to have lasted a lifetime.”

Animation – “Sinking in quicksand”?

“You’re just so happy to see your name in lights, as corny as that is, for a ‘stupid TV show’ – you see your name and your family sees your name and years later people see your name. It was a thing,” Mr de Souza says.

“There’s the people who do the layouts, and then people who do backgrounds and people who do character animation, people who do the inbetweens and people who paint the cells.

“So many hands touch a scene and my brother tells me the story my dad was watching it and says, ‘Hey, is this the show Gerard worked on’ and my brother goes, ‘Yeah it is’ and like 10 minutes later my dad’s going, ‘Yeah, it looks like his style’. Like he thinks I did the whole show or something.”

But the pay wasn’t glamourous, he says. When he started in 1984, he was paid $5.50 an hour, rising later to $7.21, scraping together enough money for rent with his wife working as well. Assistant animators or inbetweeners on The Raccoons got salaries, as did background artists and layout artists such as Tim Deacon. Others, such as Carolyn Gair, were paid by the foot. As she explains it, a foot of animation was 16 frames or eight hand-drawn images; one second of animation was a foot and a half or 12 images. An average animator could put out about 20 feet a week, as Ms Gair did. Mr de Souza boasts he remembers once animating 99 feet in a week, but thanks to a great deal of stock and reused material.

As well as the mix of approaches to pay, there were machinations of production firms. Atkinson Film-Arts, which had worked on the first TV specials, did the animation for the first series, after which Hinton Animation Studios took over, and pulled away many of the Atkinson staff. Atkinson was shut down in 1989 over debt problems. Hinton, later Lacewood Productions, eventually suffered the same fate.

“I can’t bemoan animation or hand-drawn too much because we’re not the only ones that are facing extinction,” says Mr Ranieri. “My feeling has always been that just because somebody invented the camera, doesn’t mean people stop painting. I’m hoping, eventually, people will understand that and that 2D can survive.”

Carolyn Gair

Carolyn Gair at The Raccoons after colleagues crossed her desk with 16mm film as a joke.

Ms Gair adds: “I wish there was more of a future for Canadian animation, but mostly these days it’s outsourcing for American productions. I wish there was more of a film movement there, though I’m pretty happy as an ex-pat at small successful American studio.”

As well as changing production methods and studios, the pay for writers has declined in recent years, explains Ms Wallis. Where 15 years ago a project might pay $5,000, it now offers between $1,000 and $1,500. If people are paid less, their input is valued less.

“I think that it’s too bad television in general – and children’s especially because there’s such a wonderful scope for creativity – suffers very greatly from the tentativeness of finances to back a new idea instead of just producing a book for the screen,” she says. 

“I really would love to see the days where someone would take a chance on something called The Simpsons or still take a chance on The Raccoons and do something really original and unique.

“And with the internet and with the advent of technology, if I wished to sit down at home with Flash and make my own animated series and everyone in the world could see it. . .that’s an advantage. But I’m an old-school girl and I miss the television slot with the good, good animation in it.

“If you look at early animation of The Simpsons, it’s just awful, technically, but the scripts and the performances are really the core. The story and the voices we hear telling that story are really the very core and and basis of excellent television, of any sort.”

What’s up with the aardvarks?

“The forest. . . and the aardvark – I don’t know what the hell the aardvark. . but I think it’s part of the charm, the incongruous of aardvarks in a castle, in Canada – it just stays with you, like what the hell?” says Mr de Souza.

“There’s something a little bit smarter about it. There was this kind of insipidness there of other properties like Care Bears, the Rainbow Brights and the My Little Ponies – very sweet and safe and the first thing I thought was The Raccoons was a little smarter in its writing and stuff. There was some corny stuff, but a little smarter and something a little different and not as formulaic I felt.

“Nowadays it’s just normal – it’s almost synergistic now: it’s not a toy based on a TV show, it’s not a TV show based on a toy, it’s just kind of all in one.”

Mr Ranieri admits he is surprised at the enduring popularity of the show, but wonders if it’s the power of memory from childhood.

“I never thought it was that great a show,” he says. “In fact we used to mock it while we were on it – because it was limited animation.

“I had this experience when I went up to Canada to work on The Prophet. There was a production manager there, and you know, I worked for Disney for 25 years, I worked on Beauty And The Beast, Little Mermaid, Roger Rabbit, Pocahontas, all these things, but she was mostly overwhelmed by the fact that I worked on The Raccoons. And I’m like, ‘Really?’

“I have no idea why it’s as popular as it is. That’s a mystery.

“I mean, it’s ok – it’s not horrible, as shows go.

“Here’s a good example: a lot of things you see as a kid, you take with you and sometimes you look at these things years later and, ‘Oh that’s pretty lame but I was just a kid’.

“But other things you look at and you still like them, even though they might not be very good, there’s a fondness there. It all depends on what you grew up with.

“If I were think about it now, I guess the attempt on The Raccoons was to at least make shows that had some sort of different story about it every week, that tried to have a little bit of social comment in it or something like that. Kevin Gillis seemed to be a person who really cared about the show.”

TV production schedules required that shows had to be turned around faster than a feature film, leading to fewer layers in the animation and some “wonkyness” as Mr de Souza describes it. He sees a beauty in the imperfection and limits of The Raccoons.

In one example, the Xerox process for cells could melt and stretch them a bit, leading to a certain wobble in some of the shows.

While some of the rough edges were caused by technology, animators would also slip in their own styles. Mr Ranieri says he and others played with stretch drawings as students and on the show would see what they could get away with. In one episode where Bert Raccoon was playing pirate and says, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of pop”, Mr Ranieri added a “snarky look” from the pigs then hiding behind a building. “Social commentary on the writing,” he says.

“I probably should have stopped when I left,” he adds. “One of my most embarrassing things I did when I got to Disney was I actually did [a stretch drawing] on one of my first Ursula scenes and to this day I see it on The Little Mermaid and I regret doing it because it seemed so out of place for a feature. For TV animation, it worked fine.”

Mr Waldren says it’s a mix of qualities that has helped The Raccoons endure, from characters and storylines that mixed crocodiles and aardvarks and raccoons in the Gatineau Hills, to slapstick and songs.

“But it had a kind of a sincerity I guess you would call it, that still seems to work,” he says. “Because there were animators who were running the show, they allowed for spontaneity, especially from their star animators, and so there’s always a little, in most of the shows, there’s something a little extra and a little funnier and a little different looking as well as the overall kind of homogenised look that keeps the story going. I kind of like that.

“It has a personality.”

“I see passion in your eyes”

Raccoons alumni have moved with the times and learned different types of computer animation, but never abandoned their love of the traditional that has kept them going since their first working days 30 years ago.

“There’s something beautiful about traditional,” describes Mr de Souza. “And computer animation back then did have a too-perfect, smooth reputation. It was chrome balls and checkerboard patterns and robots moving robotically.

“Computer’s become a necessary evil I had to do to make money and support my family.”

The technology has changed the relationship between the animator and the image, he says. As a student and later on The Raccoons, you would shoot the animation, hope it matches with the lip-syncing, go back and make changes, shoot it again, and keep working at it.

“When you’re working on the computer you’re getting all that feedback, not to mention also the easy access to references for animation,” says Mr de Souza.

“You’ve got whatever you want – type it in into Google and you’ve got a reference to how this animal moves or how this person runs or this person walks. And I kind of mourn this loss of many of the really great animation out there, even the cartoon stuff. It’s very reality based. It can be more exaggerated.

“Whereas before you had access to that reference, you had to think, ‘Ok, I saw a guy run once, how did he do that?’ And you get a very impressionistic thing happening when you’re finished with it.”

Ms Gair is a storyboard artist for the upcoming film Rock Dog21 featuring the voices of Luke Wilson and J K Simmons. And she creates a stop-motion animation every day for Instagram,22 as she did for this article.

“For me, my stop motion films for Instagram are ‘instant gratification’. I come up with an idea, I execute it, I edit the timing, add music and, Bam! Post. I have created a miniature film. I do it because, ultimately, I have created another world. And I invite people to look in and be a part of something that only exists in the realm of imagination. Animation is the suspension of disbelief – my favourite place. I make life out of the inanimate, like growing clouds out of thin air.”

“There’s nothing to compare to the experience you get with actually handling animation, and I mean pencil and paper, flipping it classic style,” agrees Robert Waldren. “To go in and draw the characters, moving in space, that’s what we did for almost eight years in Ottawa and you can’t duplicate that experience.”

Animation is personal, organic even for the artists, and for the audience. Mr Ranieri says after working on Meeko, another raccoon, on Pocahontas, he was sent a news clipping about how a boy saved his brother’s life from drowning in the bathtub by pushing his stomach, just as Meeko does to Flit in the film.

“Every now and then stories like that come up and you’re just like, ‘Wow, these films have an effect on people’. And usually it’s just entertainment but every now and then there is a lesson to be learned. In that way, it’s been pretty rewarding,” he says.

The quality of The Raccoons might not be consistent from scene to scene, admits Mr Waldren, but they were learning as you went along and the originality in the shows was a good thing.

“There’s a lot of scenes that are very spontaneous,” he adds. “There are tones of scenes where you can tell exactly who worked on them because they drew the character a certain way and their animation was a certain way and it had an individuality. And I think it’s part of the reason why the show itself is still very popular. It looks handmade.”

  1. The Raccoons, 1985-1992.
  2. Sheridan College’s faculty of animation, arts and design.
  3.  Gerard de Souza.
  4. Robert Waldren.
  5. Nik Ranieri’s public Facebook page.
  6. The Colonel By Towers building.
  7. Tim Deacon at Smashing Animation.
  8. Carolyn Gair.
  9. Kate Wallis, as Laura Kate Wallis.
  10. Mike Bossy’s NHL career.
  11.  Ethan Balakrishnan and Friends of NAC Orchestra.
  12. Roger Way.
  13. Chris Schouten.
  14. The Ottawa Citizen reported funding as both $4.5 and $4.7 million in articles in 1985.
  15. Kevin Gillis’s current production firm, Skyreader.
  16. ‘The Raccoons’ steal a few lessons from life”, TV Guide, October 19, 1985.
  17. Press coverage of planned reboot.
  18. Film company skating on solid ice”, Ottawa Citizen, November 2, 1984.
  19. The Prophet movie.
  20. Karen Munro-Caple, massage therapist.
  21. Rock Dog film.
  22. Carolyn Gair’s Instagram animations.