Marketing the Aboriginal housing crisis – by Simon Houpt (Globe and Mail – December 10, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

The tragic tale of Attawapiskat grabbed the spotlight on the national stage only two weeks ago, but it was in rehearsal for six years.

In 2005, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus was trying to bring attention to the misery in Kashechewan, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay struggling with water-borne illnesses, when he came to a realization: People wouldn’t care unless they saw the evidence. So he orchestrated a press conference at Queen’s Park and released horrific photographs taken by doctors in the community.

“It was when we came to Toronto with the pictures of the children that suddenly it hit home,” Mr. Angus explained on Friday. “Pictures always make the difference.”

When Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in late October, Mr. Angus knew he could go much further by leveraging a pair of tools that weren’t around in 2005: Facebook and YouTube.

So, in early November, he visited Attawapiskat with a borrowed Flip video camera, shot some footage of the squalor, and uploaded a short piece to YouTube. “We didn’t think we wanted it [to run] any more than 10 minutes,” Mr. Angus said in a nod to the short attention spans of Web surfers.

Still, the success of getting Attawapiskat on the national agenda isn’t just about pictures and social media; it also reflects media savvy, a recognition of how to market a crisis, among both first nations leaders and Mr. Angus himself.

As it happens, two other James Bay communities had declared states of emergency at the same time: Fort Albany and Kashechewan. When he heard the news, Mr. Angus quickly began planning a trip with the local MPP Gilles Bisson to all three areas. But within a week, after internal discussions, leaders in the other communities withdrew their plea for help to ensure attention wouldn’t be diffused.

“They know you’re not going to get a full-scale response across the board,” Mr. Angus explained. “Even though in Kashechewan we have people in tents, and in Fort Albany we have major housing issues, Attawapiskat was seen as Ground Zero of the problem. The other communities said, Okay, let’s focus on Attawapiskat.”

Immediately after Mr. Angus posted his video on Nov. 13, people began sharing it on Facebook. Links from mainstream media sites sent viewership soaring: so far, the video has been seen almost 34,000 times on YouTube alone, as well as HuffingtonPost Canada, where an essay by Mr. Angus also helped bring the story to the boil.

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