In June 2018, the Government of New Brunswick committed $10 million to Moltex and ARC Canada, two engineering companies interested in developing untried small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs) near the Point Lepreau Generating Station, southwest of Saint John.
New Brunswick, its energy grid, and over 700,000 citizens have become guinea pigs for the trial of SMNRs, aimed at revitalizing a failing nuclear industry.
After the announcement in 2018, a tsunami of think pieces, news releases, and editorials flooded the pages of New Brunswick’s mainstream English-language newspapers owned by Brunswick News: the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, the Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, and the Times & Transcript in Moncton.
This summer, while undertaking an analysis of these newspapers’ coverage of SMNRs, it became incredibly clear that the owner of Brunswick News—then J.D. Irving, and since February, Postmedia—has treated the technology one-sidedly and with little regard for public consultation.
Between June 2018 and June 2022, these three papers published 230 articles that referred to small modular reactors. I know this because I searched for the articles, read them all, and classified them. After duplicate and redundant stories were removed from the initial sample, I was left with a total of 205 stories.
Of these 205 stories, only 18 articles featured discussions about SMNRs and Indigenous, First Nations, and Aboriginal issues. Of these 18 articles, only five cited Indigenous sources.
The obvious conclusion: reporters, journalists, and editors in New Brunswick’s mainstream English-language press have almost totally ignored Indigenous perspectives.
|Brunswick News’ coverage of SMNRs, June 2018 to June 2022|
|Stories that reference SMNRs and Indigenous issues (%)||Stories that include Indigenous sources (%)|
After I had ranked the stories by theme, it became clear that the province’s journalists were relying on lopsided perspectives to tell the story of small modular reactors.
First, stories that offered a positive outlook on small modular reactors were published far more frequently than stories critical of the technology. In the former case, Indigenous sources were almost always absent. Indeed, a pro-SMNR coalition (comprised of actors drawn from the nuclear industry and government) included only three Indigenous sources in their 13 published articles on the topic, all of which favored the adoption of small modular reactors.
These articles championed small modular reactors as a way of providing employment opportunities for First Nations youth and working people. Yet only 23.1 per cent of the articles which treated small modular reactors favorably included quotations, paraphrases, or summaries sourced from Indigenous people.
Among the articles that discussed Indigenous issues while remaining critical of small modular reactors, half of them included sources from Indigenous people. Of course, this amounted to only two articles. This low number of articles reflects a profound bias on the part of the province’s mainstream press, in which only four articles that discussed Indigenous issues while remaining critical of the nuclear industry were published.
Clearly, New Brunswick’s mainstream newspapers have consistently favoured the opinions and motivations of the nuclear industry at the expense of Indigenous perspectives.
Despite being silenced in the media, Indigenous nations have continued to fiercely contest the development of small modular reactors throughout Canada and New Brunswick.
In June 2019, the Anishinabek Nation Chiefs-in-Assembly in Ontario endorsed a resolution stating their opposition to the construction of small modular reactors on their territory.
In March 2021, the Wolastoq Grand Council in New Brunswick released a resolution calling on the Government of Canada to halt any further funding of nuclear reactors at Point Lepreau.
Just last month, on May 10, the Peskotomuhkati nation and Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated made interventions to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, with the aim of shortening the length of NB Power’s proposed 25-year licence of Point Lepreau.
Biased coverage of Indigenous issues is not new.
Historically, media coverage has facilitated the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. In Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen Robertson write that “the press has never been non-partisan or strictly objective in Canada.”
“Colonialism has always thrived in Canada’s press,” they add.
In New Brunswick, a series of mergers and buyouts have made silencing Indigenous perspectives the norm in mainstream coverage. For decades, the J.D. Irving-owned Brunswick News conglomerate held a monopoly over news media in the province. Since February 2022, the Postmedia Network—66% owned by US-based Chatham Asset Management—has run the province’s three mainstream papers. As of yet, their lopsided, biased coverage of small modular reactors and Indigenous issues shows no signs of changing.
While analyzing the results of this study, I was reminded of an interview I had undertaken with Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation back in May. “Have my questions been answered on Small Modular Reactors?” he asked. “Absolutely not. I have met with their salespeople, but that’s not the same as meeting with expertise.”
“I often say there’s a difference between listening and hearing—one is just sound waves, and the other is if you’re actually digesting the material and doing something about it.”
As of yet, it looks as if the province’s newspapers, and the Canadian nuclear industry, are doing neither.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 7.7 per cent of pro-SMR stories included Indigenous perspectives. In fact, 23.1 per cent of those stories included Indigenous perspectives, according to the author’s analysis. This article was updated on Thursday, November 17, 2022 at approximately 2:30 p.m.