[UPDATE: Here’s an excerpt from a January 6, 2021 email I received from David C. Rotterdam, Chief Content Officer at WNED, in response to the letter printed below:
“Your suggestions on the Our Town Oshawa program were insightful. It’s part of an occasional series of programs we’ve done featuring different communities in Western New York and Southern Ontario. The program is entirely driven by the community volunteers who sign up and agree to participate in the program as one of our producers. We work with the community media to recruit volunteers and then at a series of meetings we brainstorm topics that they all vote on and select the topics they will cover. So while we do get a good range of stories and storytellers – in the case of the Oshawa program the First Nations aspect of the program was very limited. It’s a point well taken as we produce programs in the future that share our culture and history.” ]
A letter recently arrived in my mailbox reminding me that I have been a supporter of WNED/PBS since 1984. I mention this fact only to underscore my admiration and reliance on your fine organization for more than half of my 70-year life span.
November, as you know, is “Native American Heritage Month” at WNED/PBS. The lineup of documentaries and videos has been outstanding, from Lake of Betrayal and The Medicine Game, to The Warrior Tradition and Native Americans: Nature to Nations.
However, to borrow a phrase from the film that motivates this correspondence, “Our Town: Oshawa,” WNED/PBS’ approach to Native American history and culture, no matter how admirable, remains “flawed in some aspects,” leaving room for self-reflection and improvement.
Allow me a moment to digress. In 2015, I moved to a quiet, one-block long street off Indian Church Road in the City of Buffalo named Oschawa (not a typo, at least not on my part) Avenue. I discovered a short time later that my sliver of a parcel was once part of the Buffalo Creek Reservation, and that title to the land had been held by the Seneca Nation of Indians until the misnamed “treaty” of 1842.
I couldn’t help but be curious about the origins of the word “Oschawa”, and soon was reminded of the existence of the City of Oshawa in Canada’s Ontario province, located on Lake Ontario 52 km (about 31 miles) east of Toronto. Thanks to the Canadian Encyclopedia, I learned that the name “Oshawa” is an Ojibwa term describing “that point of the crossing of the stream where the canoe was exchanged for the trail.”
Given my interest in the name “Oshawa” – no matter how it is spelled – I was grateful to receive an email from PBS Passport that brought to my attention the WNED-sponsored film, Our Town: Oshawa. The 2019 piece was described in the following fashion: “Through the lens of these community filmmakers, explore Oshawa’s art and culture, regional landmarks and history, parks and recreation and hidden gems.” Aware of the ongoing November celebration of Native American heritage, I assumed that the 57-minute, 25-second feature would be a fount of information regarding the history and culture – past and present – of the indigenous peoples gracing the Oshawa, ON area. Well, you know what they say about assuming something.
In fact, the hour-long film sheds no meaningful light on the people who lived along the Lake Ontario shore prior to the arrival of the European colonizers.
The word “indigenous” (or, its equivalent) is heard only twice. At the minute and 54 seconds mark, a representative of the Oshawa Museum praises her institution as the only museum that tells “the entire history” of the city, looking at “the earliest indigenous inhabitants all the way to present day.” Regrettably, she then makes only one passing reference to the area’s earliest peoples (at 3:16) when, in describing the second floor of Lakeview Park’s Robinson House, she remarks, “The upper story is completely dedicated to an indigenous gallery.” The camera lingers for less than two seconds on the static exhibit.
The remainder of the film never once utters the term “indigenous” or provides an image reflecting the heritage of Oshawa’s earliest non-European inhabitants. The closest the array of filmmakers/narrators comes to acknowledging the plight of Canada’s First Nation tribes is this above-quoted phrase, expressed by the Oshawa Museum’s representative when characterizing Oshawa’s history: “It’s varied, it’s diverse, it’s flawed in some aspects, but so wonderful in so many ways.”
I had hoped, when the segment of the film focusing on Oshawa’s “Fiesta Week” – touted as “Oshawa’s Multicultural Festival” – began, that information, visually or otherwise, of the indigenous inhabitants’ history or culture would follow. Instead, while “celebrating the different nationalities that make our community our community,” only images of French Canadian, Portuguese, German, Polish, Caribbean, and Ukrainian groups are shown. Absent are the Native American members of the Oshawa community.
I am confident that WNED/PBS can and will do better in the future. Every effort must be made to ensure that the heritage of Ontario’s indigenous peoples is recognized, honored, and respected – not only during Native American Heritage Month – but whenever contributions from members of WNED-TV are used to support local films and documentaries.
With All Due Respect,