In part one of my article, I interviewed my good friend and Metis scholar, Matt Hilterman about his tips for communicating with a Metis target audience. At least, that was the plan. As I found out, the question was problematic.
Distilling the Metis Nation of Alberta down into a target audience felt very smothering to Matt. Although the concept of a target audience is useful, it can also appear alienating.
I asked Matt if he had any tips for communicating with the Metis Nation of Alberta. Hopefully, his advice can be applied broadly to help us rethink how we approach target audiences and avoid generalizing people or cultures.
Matt’s Tips for Communicators
1. Just Listen
This is a critical point Matt focuses on.
“Just spend time around the community and listen. I can’t emphasize that enough. Make sure you know that who you are talking to is a reliable person, a member of the community, and listen. A lot of PR people are pretty happy to hear themselves talk, but that’s not what we need.”
Active listening has always been an important skill for communicators, but clearly, we can do better.
2. Don’t Play into Stereotypes
“To target Metis audiences, I think the biggest thing is that people want to be seen, recognized and represented in a way that doesn’t play into stereotypes. In a way that feels authentic. It might not be as exotic or foreign as people think. I was in a documentary series for Beaver Hills Biosphere and we had an episode about the Metis settlement on Beaver Hills Lake. All of the Indigenous people we showed it to clearly recognized that the content was Metis, but our non-Indigenous test audience was like ‘Why is this about white people?’”
3. Connecting Through Stories.
“One way I connect with Metis people is that I know stories about their family from the good old days. I know things that their ancestors did that they might find interesting.”
This advice also plays into the importance of listening. Matt may know these stories because he’s a Metis historian, whereas someone like myself can learn them from talking with community members.
4. Engaging Respectfully.
I wondered if it was fair that Matt took time out of his day to explain this all to me for free. I asked him what to do if you want to learn, but you don’t want to give Metis people free labour.
“One thing that’s really common practice when addressing indigenous knowledge holders is to provide a gift or honorarium. If you’re just an individual who wants to learn, that might be $20 and buy me coffee. If it’s an organization, it might be a $150 per hour. You’re lucky that you’re a friend. You get a pass.
Make sure you’re engaging with people in a way that compensates them for their time, not just the time it takes to explain things, the time it took them to learn the knowledge that they have.
Tobacco is not as much of a thing for Metis as it is for First Nations, but I always think it’s the safe bet. If you give someone tobacco and they don’t expect it, it’s still an appreciated gesture. If you don’t give someone tobacco and they do expect it, you’re gonna have a bad time.”
5. Be Explicit with Your Language.
“In terms of communications, one important thing is to be very clear. It can almost feel a little obnoxious to be like ‘this person is Indigenous’, but sometimes it’s what you have to do. Sometimes you have to explicate it because cultural biases and assumptions will, even if someone knows the background, still slip through and your message will be misunderstood.”
6. Simplify Your Language
A few years ago I viewed an exhibit on Metis history that Matt curated at the Lougheed House National & Provincial Historic Site. Having written the description for every item in the exhibit, I asked him if he has tips for communicating about Metis history.
“Trying to capture a complex idea in 150 words or less in accessible language was such a challenge. Honestly I’m not sure I necessarily accomplished it. When I’m talking to kids or the public, I’ll often make recourse to analogies. When I’m explaining how diverse Indigenous languages are, I like to point out that within an hour’s drive of Calgary there’s 3 languages spoken, Blackfoot, Stoney and Tsuutʼina that have about as much in common as English, Chinese and Arabic.”
Considering Historical Oppression
I was also curious about taking a history of oppression and trauma into account when interviewing a Metis person.
“That’s actually a really good question and a difficult one,” says Matt.
“It’s important to understand the diversity of experiences in the Metis community. For example, with residential schools, Metis who lived in towns and cities didn’t tend to be put through them, but those who lived in the bush or in rural and remote areas often were.”
“Our experience with colonization is basically throwing a glass ball at a brick wall. It shattered and people went in a million different directions, and people adapted at the family level instead of the community level.”
I pondered further if there was something I should have done specifically to prepare for our conversation.
“Suspend your assumptions about trauma, and actually I have an interesting example. The old Metis Nation of Alberta President gave a presentation in one of my classes and someone asked her about what childhood trauma she had experienced. She was like, `I grew up in a loving household, yeah there were 17 of us, it was a bit chaotic, but I don’t remember being beaten or yelled at.’”
I think it’s important that we apply Matt’s advice when thinking about target audiences and stereotyping. We often see this problem in the media when a group is depicted stereotypically, and the target demographic feels pandered to. Matt’s advice generally comes down to listening, simplifying, avoiding generalizations, being explicit and of course, challenging our assumptions. I think Matt put it quite well when he said, “I just want to be seen, you know?”.
Where to Learn About Metis Culture
As I discussed in my previous article, Metis history and culture is largely misunderstood by most non-Indigenous Canadians. I asked Matt, If I were running a PR firm in Calgary what would be a great learning resource for this?
“There’s a lot of really good resources out there. It doesn’t actually touch on Metis Specifically, but the book The Burden of History by Elizabeth Furniss, I think contributed more than anything else for me to unlearn the white centric way history has been talked about and to deconstruct the frontier myth. The world of Metis history is actually a really vibrant place right now, but you know what they say, things take about 20 years to filter from the academy to the mainstream.”
Matt argues that if you aren’t in academia but want to learn about Metis history, simply talk to academics. He also recommends going to events, and many are open to all.