Inaugural Valaskakis lecture on diversity in media 

By Michael Keegan

Television executive, playwright and educator Rita Shelton Deverell gave the inaugural Gail Guthrie Valaskakis Annual Lecture on Diversity and Canadian Media in the Hall Building on Feb. 28 under the title “Who Will Inherit the Airwaves?”

Deverell focused on gains won over the years in Canadian media by disadvantaged groups and the efforts required to combat their recent erosion. As co-founder of multifaith network Vision TV, former director of news and current affairs at the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), and member of a visible minority, she has a unique perspective.

She said that when her career in Canadian television began in the mid-1970s, opportunities for members of visible minorities to work on camera were subject to the prejudices of the individual sitting in the executive’s chair.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the development of the Disability Network, Women’s Television Network, APTN and her own Vision TV created more places for women, visible minorities, aboriginal peoples and the disabled to work in the media. Members of these groups were in positions of management and ownership, where they could ensure improved representation.

Since 2000, media consolidations and mergers have eroded these gains. Statistics show that these groups are still vastly underrepresented, even in the top positions of most of the networks mentioned.

“I’ve worked at my art for 40 years, been paid for it, been honoured,” Deverell said. “I’m disturbed because I can’t pass that on as my inheritance.”

Though most businesses have realized that diversity is profitable, the media has been the exception, “leaving the tremendous power of TV in the hands of those who’ve always had it.”

She denounced “seven smokescreens” that give a false impression of progress for disadvantaged groups in the media, mere substitutes for putting people in positions of power. The smokescreens include bestowing honours on them, seeking their consultation, and providing training for them.

For these groups to “inherit the airwaves,” they must show solidarity by helping rather than replacing one another, and mentoring future generations.

This was the third in a series of annual lectures presented by the Department of Communication Studies and the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR).

It was preceded by a ceremony renaming the lecture series in honour of the late Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, the first woman to chair the Department of Communication Studies and one-time dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Of Ojibwa and Dutch-American descent, Valaskakis identified herself as “an Ojibwa through and through,” said her son Paris. She was “overwhelmed” to receive an Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2002.

Many special guests were on hand to pay tribute to Valaskakis’s mentoring and activism, her teaching and research on aboriginal issues, and her insight and charm.

They included professor and former chair of Communication Studies Lorna Roth, executive director of CRARR Fo Niemi, and chairman of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation Chief George Erasmus. Dean of Arts and Science David Graham honoured her legacy, as did MP Tina Keeper, who was unable to attend but sent a message.

Friend and retired Concordia professor Corinne Mount Pleasant-Jetté emceed the evening. Elder Barbara Malloch, of the Waseskun Healing Centre, opened the ceremony and set a tone of deep respect, sadness and joy.

“She opened doors for many people,” Malloch said. “People who come from two worlds are particularly blessed: They can take the best of both worlds. There will never be anyone quite like her again.”


Concordia University