Days after the statues of two British monarchs were toppled in the province of Manitoba amid growing fury over the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, where Indigenous children were forcibly sent for much of the 20th century, the website Walking Eagle News had its own take – not so much on the grief and outrage, but on the fixation with statues.
“Country was ‘mere seconds’ from reconciliation before the statue toppled: Manitoba premier,” ran the Walking Eagle News headline.
In another: “‘Fading from history’: Members of royal family appear translucent as statues toppled in Manitoba”.
As Canada is forced to make sense of its dark colonial past, and the inequities and injustice that persist today, Walking Eagle News has quickly become a force used to skewer powerful institutions and hold political leaders to account.
Described as “purveyors of only the finest Indigenous news”, Walking Eagle first began as a comedy project for Tim Fontaine in 2017.
After leaving a career in Canadian journalism that spanned nearly two decades, Fontaine turned to satire in an effort to provoke debate and capture the myriad frustrations felt by Indigenous peoples across the country.
He borrowed the name of the site from an old joke about a politician visiting Indigenous communities. During a visit, the politician is given the name Walking Eagle by an elder. After he leaves, a reporter asks the elder what the name means.
The response: “It’s a bird so full of shit it can’t fly.”
“When Walking Eagle News first started, it was very dry and deadpan,” Fontaine said. “And now, it just barely covers my anger.”
In late May of this year, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it had discovered 215 unmarked graves, mostly of children. In the following weeks, more communities announced similarly devastating discoveries on the sites of former residential schools. Fontaine’s work has served as gallows humour to help people make sense of tragedy.
The account has amassed nearly 51,000 followers and with a rapidly growing audience Fontaine says he feels a growing responsibility to speak to “the way this country views Indigenous people”.
At times, his work examines the fraught relationship between Indigenous peoples and police. One headline ran: “RCMP struggle to balance reconciliation with brutal attacks on First Nations people”.
Other times, he draws out the absurdity of the nation’s political discourse: “Country with ‘certificates of Indian status’ ponders ethics of vaccine passports”.
One of his favourite topics is the “false outrage” from politicians after a statue is toppled.
“All of a sudden, it’s like they believe that all of our history is somehow in these statues. They’re huge fans of the statues, even though they never gave them a second look before,” he said. “I joke that 90% of Canada’s education system is statue-based.”
Overwhelmingly, however, his satire speaks to both the “extremely unhealthy and abusive relationship” that defines Canada and Indigenous nations – and the “meaningless” way that politicians speak about issues like reconciliation. “It’s become a political buzzword. It has no meaning whatsoever,” he said.
In one of the world’s wealthiest countries, dozens of Indigenous communities lack access to clean drinking water, Indigenous children are overwhelmingly represented in foster care, Indigenous peoples have lower life expectancy and Indigenous women remain the group most likely to be killed or go missing.
Fontaine points to a visit by Justin Trudeau to the site of a former residential school, where the prime minister paid tribute to the graves, as emblematic of his frustrations.
“Trudeau kneels, lays teddy bear at site where his government launched years-long court battle against First Nations kids” was Fontaine’s headline after the event. Trudeau, who has publicly pledged support for communities searching for unmarked graves, has fought a human rights tribunal order to compensate Indigenous children abused in foster care. “Hypocrisy is the language of the powerful,” Fontaine said.
Because his barbs are lobbed at political leaders of all parties, he has a fan base both on the left and in conservative circles.
“It’s more about attacking power than it is about attacking the left or the right. And so maybe that’s what people like about it – it attacks power. It attacks the status quo.”
Fontaine admits the biggest challenge to his work is the reality that the policies and public attitudes that underpin decades of inequity remain entrenched, and aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.
“Every now and then some politician will say or do something so absurd that I don’t know I could write something better,” he said. “How do you shame the shameless?”