Merelda Fiddler-Potter, who studies at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (JSGS), will receive $150,000 over three years through the Vanier Scholarship.
Fiddler-Potter’s research proposal, titled Reconciliation and the Role of the Media, seeks to “determine how the media can enhance Canadians understanding of Canada’s truth and reconciliation process and help put the truth first in the truth and reconciliation process.”
Fiddler-Potter, who lectures at the First Nations University of Canada in addition to her PhD studies, is a former journalist who worked at the CBC for over 17 years.
“I really started to see this trend between how stories are represented and how people understand stories,” Fiddler-Potter said. “I think a lot of times as reporters we think we’re unbiased, or just presenting different sides. But everything you do when you construct a story has or contributes to a bigger narrative.”
She said she noticed shortfalls, and their consequences, in reporting on Indigenous issues in particular.
“We tend to think of Indigenous people as all the same, so we don’t tell those local histories. Those local histories are very different,” she said.
Fiddler-Potter highlighted stories surrounding Canada’s residential school system as an example of how national conversations can overshadow local ones.
“Residential schools were a national experience, but the way it played out in different centres, that was very different. That’s a local thing that you need to understand,” she said.
“I really hope that people understand and start asking questions about how we got here. What is the truth in each one of our communities?”
JSGS director Ken Rasmussen commended Fiddler-Potter’s accomplishment.
“It is the number one scholarship that graduate students try for in this country,” he said, adding that he thinks the issue is well-deserving of the scholarship money.
“This is an issue that’s crying out for academic research,” Rasmussen said. “Journalism is a major agenda-setting device. It really directs political attention and the attention of voters to particular stories and not only that, but it also frames stories and develops a narrative.”
The Vanier Scholarship is federally funded and is awarded to up to 166 Ph.D. students annually. Eligible research categories include health, natural sciences and engineering and social sciences.
Fiddler-Potter said that winning the scholarship was about a year in the making from application to award. She says she’s excited at the prospect of being able to focus her efforts on one subject.
“I lecture, I do contract work, I’m a mom, my husband is busy working – we have all of the things that go into this busy, busy life,” she said. “This scholarship means that I get to stop and focus on one thing. I haven’t had time to focus in about a decade and a half.”
Though her research has just begun, Fiddler-Potter says that if there’s one thing that can be learned from her research is an appreciation for a well-told story.
“A better story leads to a better-informed public which gives us something to build on, to rebuild these relationships,” she said. “If we tell better stories and people hear them, and we’re able to be really informed. That’s world-changing.”