Attawapiskat and Social Media

You can’t have missed the recent coverage of the housing and governance crisis in Attawapiskat. The story certainly captured my attention. I’ve been watching news of the situation travel over the Internet.

Social media played a key role in the coverage of this story. What particularly interests me is that the quality of some material published about Attawapiskat through social media is as good as or better than high quality legal information available through traditional legal publishing channels. And this caused me to consider again: what is the role of social media in legal publishing?

I first became aware of the dire situation in Attawapiskat through a Facebook post. One of my friends posted a link to a Huffington Post story “What if they declared an emergency and no one came?” The Attawapiskat First Nation had declared a state of emergency because they did not have enough suitable housing for the coming winter, but three weeks after the declaration, government response had been minimal.

I was dismayed (but not surprised) to find little coverage of the story in my usual news sources. But before long, comments and links started popping up in my Twitter feed. The story was indeed gaining traction. Many tweets linked to the original Huffington Post story.

But one tweet directed me to a blog by âpihtawikosisân. She had written an outstanding post entitled “Dealing with Comments about Attawapiskat”. She set out detailed information about history, context, process, and band finances. She linked to source documents. Apart from the importance and timeliness of the content, it was an effort that warmed my legal publisher’s heart: she provided an excellent synthesis of the topic and supported it with primary authority. She took exceptionally difficult material and made it understandable.

When I first read the post, a few comments had been made. But then the post went viral. I was not the only one who tweeted and linked. In the two weeks after posting, over 1000 comments were made on the primary post, and many other comments were made elsewhere on the site.

âpihtawikosisân moderated the comments, removing any hateful ranting. Many posters noted that it had become too painful to read the comment sections of the national newspapers because the posts were so vitriolic. Many appreciative and thoughtful comments were made; many deepened my understanding of the lives and challenges of First Nations people.

A couple of familiar names popped up in the comments thread. Joseph Boyden (the Giller-award winning author), and Justice Murray Sinclair (chairman of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for victims of residential schools) both posted supportive comments.

Meanwhile, the government appointed a third-party manager for Attawapiskat. Back here on Slaw, Michael Posluns set out some good information about his perspective on third party management. I was very satisfied to see that I had connected these two posters.

The interest in this blog was exceptional given that, as far as I could tell, the author had no previous profile. She had plenty of knowledge and excellent writing and analysis skills, though. Who is this mystery blogger? Her name is Chelsea Vowel; she is Métis, originally from Alberta and now living in Montreal. She obtained her LL.B. from the University of Alberta, and is now working on her civil law qualifications.

She followed up her initial posts with interesting information about the experience of having a post go viral, and then further discussion of First Nations finances and Indian status generally.

My point is not only to compliment âpihtawikosisân for her good work. I wonder whether legal publishers have a role in supporting efforts like this. Obviously quality information could have a tremendous value for the legal profession.

Is there a place in the world of legal publishing for organized or systematic blogging (such as that found on the Courthouse Libraries BC site)? Or should we be directing lawyers to other great sources of information on the web as part of a curation or aggregation service? Is the blogosphere another place to find great authors? Or should we just get out of the way?

I’m still pondering these questions. I am certain, though, that paying close attention to your Twitter feed can lead you to pure gold.

The story continues to unfold in Attawapiskat and obviously the primary issues there have little to do with legal publishing. I hope readers of this column will take the time to read and reflect on âpihtawikosisân’s blog; she has many things to tell us.


  1. Good post, Susan.

    When you ask “Is there a place in the world of legal publishing for organized or systematic blogging (such as that found on the Courthouse Libraries BC site)?”, I hope you mean to include Slaw as a source of organized and systemic blogging; or are you describing something different?

    By the way, the link in that quoted portion isn’t functioning. If the problem’s in the way it’s constructed, let me know and I’ll correct it.

  2. Susan, this is how I would answer your questions.

    Q #1 & 2: If the subject is interesting and/or compelling and,the writing style, tone and voice of the blogging is readable and engaging then this can be both entertaining and educational. Where important facts and chronology of events are reported (as they are unfolding) and can be easily verified for accuracy, then this casual writing can be a great source of information for anyone. I look for sites which are regularly updated and where the authors monitor comments and edit offensive language. I have often been amazed at how valuable referencing interesting and compelling links to other people’s blog has been in gaining a fresh perspective on a topic of emerging interestto me.
    Q #3: Yes and No. While causal “novice” writing can be engaging and entertaining it also rarely benefits from a good editor. With my limited background, judging the quality of a link (when they work) can be difficult and therefore, I willingly rely on sites (like this one) that offers curation using some “smart” aggregation tools of the legal trade.
    Q #4: If you “got out of the way” (thankfully you did not) I would never have stopped to answer these questions or started to learn more about the terrible situation in Attawapiskat.

  3. David Collier-Brown

    There is a mirror-image initiative at
    Pamela Jones, a former paralegal, started out describing a single case to the broader technical community, translating legal terminology for the community and helping them find and publish materials relevant to the parties.

    It’s now quite well-known, covers a substantial number of cases with technical content and is being managed by Mark Webbink, of the New York Law School’s Institute for Intellectual Law & Property and former general counsel to Red Hat.


  4. I’m sure few taxpayers are pleased that the chief is now suing us to avoid a full accounting of the zillions no doubt allocated toward the housing that somehow never materialized. The question we should be asking here is why the beneficiaries of so much taxpayer largesse never care enough about our investment to bother tracking this money themselves to ensure it is applied properly and for the purpose for which it was intended?

    Sheila Fraser certainly did her bit revealing the disconnects btwn spending on aboriginal projects and the way they actually played out, but the beneficiaries themselves never seem to accept any obligation in this regard even though in many if not most cases, taxpayers have no authority to do so. In fact, as the huge, ugly aboriginal lawsuits reveal, we know we’ll be sued for anything we do, anyway.

    As investors in these programs, taxpayers seem to have no rights at all, no protection. Indian Affairs bureaucrats, mostly lawyers, bless them, and First Nations govts simply have their way with us, then every few years, the Auditor General tells us what a lousy job they’re both doing.

    In the next federal election, I intend to vote for the leader who will attach appropriate conditions to public investment in aboriginal services. If beneficiaries themselves cannot show me that they have done everything humanly possible to track funding allocated to all relevant spending programs to ensure the money is received and spent properly as intended, no further cheques should be cut or redirected to Canadians, many of whom go without to be able to afford the annual tax bill.

  5. Mr Biblitz would benefit from reading the blog entries that Susan Munro mentions. Attawapiskat has had its financial statements audited and published for at least five years. The long blog entry by âpihtawikosisân has a lot of interesting things to say about where the money goes and how.

    That does not mean that every band is well administered, or that money does not get sidetracked for the benefit of the leadership from time to time, and that kind of thing should be controlled. But it turns out not to be all wasted, by any means.

  6. @Simon Glad you liked this one. Yes, I do indeed mean sites such as Slaw! I think Slaw has really paved the way for this type of resource. Here is the correct link to the Courthouse Library’s blogs.
    @Diane Not sure if you mean that novice writing can or cannot benefit from a good editor. My 20+ years as a legal editor publisher tell me that almost everyone can benefit from a good editor (for instance, I usually get a good lesson in humility when my colleagues review my writing). My point in this question is that the blogosphere may be a good place to find authors who might write for my publishing house.
    @Dave That blog looks like a great resource.
    @Leo This column was to discuss how social media intersects with legal publishing. If you have comments about housing and governance in Attawapiskat or First Nations generally, you should post in a place where the substance of the issues is being discussed (such as âpihtawikosisân’s blog). In any event, I agree with John Gregory that you would benefit from reading the blog entries there.
    Cheers, all.

  7. “My 20+ years as a legal publisher …”