Local journalists from northern Canada are trying to build a better, more representative system.
In July 2019, Kaila Jefferd-Moore was one month into her first job at CBC. The CBC North reporter noticed that Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer was misrepresenting how the Liberals’ new carbon tax applied to Nunavut residents. Scheer, tweeting a photo of a family grocery shopping, claimed the tax increased the cost of living in Iqaluit. Jefferd-Moore responded.
“[Y]our friendly northern reporter here to remind everyone everywhere that all three territories have NO carbon tax on jet fuel for this exact reason!!” she tweeted. She continued her thread, ending with these two tweets:
“….I truly despise seeing Scheer a) use Inuit and their home to further his agenda and b) straight up spread misinformation.”
“There are also a lot of steps a federal government can do to help with the cost of food in Nunavut. Hint: None of them involve scrapping a carbon tax that has little impact on the cost of food!! All of them have to do with listening to what Nunavummiut [people from Nunavut] need and want.”
The thread became a professional headache. A manager flagged the tweets for expressing opinion and sent them to CBC’s director of journalistic standards, Paul Hambleton. The manager wanted all three of the tweets deleted. Jefferd-Moore conceded that the final tweets might be biased, but she stood by her thread. Ultimately, Hambleton agreed that it could stay up if she deleted the final two tweets, which she did.
But that wasn’t all. She was then instructed to go back and review her entire social media history—tens of thousands of tweets dating back more than seven years, long before her employment by CBC—to flag any potential bias. She had never heard, and hasn’t to this day, of any other CBC employee being asked to do this. No one followed up on the request, but the point had been made. “They wanted to send me a message, saying, ‘Hey, we’re watching your social media. Cut this shit out,’” says Jefferd-Moore. “And I got that message, loud and clear.”
Jefferd-Moore, 25, thinks her post drew attention because it got a lot of traffic, but also because she is a young Indigenous woman. “I really do not think that white CBC employees, especially white male CBC employees, get that type of policing of their public presence.”
At the time, she was a casual, temporary employee with no job security or benefits. CBC relies on the labour of such employees; some work for years on contract. A 2019 investigation by The Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt revealed that “a disproportionate number of [CBC’s] casual and non-permanent employees are women and visible minorities.”
As a temporary employee without a contract, Jefferd-Moore felt vulnerable, but says a culture of “not sticking your neck out” exists even among CBC employees with permanent positions. In November 2019, when management made an unpopular decision to merge the northern territories’ morning newscasts (a decision reversed that same month), Jefferd-Moore was the only person in the Whitehorse newsroom who went on the record in the news against the change. “You’re not allowed to criticize the CBC when you work for the CBC,” she says.
Over time, the stress of precarious work, combined with the burden of racist microaggressions, wore on her. In December 2019, she left CBC and her dream profession for a position with the Northwest Territories recreation and parks association.
Over the years, many journalists have left CBC newsrooms because of racism. Christine Genier resigned from CBC North last summer as the new host of the Yukon Morning radio show after a powerful on-air denunciation of the public broadcaster.
“To be on Tagish Chän territory, Wolf Clan territory, and not be able to speak the truth is difficult,” Genier told her listeners on the morning of June 8, 2020. “It contradicts and conflicts with the Journalistic Standards and Practices of the CBC.” Her voice shaking, she continued: “We get told that it takes time to move a ship. It’s an analogy I’ve heard often. And all it costs is time for mainstream media, but it is costing us bodies.”
Fifteen minutes after going off the air, she quit.
Genier’s resignation came during a summer of protests against police brutality and conversations about racism in Canadian media. She struggled with CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, which state that if employees express personal opinions on controversial subjects, they “can undermine the credibility of CBC journalism and erode the trust of our audience.” The JSPs also cover the CBC’s mission and principles, including diversity and accountability.
In statements after her resignation, Genier referred to “the unconscious and conscious biases and systemic racism of the mainstream media in Canada, and my experience within the CBC, as well as the media’s complicit nature in the continued oppression of Black and Indigenous Voices in our country.” She also wrote in a separate post, “The wall I keep slamming against is the idea that Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter is a controversial subject or a political talking point.” (When asked specifically if such statements were allowed, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson directed me to read the JSPs online. The JSPs did not provide an answer.)
Genier’s story resonated with other Indigenous women journalists, including Kim Wheeler and Martha Troian, who tweeted about their experiences of racism at CBC. Wheeler is quoted in “Silent No More,” a section of a 2020 report on issues faced by women journalists in Canada written by Karyn Pugliese, journalist and assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “You get ahead at CBC by being a good or ‘yes’ Indian, by not rocking the boat, by doing exactly what they asked you to do,” says Wheeler. “And by having a penis.” (Disclosure: Pugliese is the thesis supervisor for my Master’s Research Project.)
Jefferd-Moore says that Genier also noted her own departure in a statement: “I watched this system drive out a young, intelligent, talented Indigenous reporter in the Yukon newsroom in December.”
Thompson declined to discuss specifics related to Jefferd-Moore’s exit, but said, “We encourage all employees to bring any concerns to either management, HR, or their union rep.”
As one of the most prominent news providers in the north—and the public broadcaster with a mission to reflect Canada—CBC’s problems with racism matter within and beyond northern borders. But racism isn’t just a problem at CBC North, and Jefferd-Moore says CBC isn’t a uniquely bad workplace. Rather, our public broadcaster reproduces the issues of the industry on a large scale. Across the country, newsrooms are failing to represent the communities they are supposed to serve.
Northerners have been fighting for representative journalism since the early days of media in the region. Now, people inside and outside the newsroom are working to create and support the next generation of northern journalists—and maybe redefine northern journalism entirely.
From day one of journalism school, Kaila Jefferd-Moore was in love. “It was like a light just went on for me,” she says. “I instantly became obsessed with it.”
Jefferd-Moore is Haida—her mother is from Rennell Sound, B.C.—but she grew up in Inuvik, N.W.T., a 3,000-person hub in the broad, flat delta where the Mackenzie River flows into the Arctic Ocean. She has always loved writing (she wrote her own children’s book when she was 10), but as a teenager believed there was no money in it. After high school and a year spent at the University of British Columbia, a gap year led her to study journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax in 2015. She threw herself into the work, finishing as the editor-in-chief of the Dalhousie Gazette.
Fired up during her first year at King’s, she cold-called the Inuvik Drum and asked for a summer job, which she got. Later, a supportive professor introduced her to Mervin Brass, then managing editor at CBC North, who encouraged her to apply for a job with the public broadcaster. She worked in CBC’s Yellowknife newsroom in the summer of 2018, and upon graduation in June 2019, she joined the Whitehorse newsroom.
But her time at school and on the job made her disillusioned with the industry. At CBC, she felt underprepared, undervalued, and tokenized. She often felt like the youngest person in the room by a decade. She also saw and experienced racism in both the N.W.T. and Yukon newsrooms. In Whitehorse, she remembers “lots of transphobia, lots of anti-Indigenous racism” and feeling alone when she tried to bring it up.
The nature of microaggressions is that each one, taken separately, might not seem like a big deal. But as they accumulate, day in, day out, they weigh people down. In a 2019 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, University of Ottawa professor and Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities Monnica Williams writes that microaggressions are “real, harmful, and demand action.” While they can be considered small, common, even ambiguous, “they are particularly stressful for those on the receiving end given their ubiquity and deniability.”
Eventually, the microaggressions, compounded by the stress of her powerless, precarious month-to-month position, drove Jefferd-Moore to leave. “I just got to a point of hopelessness,” she says. “I can’t stomach playing the game.”
The north has a unique media landscape. North is a nebulous word, but for this story, it refers to the stretch of land lying above the 60th parallel—from the Yukon in the west, snugged up against Alaska, through the Northwest Territories to Nunavut in the east. The region is home to Inuit and First Nations people whose communities and languages reach across current Canadian borders and back through uncountable generations. Today, each territory is home to between 40,000 and 45,000 people. The three territories comprise 39 percent of Canada’s land mass, an area larger than India, but less than a third of one percent of the country’s population.
Most Canadians know little about the north. When I first visited Whitehorse in 2014, as a white settler who grew up in Toronto, I didn’t even know what the land would look like. Since then, friends and family have often asked me how’s it going in Yellowknife—the capital of the N.W.T., one territory over. The 60th parallel, the territories’ southern border, is more than 1,000 kilometres due north of Canada’s most populous and southerly cities, like Vancouver or Toronto. Nunavut can’t be reached by road at all, and there are 13 fly-in communities in the N.W.T. and the Yukon.
Thanks to the distance from southern Canada, colonizers arrived in the north much later than they did elsewhere. Fur traders established posts in the N.W.T. in the 1800s; gold-seekers arrived in the Yukon in the late 19th century. Waves of whalers, fur traders, and missionaries have assailed Nunavut for more than 150 years, but after the Second World War, the Canadian government took a more active role, constructing military outposts and forcibly relocating Inuit communities in the 1950s.
Newspapers and radio came hand in hand with settlers and the military, although northern Indigenous cultures have a long history of storytelling. During the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99, at least 12 newspapers circulated in Dawson City, Yukon. Today, news organizations include Yukon’s independent Whitehorse Daily Star and Black Press-owned Yukon News; NNSL Media, which runs two news sites and a handful of N.W.T. and Nunavut papers and was bought by Black Press in April; and the Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit. All three territories also have independent radio and television news stations, including Indigenous-owned media like the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, established in 1981, and CHON-FM, established in 1984 by Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon.
The CBC has newsrooms in Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit, plus four satellite stations in the N.W.T. and Nunavut. News programming is in English, French, and in Indigenous languages. Each newsroom runs local radio newscasts multiple times a day and feeds into the CBC North website and TV news programs. Northbeat, the pan-Northern half-hour evening TV newscast, runs daily in English and is followed by Igalaaq, a half-hour Inuktitut-language newscast.
CBC North began with radio. Anne MacLennan, associate professor of communication studies and the chair of the department of communication studies at York University, describes the evolution in a 2011 paper, “Cultural Imperialism of the North? The Expansion of the CBC Northern Service and Community Radio.” The Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System was operated by the military from 1923 to 1959, then decommissioned and handed over to CBC. Over the next decade, CBC improved the territories’ radio equipment, mainly to provide southerners working in the north with outside news. The first Inuktitut program was broadcast in 1960 for an hour a day.
By the 1960s, local shows like Iqaluit’s Uqattarit were popular. But communities worried about the influx of southern-generated content. They wanted to hear programming in Indigenous languages, not just news from the south. MacLennan calls this period a “tug-of-war” between CBC and local communities.
In MacLennan’s paper, she writes that in its 1974 Northern Broadcasting Plan, CBC intended to extend radio to smaller communities and provide more local, Indigenous-language programming. However, the huge expense of this expansion left little budget remaining for such programming. Communities began creating illegal radio broadcasts to meet their own needs. When community radio stations applied for licences or asked for funding support, they were often redirected or roadblocked. In Iqaluit, which was isolated from the rest of the network, the local CBC station went “rogue” and produced more Inuktitut-language broadcasting.
MacLennan writes that CBC’s northern programming has always been caught between contradictory mandates of promoting national unity while meeting regional needs. When CBC tried to establish TV and radio in Igloolik in 1975, the community voted against TV and accepted a radio station only on the condition that it broadcast local shows three hours a day. Ultimately, CBC only scheduled 27 minutes of daily Inuktitut programming.
MacLennan adds that by 1979, both local and southern news content was established in the territories, but local programming was consistently more popular. She writes that in the 1980s, the Northern Broadcasting Policy temporarily boosted Indigenous broadcasting with more programming, participation, and representation for Indigenous people, but that funding declined in the 1990s.
Still, Indigenous-language broadcasters have carved out a niche within the corporation. Some have been producing radio shows for their communities, in their languages, for decades—like Leitha Kochon, a Sahtu Dene broadcaster who hosts Leghots’edeh, a news and current affairs radio show. She’s been with CBC for more than 35 years.
“The broadcasters, they are all, in one way or another, legends in their own communities,” says Garrett Hinchey, a Métis senior assignment producer in Yellowknife who was born and raised in the N.W.T. He says CBC’s Indigenous-language shows are “the best thing we do”—and the most important, because they bring news to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it.
Beyond the three capital cities, most northern communities are small and predominantly Indigenous. Some larger communities have their own radio stations or other independent news, but many do not. Hinchey says CBC is most needed in places like Paulatuk or Fort Simpson, which aren’t consistently covered by any other media source. “I want to do more community coverage and less Yellowknife coverage. Fill in the gaps rather than do the same stuff that the privates are doing,” he says. “I think that’s the role of a public broadcaster.”
The northern media ecosystem is relatively healthy. The federal government regularly makes large ad buys in local newspapers and Hinchey says that CBC also invests more in its northern newsrooms, understanding that the north is, in Hinchey’s words, “a very different beast.”
But that investment doesn’t necessarily go far enough to support BIPOC journalists, especially northerners.
Hinchey, 30, started working at CBC North in Yellowknife six years ago after stints at The Globe and Mail and CBC bureaus in Toronto and Vancouver. As senior assignment producer, he’s responsible for the stories the team chooses to cover. He’s also responsible for the bureau’s internship program and has “a bit more of a say” in hiring and training. He’s risen quickly at CBC. But in his own words, he’s pretty white-coded—“I don’t think you would look at me and assume I was Métis,” he explains—and hasn’t faced the same barriers as most BIPOC people in the industry.
Hinchey says that CBC North has centralized its structure in recent decades. It now looks “pretty cookie-cutter”—a southern-style outfit with northern content, although that content is increasingly geared toward a national audience. While the editorial direction comes from the north, the structure and output of CBC’s news reporting is decided in Toronto. That includes journalistic models as well as having a 30-minute English-language TV show, five daily radio newscasts, and web and social media traffic goals.
The new way of running things, such as southern-focused job descriptions requiring advanced degrees and years of experience, makes it hard for the next generation of Indigenous and northern voices to see themselves in CBC. “It falls further and further away from your average high school graduate in Fort Good Hope,” he says.
So, who is getting those jobs? Often, it’s southern journalists looking to gain experience for a few years, only to return back home. Jefferd-Moore says many southern journalists—especially young, white ones—come north to be a “big fish in a small pond.” She remembers a freelance journalist at the Canadian University Press’s NASH student conference describing the north as a good training ground.
But bringing great prospects in from the south, letting them season up for a few years, and then bidding them farewell is a flawed long-term strategy. You get great work out of them, but you don’t build up capacity in the local bureau. Instead, you start from scratch every four or five years. Hinchey says if you do four winters at CBC North, you get a T-shirt that reads “Graduate of the University of the North.” To Hinchey, the T-shirt gesture shows how CBC thinks of the north: as a place to do your time. Learn, and leave.
When racialized southern journalists come north, they often move on quickly, like their white colleagues—but not necessarily for the same reasons. Palak Mangat, a Ryerson grad from Ontario, is in the first generation of her family born in Canada. After internships at CBC Toronto and Queen’s Park, she worked at the Whitehorse Daily Star for about a year before returning south to work at Ottawa’s Hill Times. She couldn’t put down roots so far from family; her culture highly values staying close to home. With her northern experience, she says she might feel comfortable leaving Ontario for a place like Vancouver one day. Maybe her children, she thinks, would then feel comfortable making a permanent leap to the Prairies or the territories. For Mangat, getting more journalists of colour in the north is a multi-generational process.
Jackie Hong is a journalist of colour who has carved out a space in northern media. By one Whitehorse account, she was “the best reporter in town, full stop.” Another Ryerson grad from Ontario, Hong moved north in 2017 after a series of internships at the Toronto Star. Colleagues there often reminisced over drinks about their time in the Yukon; Hong thought it sounded magical. When a position opened up at the Yukon News, she applied. She was the News crime reporter from 2017 until November 2020, when she moved to CBC North, leaving a permanent, full-time position for a five-month contract, which eventually became a full-time position. After years working in print, she wanted to try something different.
One of her first impressions of the Yukon: how white it is. “Every time I walk into a press conference or walk into a courtroom, I’m very aware that I don’t look like anyone else in the room,” she says. She reels off just some of the microaggressions and racism she’s experienced: sources asking if she’s Japanese at the end of an interview; people hearing her last name as Hall, Hogg, or anything but Hong; even passersby yelling “Ni hao” or “Konnichiwa” at her in the street.
For the majority of her time at the News, Hong was the only person in the entire newsroom, including ads and production, who wasn’t white. She recalls often being asked to be the sensitivity reader for any story related to race, and as a queer reporter, she did double duty. She says the extra work was tiring and not in her job description.
Last summer, she reported on many Black Lives Matter stories, including one about a Yukon Energy employee who ripped down BLM posters in Dawson City. Although her experience is completely different from that of a Black woman, she felt obligated to be the sensitivity reader. “At least I’m a line of defence,” she says. “Maybe not the best line of defence, but a defence nonetheless, against something insensitive or wrong or unintentionally racist making it into the print.”
To support BIPOC reporters, both locals and newcomers, Hong says media organizations can start by providing racially informed mental health support services, such as phone counselling with professionals of colour who know what it’s like to deal with racism. In the long term, she simply wants to see more people of colour as editors and reporters—but in a four-reporter newsroom like the News, change happens slowly. Small newsrooms, she says, are caught in the middle—they have neither the heft of a CBC or Toronto Star, nor the nimbleness of a Narwhal, the magazine that recently hired her friend Julien Gignac, a treasured fellow BIPOC reporter, away from the News.
Pending institutional change, Hong also has personal coping mechanisms, including a WhatsApp chat where she and a few other people of colour in Whitehorse can “scream at things” in peace, and the Canadian Journalists of Colour Facebook group. She speaks Cantonese whenever she can—on the phone with her mom or with the handful of older Chinese Yukoners who stuff mailings in the print factory. She cooks Chinese food at home, using spices and ingredients she lugs home from visits to bigger cities. On special occasions, her mom ships her treats, like Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes.
Informal support groups help northerners, too. Saba Javed, 23, grew up in Whitehorse. As a woman of colour, she didn’t see herself in journalism until she left the Yukon. She started writing when attending the University of Toronto. While home from university in March of 2020, she hung out with Hong and other journalists and communications professionals. It was the first time she had been around young people of colour in the Yukon—a moment she describes as “one of the more profound experiences of my life.” She thinks the Yukon government’s student employment program, a popular, well-paying summer job option, should include positions at CBC and other newsrooms to encourage racial diversity in northern news.
Young northern journalists need both support and opportunity, says Jordan Konek. In 2018, Konek became the first reporter to speak Inuktitut on The National. A former reporter-editor and videojournalist at CBC North, he’s also acted as the executive director of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and is now the president of his own production company. He says the hardworking CBC Iqaluit team “perform miracles” to deliver news stories in both English and Inuktitut. The Inuk former host of Igalaaq, Madeleine Allakariallak, recently resigned after more than 20 years at CBC with a plea for better Inuit representation; she regularly translated English to Inuktitut on the fly, and says non-Inuktitut-speaking video editors had to edit Inuktitut interviews without understanding the content.
When I spoke with Konek while he was still working at IBC, he had just met with a group of several other Inuit arts and media organizations to discuss the future of media and how to get more young Nunavummiut involved in news. “For the first time ever, we met as a group that were led by no one else but Inuit,” he says. “And that was a proud moment.”
IBC makes all-Inuktitut television—“by Inuit, for Inuit”—broadcast on APTN and online. Monthly staff meetings are in Inuktitut, with different dialects coming together around the table. Konek grew up speaking only Inuktitut until Grade 7; these days, keeping the language alive is his priority. He wants his children to be able to understand his mother and grandmother. “I always remind [my family] how important the language is,” he says. “It’s always been an important part of who we are and our identity.” He also wants Canadians to learn about Nunavut’s rich history. When he was a student in Toronto, people often assumed that Nunavut was somewhere in Asia. He says Inuit history can be found online—IBC has extensive archives—“or by talking to northerners.”
In Inuit culture, you learn by watching and doing. Konek hopes to show youth that you don’t need a certificate or diploma to make it in the media. “There’s a lot of potential for Inuit that are wanting to do it, and they just need someone that will trust them,” he says. He plans to create a training program so young people can learn about writing, producing, hosting television, operating cameras, and managing social media without leaving home.
In the N.W.T., Garrett Hinchey agrees that improving northern journalism can be as simple as hiring more northerners and Indigenous journalists, particularly in decision-making positions. “There are a lot of great storytellers here,” he says. While they might not have all of the same qualifications as some southern journalists, they know the north and the communities they are serving.
That’s the driving force behind Hinchey’s work outside of CBC. Last year, he was named a Jane Glassco Northern Fellow in the Gordon Foundation’s policy and leadership development program for young northern Canadians. For 18 months, he’s been exploring how best to create pathways for northerners to represent themselves in media, so they’re no longer dependent on what he calls “southern, parachute-style journalism.”
One recent high-profile example of journalism written from an outside perspective is Catherine Porter’s 2019 New York Times story about Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset), Nunavut, entitled “Drawn from Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t.” The article described Kinngait as suffering from poverty, violence, and substance abuse—without seriously exploring the colonization that Inuit have endured. Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril described the story as “poverty and trauma porn” in a series of tweets, saying, “I am gutted by how bad this article is, and that I ever welcomed the author into my house. She arrived in the north …and…chose to reinforce stereotypes.”
Hinchey recalls another story about the importance of northern perspectives. A journalist, recently arrived in Yellowknife, saw a dog in a yard, chained to an old van with the doors open. The writer produced a story about irresponsible owners leaving dogs out in the cold. Later, another outlet interviewed the dogs’ owner. They were cold-loving huskies who loved their makeshift doghouse. “You can look at that through this southern lens and see this and go, ‘Jesus, that’s irresponsible. Why would you do that to your dogs? That’s cruelty,’” says Hinchey. “But you can look at it from a northern context and go, ‘Yeah, people build stuff out of weird crap up here all the time. And those are northern dogs that love being outside.’” The newcomer burned a bridge with the dog owner—and lost the trust of locals. “The community is looking at you and going, ‘Jeez, you don’t really understand what it’s like to live here.’”
That’s not to say that all southern journalists do bad work in the north, or that outsiders are unwelcome in northern journalism. Hinchey says his southern colleagues are good people and good journalists who care about what they do. “You don’t need to know everything,” he says. But you do need to seek out and understand the local context—“rather than just take your Toronto template,…your southern template, and just stick it on the north.”
Hinchey aims to get more northerners into journalism. But creating change is a slow process, especially within institutions like CBC.
“I couldn’t do it from the inside,” says Kaila Jefferd-Moore. After resigning from CBC, she’s thinking about how to get more northerners, specifically more Indigenous northerners, involved in media. In recent months, she, Hinchey, and a group of current and former journalists in the North have been getting together as a collective and talking about ways to make that happen. While northern youth might not think of journalism as a career for them, it’s a fairly reliable and well-paying way for northerners to find steady employment in a creative industry.
In school, Jefferd-Moore craved teaching by Indigenous and northern journalists. She still vividly remembers the one time she learned from a fellow Indigenous journalist during her time at King’s: interviewing Maureen Googoo, the founder/owner of Ku’ku’kwes News, the only Indigenous news site in Atlantic Canada, for a class assignment. The experience was affirming. Seeing yourself represented in journalism is powerful. “A lot of people look at what we do right now and see it as something unattainable because it doesn’t really look or sound like them,” says Hinchey. “It’s a bunch of southerners, wearing nice clothes, going on TV and talking about, you know, the territorial government’s latest policy of the day. But a journalism led by northerners could help people understand what’s important to them, and how it will impact their lives, democracies, and communities.”
In the collective, Hinchey sees an opportunity to redefine what journalism looks like in northern Indigenous communities—and, as a side benefit, help the wider world understand what it’s really like in the north.
“You can teach the skills of journalism,” says Jefferd-Moore, “but you can’t teach a Dene worldview, or an Inuvialuit worldview.” The northern experience, she says, can’t be learned on a four-month contract—or even in a year or two. It takes commitment to living in the north and becoming part of the northern community.
If Hinchey had unlimited money, his CBC would have a reporter based in every community; more programming and video work in Indigenous languages; and CBC North running its own journalism training program, actively recruiting talented kids from high schools and finding meaningful ways for them to contribute. CBC North would also have more autonomy, he says. But ultimately, his perfect world comes down to this: northerners telling northern stories.
Leonard Linklater knows northern storytelling. The operator of CBC’s Midday Café is a familiar voice on Yukon airwaves. Linklater’s godfather, Vuntut Gwitch’in elder Stephen Frost Sr., was a storyteller, too. He approached stories with respect, always thinking about whether they were his to tell. To Frost, says Linklater, “a story was a bigger thing, and your part in it is very small. Just like in the world, or in the grand scheme of things, you’re a very tiny speck in all of that, and we gotta realize that when we’re telling stories.”
Growing up in Inuvik, N.W.T., the Vuntut Gwitchin citizen learned from stories told by his Gwich’in family. “We had a lot of great teachings growing up,” he says. “We’d go to fish camp and my Uncle Abraham was there, Abe Thomas, and he’d sit with us in the evening and tell us stories.” Traditionally, during winters at the Arctic Circle, Gwich’in people would gather in large tents, spending weeks together while the winds blew at minus 40 or 50 degrees outside.
Linklater grew up listening to CBC. His father, Charlie Linklater, loved the news and was a dedicated reader of Time and National Geographic. “He never went to school in his life, but taught himself to read and write and do arithmetic,” he says.
Linklater considers himself lucky that neither he nor his father, who was Cree and Scottish-Canadian, attended residential school. “I grew up without [Indian] status, which means I didn’t have to go to residential school,” he says. “A lot of my friends did. A lot of them are dead.”
Where some see dysfunction in Indigenous communities, Linklater sees the processes of colonization and decolonization. “I don’t know if anyone knows about the path to get back to what it was like before, but that’s for generations to come,” says Linklater. “For me, I just try to do what I can.”
Linklater has worked for CBC since 2000, but he started out at the Yukon Indian News in the early 1980s. There, he was mentored in writing, editing, and photography by Bob Rupert, an associate professor at Carleton University. Together, they’d hit the road to find and report Yukon stories.
It was a busy era. Down the hall from the newspaper office in the Council of Yukon First Nations (then called the Council of Yukon Indians) building, negotiations were underway on Yukon First Nations’ modern treaties. Local journalists would stop by the paper to chat or catnap as talks ran long into the night. In 1985, Vic Istchenko, then the sole reporter at Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon’s (NNBY’s) new CHON-FM radio station, asked Linklater to join him. Linklater was shy and soft-spoken, but he quickly learned how to write for the ear and speak clearly enough for radio. They used grease pencils and razor blades to mark and cut the audio tape.
In 1988, NNBY produced a documentary about the traumatic effects of residential schools. People began talking more about the schools; the Indigenous-owned broadcaster had provided a powerful and necessary voice in a media landscape usually devoid of an Indigenous perspective. “Indigenous people have been here way before Western society, but we’ve grown up in a world where they don’t exist,” Linklater says.
Today, as Linklater plans his program and interviews, he thinks about the processes that have created that myth we live in. But he also thinks about the future—his daughters, his grandson, and the generations that will come after.
“Canadian society is living in a mystery, because they don’t know the history of this land,” says Linklater. He sees journalism—both traditional and new media—as an opportunity for young Indigenous people to tell their stories, educate, and entertain people. “And maybe work toward a better world together.”
For media organizations looking to hire more Indigenous reporters, he has some advice. First, educate yourself on the history of this land, and media’s role in it. Don’t act like you have all the answers. And then, he says, “I guess you gotta ask yourself, are you reflecting society back to itself? If you say yes, you are, then you should be able to point to the storytellers from any part of the world that represent that part of the world, and say, ‘Yep, we’re reflecting it.’ But most media can’t, because most of their makeup is of the dominant culture.”
In October 2020, CBC promoted Mervin Brass to be the first Indigenous senior managing director of CBC North. CBC North was also split from the Prairies into its own super-region: Brass will be reporting directly to CBC’s, well, top brass. He wants to see more Indigenous people at every level of CBC.
He’s starting off his tenure by meeting with staff at all levels in all three territories and asking what they need to succeed. “In my culture, I’m Anishinaabe. I’m Cree. And we have a person in the communities who are called oscapio,” he says, spelling out the word for me like the reporter he is. “They serve the community. And that’s the approach I use here, is that I’m a helper. I’m here to help people and be of service.” He especially wants to help youth grow their skills and confidence in entry-level positions so they can compete for technical and producer positions as they open up—and stay in journalism.
Growing up in Key First Nation in Saskatchewan, Brass was a huge fan of news, current affairs, and investigative shows. He was a curious teenager, but he sometimes wanted to drop out of school. His father was the chief of the band, and both parents pushed him to finish. By Grade 12, he was the only one of his Indigenous peers left in school. When he worked up the nerve to apply to journalism school at the University of Regina, he found his calling. But he was often the only Indigenous reporter in the newsroom. “Suddenly you’re the resource for the whole newsroom,” he says—and that can take a toll.
Brass says the media is an old institution created by white males, for a white male audience, and some things need to change. He says CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices—which were updated in 2010 and again in 2018—are being re-examined as we speak. He’s part of that examination.
“I feel that I have a huge responsibility to make things better. For our audience, for our staff, and for society,” he says. “I’m honoured by that. I don’t take that lightly.”
Hinchey and I spoke in November 2020; since then, there have been several changes at CBC. A newly created network team based in Yellowknife will file stories about all three territories for multiple platforms. The team consists of Inuk reporter Juanita Taylor, formerly host of Northbeat, and producer Kate Kyle, who is also a longtime CBC journalist. Hinchey says the new hires mean “we will have a voice in network coverage of the territories we didn’t have before.” He says CBC has also reaffirmed their commitment to reflecting northern news and voices on their network programs—and so far, they’re following through.
Since Jefferd-Moore’s Twitter run-in with Paul Hambleton and the JSPs, more than 100 CBC employees have called for a panel instead of a single director of JSPs. The call occurred in January 2021 after an arbitration found Manitoba CBC reporter Ahmar Khan was wrongfully terminated in a series of events following his tweets about former hockey commentator Don Cherry. In response to the call, Hambleton sent a letter to staff informing them that CBC will convene a “small cabinet of Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour who can advise my office on difficult calls…around race,” reported Manisha Krishnan in Vice World News.
When I asked CBC about how it is addressing racism in its newsrooms, spokesperson Chuck Thompson responded that the corporation has “many diversity and inclusion initiatives,” directing me to a two-page PDF released in December 2020. These include mandatory unconscious bias training for all staff, a program called Developing Diverse Emerging Leaders, and a target of 50 percent of new executive and senior management hires to be from under-represented groups. In July 2020, CBC launched “Be Heard,” a platform where employees can anonymously report acts of racism or microaggressions.
For now, Jefferd-Moore is still working in communications. In her downtime, she’s channelling her energy into the new northern journalism collective. She still remembers meeting Brass at journalism school in Halifax. “He really wants Indigenous northerners in his newsroom,” she says. “But in terms of how it will get done, I don’t know. I’m curious, also, to see how he pursues it.”
She adds: “It’s so incredible to see an Indigenous man in that position, but it’s not enough that he’s the only Indigenous man in that position,” she says. “Because when he fails, he has to represent so many other people….When one Indigenous person fails, all of us have failed. That is the way that society views these stories.”
“I have a lot of expectations,” she continues, “but I see the position he’s in, in its totality. I hope he can do the best he can.”
Garrett Hinchey says that it will take time and work to get to a point where northerners look at CBC and say, “That is something I can do. It’s close to me.” Time to go out, talk to creators, find spaces for their work, and pay them. To change the way CBC hires and recruits. “It feels like we’re at a bit of a turning point,” he says. “We’re right on the edge of that knife.”
About the author
Julia is a queer, cis settler who writes stories about people and the land. She has written for Canadian Geographic; Yukon, North of Ordinary magazine; the National Observer; and The Eyeopener. A CGS-SSHRC master of journalism student at Ryerson University, she was previously the outreach and communications director for the Yukon Conservation Society. Julia has an MSc in environmental change and management from the University of Oxford and a BAH in biology and the history of science and technology from the University of King’s College in Halifax. She loves reading, gardening, walking in the mountains, and swimming in cold lakes.