Robert J. Ballantyne
It’s been a great few weeks for CBC journalist Connie Walker. She’s been winning awards for her work alongside the public broadcaster’s news team for reporting on the unsolved cases of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women.
In recent years, Walker has reported extensively on indigenous issues, founding CBC.ca’s popular Aboriginal portal and often leading CBC TV’s The National with her heartbreaking reports on missing and murdered women. As a Cree from Saskatchewan’s Okanese First Nation, Walker not only has a personal motivation to tell the stories of these women, but has long-advocated behind the scenes for these stories to be told during her more than 15-year career at the CBC.
So now, with multiple awards in hand, and the second phase of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls soon to be announced, we thought it was good timing to check in with Walker. We caught up with her near the end of a work day at the CBC Toronto headquarters.
Tell us about some of your latest projects at the investigative unit.
For the last year, we’ve been looking into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. It was almost a year ago now that we launched a database featuring unsolved cases that we compiled from across the country — over 230 women’s names whose cases are still unsolved. Last year, we told a number of the women’s stories on a bigger level. I traveled to northern Manitoba and I did a story about Leah Anderson and I spoke with her family and talked to people in her community. We’re continuing those investigations now. The project has recently won a couple of awards, which is really exciting, especially because I think it’s really renewed [CBC’s] commitment to help us tell these stories — and it’s an issue that’s really important to me.
And how many of these cases have you profiled on TV?
So we did Leah’s story last year and then we did another story about Amber Tuccaro shortly after that. Then, there were a number of shorter news stories throughout the year where we talked to other family members. So quite a bit. The amount of attention this issue has gotten has changed dramatically in the last year.
I remember that I pitched my first missing and murdered indigenous women story in 2005, when a girl that I knew from back home had gone missing and it was the same summer that Alicia Ross went missing in Toronto. I’m not sure if you remember, but Alicia Ross was a young woman from [Markham, Ontario] and she was this beautiful, blonde-haired woman who was on the front page of all of the newspapers for days and led the national newscasts. Her body was found and eventually someone was charged in her murder. I remember thinking, at the time, that I didn’t understand why Amber’s story wasn’t being told… there were so many similarities in their cases.
And you had a personal connection to Amber?
I coached my sister’s volleyball team with my cousin for the Saskatchewan Indian Winter Games for four years, and Amber was on our team for one of the years. I didn’t know her very well, I just remembered that she was one of our girls. She was a shy, quiet girl, so when she went missing all of those years later, I was really upset by it.
Ten years ago, it was more difficult to get these stories on the air. Why didn’t those stories get told back then?
I think that there wasn’t a recognition that there was an interest or an appetite in these stories. When I pitched Amber’s story, the response by a certain [CBC] producer at the time was, “This isn’t another poor Indian story is it?” And I remember feeling like I had been punched in the gut. I honestly don’t remember what I said after that or how the meeting ended, except obviously it didn’t go well. And I did end up addressing that with the producer again at a certain point and there were apologies and all of the rest. I think what’s changed in the past few years is the digital landscape — that’s really helped shift things in such an accelerated way. We did 8th Fire in 2012, and a huge part of that documentary series that aired on CBC Television was a digital component. It was the first time where there was an immediate reaction to what we had done, which was visible online, and we were communicating with people in real-time about what was happening on the screen… it was the first time that there was visual proof that there was this audience out there that was interested in these stories and it was my inspiration for CBC Aboriginal.
You were the visible component of CBC Aboriginal for many years, like you were at the CBC youth consumer show Street Cents. I know you’re at the investigative unit now, but can we talk about Street Cents? The show was shot in Halifax, right?
It was based in Halifax, but they shot across the country. I did one season in Halifax and they asked me to move to Toronto and I did three seasons from Toronto after that.
And how did you get that gig? That was every teenager’s dream, I think.
It was a total fluke (laughs). I was an intern at CBC in Halifax. I think it was 2000. I was working as a chase producer for CBC Morning and I was out in the parking lot having a cigarette one afternoon when I met one of the producers of Street Cents. She just came up to me and said, “Hi, I’ve seen you around the building. Who are you and what are you doing?” I don’t remember much about the conversation, except when she said, “We’re looking for a new host. Would you like to audition?” And I said sure. Really, that’s how it happened! I auditioned and I guess I didn’t do terribly and I ended up getting the job.
That’s how the magic happens in journalism, right? You just stand there and someone says you can be a host.
(Laughs) I was clearly a great role model for kids, sitting in a parking lot having a cigarette. (Pause) I’ve since quit smoking.
Good, good. That’s good to hear!
I never smoked on camera!
Yes, that would be a bad move for a youth show. It’s been quite the journey for you, and it’s all been at the CBC.
I haven’t left.
Good news lately for the CBC — lots of money returning. Has there been a cultural deep breath and exhale from everyone? What’s it like there now?
I don’t know if I’m a good gauge for that. I haven’t noticed. I don’t know, I feel like I’m in my little corner here. I’m really just focusing on what I’m doing today and tomorrow and next week.
That’s the thing about investigative, your whole world is one story — that we’ll find out about soon I’m sure — and many, many months of behind the scenes work. You tend to get lost in it, no?
I know, it’s like an iceberg in some ways. I remember that with one of the stories we did last year, where we had been researching and researching and then what you end up being able to actually put on air… just felt like the tip of the iceberg.
There are so many different-coloured threads to pull on. You have to choose one ball of yarn, essentially.
Yeah, exactly. And as a knitter I appreciate that analogy.
Have you had time to knit?
Yeah, I’m really big into sewing and knitting and quilting. Knitting is actually amazing for helping you to de-stress. You have to concentrate on it and you can’t think of anything else. I have a three-year-old and the things I make for her are small so they get done quicker!
Any idea on when we can see your next story? Is there a timeline?
Definitely in April. It’s been really great to be able to re-focus and do some more of the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women. Obviously, with the national inquiry coming up, it’s going continue to be something that people are going to be talking about. I think that there’s just so much more to shed some light on, and to help people understand the issues that are at play.