Robert J. Ballantyne
Carla Robinson and I are having lunch in an underground food court next to CBC headquarters on Front St. W. The food is appetizing enough, but both of us would rather talk journalism than eat.
“Do you want to hear my secrets of success?” she jokes as we sit down at a free table.
Actually, it’s sometimes difficult to hear Robinson over the din of the lunch crowd. She speaks in tones much quieter than the booming anchor voice she puts to great use on CBC Newsworld.
Robinson’s been with the cable news network for just 3 1/2 years and already anchors the high-profile CBC Morning newscast. At 30, she’s on the fast track for success at Newsworld.
And she’s also the only national anchor of aboriginal descent on the CBC.
I ask her if she’s faced any additional challenges at the network because of this.
“I used to feel pretty lonely,” Robinson confides. “I guess the longer I’m in my position, the less I see myself as the lone little native person at the CBC.”
She catches me off guard.
Television network news stars aren’t usually this honest. But Robinson is unaffected and continues to casually pick at her lunch, a Thai Plate of kebob chicken and rice.
Robinson was raised in Kitamaat, B.C., a northern coastal community with a population of 700. She is a Haisla and Heiltsuk Indian, and dreamed of becoming a journalist after she wrote an editorial for a high school assignment.
“I used to look outside at the ocean and feel so isolated,” she says of Kitamaat. “It felt like I lived on the edge of the world.”
These feelings started when she was 16. “I remember being with my cousin, and looking at the village across an inlet. I could see the end of the highway from where we were, and I told her that I want to explore the world.”
Her cousin responded by saying that she never wanted to leave Kitamaat.
“It was the first time I noticed I was different. I couldn’t wait to leave and travel that highway across Canada. And as much as I love my old home, I’m still not ready to go back.”
Robinson spent most of her youth longing for escape, and finally got her chance to leave Kitamaat after applying to several universities. She was accepted to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., but chose to go to Carleton in Ottawa after receiving a late acceptance into their Mass Communications program.
“I didn’t even know where Ottawa was at the time. I just knew it was on the other side of the country,” she says with a laugh.
She went on to get her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Western Ontario after graduating from Carleton. But it was an internship through Western that defined her as a journalist.
She was called in to speak with the news director on her last day of an internship at MCTV, a CTV affiliate in Sudbury.
“You don’t have what it takes, Carla,” he told her. “You’re a good storyteller but, like a lot of native women, you’re too gentle and don’t have enough edge.”
She was stunned, and when she left the station, she wept.
“I expected a pat on the back and maybe some points to improve on. But he said it in such a grandfatherly voice, telling me he was just trying to `spare me future disappointment.’ I believed him at the time.”
Robinson shakes her head and becomes a bit agitated by the memory. But she recovers quickly, and smiles to herself.
“I thought, `Fine, if you want aggressive, you’ll get aggressive!'”
The next year, she landed a reporting position with BCTV and later began working on an all-native current affairs program called All My Relations for the CBC.
Her reporting on All My Relations caught the attention of Tony Burman, who was the head of CBC Newsworld at the time, but only because Robinson practically chased him around the 1998 Banff Television Festival, until he finally agreed to look at her résumé and demo reel.
“I took her intervention as a very kind of positive initiative,” Burman says in an interview.
He was clearly impressed, though, and left a message on Robinson’s answering machine a few weeks later, suggesting she apply for an anchor position at Newsworld.
She got the job over 150 other applicants.
But when she was hired, Robinson was the only aboriginal anchor on the payroll at CBC. This has just changed recently, as Carol Adams was hired this season to anchor the Canada Now regional newscast in Yellowknife.
Robinson says that she would like aboriginals to be more visible on the CBC, but for now, she hopes that she’s “opening doors” for other aboriginals entering the broadcasting industry.
“You really have to be enterprising in journalism,” she says. “People think this business is all about opportunity – but the truth is you have to go out and get it for yourself.”
It’s been nearly two hours since we first walked into the food court. The lunch crowd has almost completely cleared out.
Robinson looks at her watch and gasps. She has to run to meet her fiancé and their 1-year-old son, Samuel Coltrane.
I notice she still has a piece of chicken and a plateful of rice left.
Hurriedly, she picks up her bags to head back to CBC headquarters. I think her life may get even busier as her profile continues to increase.
But I don’t tell her this. She has to get going.