In Conversation with CBC’s Connie Walker

CBC Missing and Murdered(Credit: CBC)

When Connie Walker spots a void, she doesn’t wait for someone else to act. In 2012, her work on the television documentary 8th Fire helped spur the creation of a unit at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covering indigenous issues, the first of its kind. And in 2016, unafraid to test a new medium, Walker released the first season of her acclaimed podcast series Missing and Murdered, which focuses on missing and murdered indigenous women and children in Canada.

Missing and Murdered broke ground not only as the CBC News’ first investigative podcast, but as a creative blend of genres. The show is at once a true crime series, a history of indigenous life in Canada, and a deeply felt personal narrative. In the podcast’s most recent season, “Finding Cleo,” which won Best Serialized Story at Third Coast this last year, Walker navigates a complicated family history while using her own identity as a Cree woman to inform her reporting on a decades-old mystery involving both Canadian and American child services. Walker’s ability to weave seldom-taught history into her true crime stories brings a much-needed component to a genre that can often be exploitative for the sake of entertainment. As a veteran public media journalist and recent podcaster, Walker gave me insight into journalism across mediums, and the following interview is one I believe should be required reading in the field.

Could you start by telling me about your work on CBC Indigenous?

I helped start the unit back in 2012. I was working on a documentary series at CBC called 8th Fire, and it was the first time we did an in-depth look at indigenous issues. It was a four-part series that examined the relationship indigenous people have with the rest of Canada, told largely by indigenous voices. That was a transformative project to be working on as a journalist, and the series resonated with an indigenous audience that, up until that point, had been largely ignored in mainstream media.

Following the show’s success, we were inspired to create CBC Indigenous. At first I was the only reporter in the unit along with a senior producer, but we were lucky because we could leverage the work that our indigenous colleagues across the country were doing. Our job was to gather all of the content from across the network and supplement that coverage with the kinds of stories we felt were missing from mainstream news at that point.

I don’t think anyone expected us to be as successful as we were. I certainly didn’t. But we were able to prove within a short period of time that there was an audience interested in stories from indigenous communities. And that snowballed into me becoming a senior reporter in the investigative unit, focusing solely on indigenous issues. A few years later, I began focusing specifically on missing and murdered indigenous women, which led to the podcast. While I’m no longer involved with it, the indigenous unit now has 10 reporters across the country.

That’s amazing the unit expanded so much. The documentary 8th Fire — that’s a film, correct?

Yeah, that was for television. I mean, I’m not really an audio person. I worked for CBC for 15 years before we started the first season of Missing and Murdered. Before that, I hadn’t even done a radio documentary before.

You’re not alone in coming to podcasting from a different background. How did you approach the podcast format?

Well, like everyone, I listened to Serial and got totally wrapped up in it. I found it really compelling that they had the space to dive deeply into a single story. At that point, though, I had zero audio experience. I didn’t necessarily think, “Oh, I should do a podcast.” But when we were doing our first investigations into the unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, it was something that Marnie Luke and I thought of fairly early on. We were investigating the unsolved murder of a 15-year-old girl named Leah Anderson, in her remote community in northern Manitoba. It’s a fly-in town, only accessible by an ice road in certain parts of the winter. But when Leah was killed, the ice road wasn’t even open. So when the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] landed in her community to investigate her murder, it’s very likely that the killer was still in the community.

I had heard about Leah’s case not because it had gotten media coverage, but because her aunt had posted a photo on Facebook. It was a picture of Leah taken just a few weeks before she died. She was standing in front of a Christmas tree, and alongside the picture was a little paragraph, written as though it was Leah speaking. “Hi,” it said, “my name is Leah Anderson. I’m 15 years old and I loved my life. I love my family. I was murdered — please help my family find my killer.” That post really grabbed me, in large part because there wasn’t any attention being paid to the case.

So Marnie and I went up to look into her story. From the very beginning, I think our work tried to go beyond the statistics. We didn’t want to focus on the violence. We wanted to try and tell the bigger story about every single woman and girl—how they have a family and a community that loves them, misses them, and is still searching for justice. And that was absolutely true.

We were up there for five or six days, and we ended up doing a television piece for the CBC’s nightly news broadcast. It was 13 minutes long, quite in-depth for TV, and we also did a long online story. I remember being glad that her story would be given so much attention, but I also felt a bit frustrated that we were barely scratching the surface on some of the bigger issues that were really important in Leah’s life: the fact that she was involved in the child welfare system, that her father had died a traumatic and violent death when she was a kid, and that she was one of the thousands of indigenous children in Canada who don’t have access to education.

There were so many important issues that we weren’t able to include. Not to mention the fact that her community didn’t have access to the same things that the people in the south of Canada do. There are issues with accessing clean water and proper sewage, basic services that the rest of Canada doesn’t even think twice about. So I think that was the first time we thought doing about a podcast, but it wasn’t until we started looking into the Alberta Williams story that we really knew that it was the best format.

Tell me about the Alberta Williams story. When did you start looking into the case?

Looking back I can see all the building blocks and where they began, but the reality is that when we set up the Alberta Williams story it was supposed to be a two-minute TV segment. Marnie and I went out to British Columbia to interview Alberta’s sister, Claudia, who was with her on the night that she disappeared back in 1989. We were also going to interview the police officer who had sent in a tip about Alberta’s murder, and then we thought we could track down the person that he named as a suspect. So we went in with the idea to do all of that. But while we were there, we just kept hearing from people who were grateful that someone was finally looking into Alberta’s story and kept coming forward with information, people who said, “Have you talked to this person yet? Because he was there that night and he was sleeping in the back bedroom and he said he might’ve seen something and you really need to talk to him.” It was a yarn that we kept following.

So instead of flying back to Toronto, we flew up to Northern British Columbia and started talking to people who had never spoken to the police about what they knew about the weekend Alberta went missing. We eventually uncovered a whole other scenario that police had never investigated. We came back and we pitched the idea of doing a podcast instead of a quick news bit. It took some convincing because neither of us had very much audio experience, and this was the first time CBC News had ever done an investigative podcast. When we got the green light to move ahead, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. This was in June or July, and we talked about launching in October. We were like, “Oh yeah, we can do that. We can definitely do that,” without having any idea the amount of work we were signing up for and how long it actually takes to properly produce a podcast. But it was kind of amazing. It was great. I’m really glad that we didn’t know what we’re getting into.

Were there lessons you learned in the first season of Missing & Murdered that you felt you could apply in future seasons?

Well, there was a point during the Alberta Williams season when we knew the podcast could be about the bigger issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. But I don’t think we had the deliberate idea at that point that we needed to include the larger context of Canadian history. It wasn’t until I was writing episode four, where we talk about residential schools and the generations of indigenous kids who were taken away from their families to attend these schools where the goal was assimilation—where they were not allowed to speak their language, and where they were not allowed to see their families for months on end. Some kids went to a residential school and then didn’t come home until six or seven years later. And not only were they stripped of their culture and language, but so many also experienced horrific physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in these schools, and often didn’t have access to adequate shelter or food.

As an indigenous person myself, I grew up learning that history because I saw the legacy of it my entire life. My father is a residential school survivor. My grandparents were in residential school, too. But the reality is that this history hasn’t been taught to most Canadians until very recently.

When I was writing that episode, I went to a conference where one of the keynote speakers was Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and she was speaking to a room full of journalists. She herself is a former journalist, and she kind of chastised everyone in the room, saying, “You’re not doing a good enough job at connecting the dots for people. This is our job as journalists. And I know that we never have enough time and we always have all of these pressures on us every day. But if you can’t connect the dots on this story, don’t skip the context. And if you can’t do it in this story, do it in the next one.” She said we should all be asking ourselves “When did this story actually begin?” when doing any story about indigenous communities. I thought about that when I was talking about Alberta Williams because, really, her story began a long time before she disappeared that night in 1989. The legacies of residential schools, the history of the relationship between the RCMP and indigenous communities, and the experiences of colonization, that is all part of Alberta’s story, and that is part of Cleo’s story. It became clear that we needed to include that context and that bigger history in our podcast.

There’s this idea of “traditional reporting,” where the reporter is supposed to be entirely objective and not present in the story. But something special about your show is you are a character in it. I wanted to ask you about that, and what you think the importance is of having an indigenous woman tell these stories.

I absolutely think that my own experiences as a Cree woman inform every aspect of my life and every aspect of my work as well. That’s why I wanted to become a journalist. I grew up in a reserve outside of a small town near Regina, which is the capital of Saskatchewan. And when I was in high school, a young indigenous woman named Pamela George was killed in Regina. I remember the coverage of the trial and how these two white university students, eventually charged for manslaughter, were portrayed in the media. It was mentioned heavily that these two young men were going to university, while so much was made of the fact that George was a sex worker — as opposed to hearing about the fact that she was a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a human being.

I wasn’t able at that point to really articulate all of the reasons why it made me feel terrible. But I remember feeling like we needed to be heard. Our voices need to be heard, and I remember feeling that they weren’t. That was part of the reason why I wanted to become a journalist. And for a long time in my career, there wasn’t interest in stories from our communities or in the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. I remember pitching my first story 10 years before we started doing any of this and having an executive producer stop me and say, “This isn’t another poor Indian story is it?” There just wasn’t an interest in stories from our communities.

So this is why I wanted to become a journalist, and I think because of the lived experience that I have I obviously approach things in a different way. I have an understanding about the role of trauma and how it impacts indigenous families in communities across the country. I’m in a better position to connect the dots and to tell stories. I think that’s true for any journalist. We’re all bringing our lived experiences to our work, and while we talk about objectivity the reality is that so much of journalism is subjective. From the stories we choose to tell, to the people we choose to talk to, to the questions that we ask. This is particularly important when we’re talking a lot about fake news and about trust in journalism. Transparency is one of the biggest tools that we can use to help restore trust in media and journalism. So I think podcasting is really a natural place to be. It’s as transparent as possible, because, exactly as you say, the narrator or the journalist is also a character in the story, guiding the audience along. In its very nature, an investigative podcast is in-depth, it’s completely immersive.

I’m just naturally drawn toward that kind of storytelling. I think there’s something about television and other kinds of traditional forms of broadcast news, where, by saying at the end of your piece, “Connie Walker, CBC News,” there’s this space between yourself as a human being and yourself as a reporter. But in the podcast I had no qualms with being transparent and open about our decision-making process and how we approach things. I’m really glad that I’m given the space to explore that in my work, and I hope that more journalists can find ways to do that and I think they are. I know I’m not the only person to do this kind of reporting, but for me it’s really important and I think that this is also why diversity in newsrooms is so important. When covering stories about immigration or child welfare or violence against silenced and marginalized communities, we must have those voices offering their perspectives and connecting the dots in meaningful ways.

There’s a delicate balance when making a riveting true crime podcast that’s also ethical and respectful. How do you navigate that in your work?

That’s a tough question. I think it’s all about the approach, right? What we’ve tried to do in all of our reporting, even before the podcast, was be respectful of the families at the center of these stories. Because these stories have been ignored by mainstream media for so long, there’s often a mistrust in indigenous communities. People worry about how they’re going to be presented, and whether or not people will be exploitative of their stories. Again, because I have that lived experience, my main goal is not to do more harm, and that’s something I took away from the first season of Missing and Murdered.

We had never done that kind of in-depth reporting before, spending months with a family and getting to really know them. We could see firsthand how traumatic it was to bring up this terrible event that they had gone through so many years ago. I could see how that was affecting them, but also how essential they felt it was to get justice for Alberta. So when talking with Cleo’s family, I wanted to make sure that we were being as sensitive and as respectful as we possibly could. This is their life, and something that they’re still living.

Our goal is to try to help amplify their voices and be respectful of them while doing it. So I think that that’s our general approach. I get our podcast is called Missing and Murdered, and I think that part of its success is that the series is lumped in with other true crime podcasts and that the central question of each season is “Who killed Alberta Williams?’ Or “Where is Cleo?” But we don’t focus on the violence and we try not to sensationalize the traumas that does these families are living. But to be honest, the fact that we’re a true crime podcast has really helped us reach an audience who isn’t necessarily interested in these issues. You can use “true crime” as a tool, a narrative form that allows you to tell these incredibly important stories in a gripping way. The central question I’ve always been interested in is, “How do we get people to care about things? Well, I’m making the argument that these kinds of investigative podcasts are the perfect way.

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Sophia Steinert-Evoy is Podcast Review’s Interviews Editor. She has worked on The Organist podcast from KCRW and Citations Needed. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.