Interview: Connie Walker on the power of a single story

Canada’s foremost Indigenous journalist talks about covering missing and murdered Aboriginal women, the painful legacy of residential schools, and the importance of personal stories
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on November 17, 2016
journalist Connie Walker
Connie Walker: “It’s so important to reflect the diversity within our communities in order to challenge the stereotypes that people have about Indigenous people.” (Photo by Nam Kiwanuka)

Comments

X

When Connie Walker was in grade 10 or 11, she wrote an editorial, published in her local paper, about Pamela George, a young Indigenous mother who was murdered in Regina by two white university students.

“The trial was so contentious,” recalls Walker, “because they were two white guys and there was so much made [of the fact] that she was a sex worker. And they didn’t talk about her family. I felt like I didn’t hear their voices, I didn’t hear that she was a mother. There was some really inflammatory language used, like, ‘keep in mind she was a prostitute,’ when it came to the jury considering whether she had engaged in consensual sex or not. And I remember feeling so enraged that our voices were not included.”

Years later, Walker had become a journalist and made her way to the CBC. A young woman, Alicia Ross, had disappeared in Markham; the story was covered by local, national, and international press. Back in Walker's home province of Saskatchewan, a young woman she had known, Amber Redman, had disappeared as well — but that story wasn’t making headlines. Walker noted the disparity between the coverage. She thought, "Why are we covering one more than the other?"

She pitched the story to her executive producer, who responded, “This isn’t another poor Indian story, is it?”

Walker felt as if she had been punched in the gut. And while she never got the opportunity to tell Redman’s story, in the past 10 years Walker has led the charge in covering countless similar cases. In the process, she has become the face of Indigenous journalism in Canada.

Walker's first major Indigenous project was CBC’s 8th Fire documentary series, which addressed the relationship of the Indigenous community to the rest of Canada. The show challenged stereotypes and celebrated Indigenous culture. In 2013, CBC asked her to pitch further ideas. The upshot was the creation of CBC Aboriginal, now CBC Indigenous, a hub for First Nations coverage from across the country.

And while Redman’s and George’s killers were eventually found and convicted, there are thousands of Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered and whose ultimate fates remain unknown: about 1,200 cases according to the RCMP, though activists suggest it could be closer to 4,000. To help call attention to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in particular, Walker helped compile a database of more than 250 unsolved cases of Indigenous women who had died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Most recently, Walker launched a podcast, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? to much acclaim.

"For me, it’s almost like now there is this appetite, that now there is this interest, it’s a relief. I want to exclusively be doing these stories. Maybe it will change in five or 10 years. But for right now, I feel like it’s a crucial time for people who have the context and the understanding of these issues to be the ones who are helping to tell these stories.”

Last October, while covering the federal election, Walker received an email. It was right before lunch and she didn’t recognize the sender but the subject line jumped out at her — it was just a name. The email was only one sentence long, and it was sent by a now-retired RCMP officer.

 “She was murdered by [redacted].”

Months later, Walker and her team flew to British Columbia to try to piece together the story of what had happened to a woman named Alberta Williams.

Williams had been murdered in 1989, in Prince Rupert, B.C. She had gone to a bar with her sister Claudia to celebrate their last day at the cannery where they had been working for the summer before returning home to Vancouver. She was never seen again alive. Her body was found on what’s become known as the Highway of Tears one month later.

Over the arc of eight episodes, Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? retraces the young woman’s final moments, using her specific story as a window into much broader issues.

“I wish we had done the treatment [on other missing and murdered Indigenous women], because in all of these stories, they are so many similarities. And I think that it’s about trying to show people how the loss of these women still affects their families … how it still impacts their community, and how this hope for justice never fades.”

Walker says she imagines non-Indigenous families who have experienced similar tragedies have the same kinds of reactions — the long-lasting grief and the inextinguishable hope — "but I think for the Indigenous experience it’s compounded by the fact that, for a long time, society has been indifferent to these stories."

In this week’s episode, Walker talks about her own experiences: about being a child and watching her father attack her mother and about her family's history with the residential school system.

Her grandfather, she says, “didn’t talk a lot about what happened to him at residential school. He told me one memory,” recalls Walker. “That he was very close to his grandfather. And that when his grandfather died, he remembers he wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. That he had to stay at the residential school … that he [hid under] the stairs and that he was crying.

“It just broke my heart to think of my grandfather as a child who had been taken away and forced to live away from his family that he loved and who loved him" — and here she pauses for a long while — "because people didn’t believe he should be Native. You should be assimilated and you should not be allowed to be who you are.”

Walker emphasizes that these issues aren't distinct: they are all pieces of the same puzzle. "The issue of missing and murdered women is connected to residential schools; the issue of child welfare is connected to residential schools. And all of these things are interconnected.”

Walker says it isn't only the journalism that matters — which stories are getting told — but the range of journalists doing the telling. “I’m in a place in my career where I can talk about this issue, but also talk about it in a way that relates to me and my story,” Walker says. “At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Sinclair said there isn’t a single Indigenous person or Aboriginal person in the country who’s not affected by residential schools. By including my own personal story, I wanted to show how true that is.”

 Walker says that while it’s important to celebrate the increase in Indigenous stories in the media, she worries they’re still largely conflict- and crisis-based. 

“It’s so important to reflect the diversity within our communities in order to challenge the stereotypes that people have about Indigenous people,” she says. “We have to actually show the reality of life for Indigenous people in Canada — and that includes the diversity, that includes the celebration of success, that includes the celebration of culture — to show that we’re real people with complex issues and complex experiences."

As I thank Walker for her time, I tell her that I learned about residential schools by following her on Twitter. I tell her that no one would ever allow something like the residential schools to happen again.

“There are more kids in care in child welfare now than during the height of residential schools,” she replies. “It’s happening now. People are like, if we had known about residential schools, we would have done something. But child welfare, this is a crisis that’s happening right now."

Author