It’s been just over a month since thousands rallied on Parliament Hill to protest against racism. I went to the march, and I felt the momentum, and I want to help keep the conversation going, but I’m also facing a life change: I’m leaving Ottawa, and my position as editor of Ottawa Magazine, to run a small business with my family on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. In my view, so much about the future of the magazine, and on traditional media in general, depends on a real commitment to a goal of racial equality. But what can I do as a departing editor?
Inspired by the honesty and vulnerability of other journalists, I went asking for help. The issue of race representation is top of mind for our company, and our publisher, Duncan Clark. I accepted that — despite the fact that I am biracial, and hold issues of racism very close to my heart — I could have done a lot more to feature the positive contributions of people in Ottawa’s racialized communities. From the stories we tell to the people who tell them, this is work that can foster equality. I want to help the next person do more.
So I went to leaders who have been outspoken on the issue of race representation in the media, and who know Ottawa, for their thoughts on how to shape the future of this 20-year-old publication.
It's June 2006, my 1st week hosting the @CBCOttawa drive home show. A dream job. My 1st permanent gig. I'm back in my hometown. A respected journalist in the newsroom says to my face I'm a token. I'm paralyzed. I say nothing. I vow that'll never happen again. #BlackintheNewsroom
— Adrian Harewood (@CBCAdrianH) June 8, 2020
Adrian Harewood’s tweet on June 8 inspired me because it seemed to simultaneously call out past failings and point to the kind of future we’re working toward. When I spoke to the CBC News anchor, who has 14 years of experience covering the city, he challenged the magazine to speak to a broader audience.
“The question is ‘who is this magazine for?’ It helps you understand how to bring [racialized people] in,” Harewood says. He noted the huge amount of untapped talent in the city, and suggested that finding voices in new communities “will ensure that your magazine will become what you want it to be, to mirror the city.” Looking at who isn’t at the table can be a directive in itself. Harewood recalls approaching CKCU over 25 years ago to suggest a day of all-Black programming. That bold effort introduced the campus station to new listeners who “felt they could participate there.”
Harewood was born in Ottawa, attended McGill University and then worked in Toronto. “Since I came back in 2006, Ottawa has grown up,” he says, painting a picture of a city that is cosmopolitan, worldly and eclectic, full of people with refined taste and an international outlook. “The real diversity in our city is not reflected in our media.”
I also spoke with David McKie. A broadcaster with 26 years of experience at the CBC, McKie was my teacher in journalism school at Carleton University—and one of the few non-white journalism instructors at the time. He still teaches at Carleton and at University of King’s College in Halifax, and is now deputy managing editor for the National Observer. He is spending more of his time these days talking about diversity in Canadian media.
I spoke to the Hill Times about the lack of diversity in the Canadian media.‘We’re finally realizing that we’re unafraid to speak loudly and publicly’: Black Hill reporters, editors weigh in on lack of diversity in Canadian media https://t.co/9OBG7SNQHP via @thehilltimes
— David McKie (@mckiedavid) June 22, 2020
McKie decries the reactionary approach to race representation. He recalls his years of working in news broadcasting, booking up to 15 guests a day: “There was always a call for more diverse voices, but it was always at the last minute.” He says when a source is not well-prepared for an interview there can be small weaknesses that can result in a segment that misses the mark. “These are all coachable things, but they don’t happen overnight, and if you rush things they end up a failure.”
“You need someone at the top saying this is a real priority,” says McKie. “The lack of diversity in the management ranks means you end up in the situation you’ve found yourself: yes, increase diversity, but do it in addition to all the other things that you have to do.”
I connected with Judy Trinh, who is one of our most trusted freelancers when it comes to finding fascinating stories, in particular stories about racialized communities. In 2017, she examined racism in the Ottawa Police Service through the voices of people who had felt the brunt of racial profiling, and in 2019 she revealed how development in the Heron Gate community was hurting immigrants. Having written for the magazine for over a decade, Trinh is committed to reporting from the field, speaking with people who can bring these stories to life.
— Judy Trinh (@judyatrinh) June 5, 2020
“The public gets a vibe that Ottawa Magazine is all about what’s trendy, cool and hip in development and restaurants, and sometimes that could feel exclusionary,” she says. “The stories I’ve written for Ottawa Magazine don’t fit in that category, and can be jarring in an aspirational lifestyle magazine. Readers might find it jarring or eye opening. They’re not really expecting Ottawa Magazine to touch on those issues, but the magazine can and should be part of the conversation. Systemic racism is all around us, it impacts where and how we live. When we build homes and recreational spaces, who are we building for? Do we see the faces of racialized Canadians and consider the cultural differences? Do we build homes for a typical nuclear family of two parents and two kids? Or is there room to consider building a home that houses multiple generations or is affordable to larger families in a vibrant neighborhood? NIMBYism isn’t just about limiting the size of a new build, sometimes it’s an unspoken code also for keeping the status quo and keeping others out.”
When asked what my successor at Ottawa Magazine can do to remain relevant in a city that is waking up to racism and what anti-racism looks like, she suggested regular dispatches would show a diverse range of individuals who are interested in the magazine’s popular subject areas, such as food and housing. “That may be an effective way to infuse race into discussions about how we design our city.”
Next I turned to Erica Ifill — economist, Hill Times columnist, and host of Bad & Bitchy podcast, which she co-founded with Erin Gee and Bailey Reid in 2017. After her op-ed that followed a Migos concert at Bluesfest that year, the Hill Times recruited Ifill to write for the publication. “I made a promise to myself that I didn’t get to the place I’m at to placate power,” says Ifill. “And if you’re in journalism and you’re not challenging power, I don’t know what the purpose is.”
— Erica Ifill (@wickdchiq) June 18, 2020
Her advice? Make connections with people of different communities. “There is a side to be chosen here, and you have to choose. Building those relationships is something an editor has to do.”
Beyond hiring more contributors of colour, she says that has to come with an environment of inclusion. “It’s not just about having people of colour; how are you promoting them? Are you stripping them of their identity in order for them to be included? Because that’s not inclusion, that’s window dressing.”
She follows Justin Trudeau’s speeches closely via the Hill TImes wire, and is taking every chance she can to insist on action. “We were promised transformational change, not performative BS. And if that’s my little part in this moment, then I’m proud to do it.”
“We’re in a moment — a second civil rights movement. And it’s not just about Black Lives Matter; it’s about economic inequality, it’s about Indigenous engagement.”
We have work to do. If we want to remain relevant we have to do a better job of reflecting the city. There are many stories to be told about systemic racism. In building our Ultimate Neighbourhoods website, I learned about a new working group exploring data collected by Ottawa Neighbourhoods Study, which will show the correlation between socioeconomic factors and race-based data. There’s a census coming, and this data, done right, can help inform policy. But Ottawa Magazine needs to step in, interpret, and show the people behind the numbers.
One small thing I will do before I officially leave the post is to develop a contributors’ guidelines page for our website, where we will outline our publication schedule and the kind of stories we are looking for. I hope this in itself will be an invitation to new contributors. Look for it in the weeks to come, and share it with people who want to make their voice heard. We’re listening.