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.