Unpacking Canada’s cruel history: lessons from a Pulitzer-winning podcast

Connie Walker, investigative journalist and podcast host
25th October 2023
13:00 - 14:00

The speaker

Connie Walker is a Canadian Indigenous investigative journalist and the host of Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's, a ground-breaking podcast produced by Gimlet which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award in 2023. The show follows Walker as she unearths how her own family was impacted by one of Canada's darkest chapters: the residential school system. 

The residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples which was funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches. The system was created to isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and religion and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. For more than 100 years, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools, where many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. 

In this seminar, Walker will share what she learnt when reporting the story and reflect on the issues raised by the show. Walker grew up in the Okanese First Nation and has worked for Canadian public broadcaster CBC, where she produced several investigative podcasts.

Read a live, automated transcript.

Watch Connie's talk


Four takeaways from the talk and discussion: 

1. Reporting on personal stories can add depth. Walker’s award-winning podcast recounts the abuse her father experienced at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. "I have done reporting on residential schools, but at the start of this story, I didn't even know which school my dad went to. So at the very beginning, it was really just like a personal quest, the daughter trying to make sense of her father," she says. 

When there are personal connections to a story, journalists are able to explore the complexities of the issue and heighten the impact of their reporting. “For me, it was important to to share my own experiences with childhood sexual abuse because it was part of telling the bigger story of how this continues to impact families and communities,” she says. “I felt comfortable doing that because of the agency that I had in the telling of this story that I knew that this was not something that was sensationalised in any way, that this was something that we were taking care of, in terms of reporting on and we were trying to be as sensitive as we possibly could.”

2. For stories of trauma, journalists must tap into empathy. Reporting on a difficult subject like residential schools can involve asking interviewees to recount traumatic experiences. Walker says it is important to take empathetic steps as journalists to make sure you are not causing more harm. “One thing that we were deliberate about as a team was not asking for specifics about any kind of abuse or trauma, or if people were feeling like they were not comfortable talking about something, we never pushed,” says Walker. 

She also points out that reporting these kinds of stories takes more time than usual and journalists shouldn’t have an expectation that interviewees will open up immediately. Thus, patience and care is required when asking people to recount their traumatic past. “Continuing to check in on people is something that we prioritised following those interviews,” says Walker. 

3. Addressing legal and logistical difficulties of doing this kind of reporting. “We wanted to be able to name these alleged abusers, but for legal and journalistic reasons, we had to make sure that we could be comfortable with the legal risk that is associated with naming people who have not been convicted of crimes because there was never any police investigation,” said Walker. Due to the nature of the podcast, which addresses institutional failings by the Catholic Church and the federal government of Canada, uncovering and fact-checking survivor’s recountings of abuse was challenging. Walker mentioned that the lack of police reports and written documents is not uncommon when it comes to abuse of children at residential schools. However, the team addressed this logistical hurdle in a different way. “Survivors started coming forward in the 1990s and early 2000s with their experiences in residential schools and suing the Canadian government and the Churches for the abuse they experienced,” she explained. “We were able to access some of those lawsuits and that's how we were able to report what we did.” 

4. Chosing the right format for the story. Podcasting allows audiences to feel more empathy and connection to the story, which is why Walker continues to choose it as her preferred format for reporting. "With podcasting, you have the ability to be immersed in a world that allows for connection points, empathy, and to counteract the stereotypes that exist," Walker said.

She also points out that many interviewees might feel more comfortable without the gaze of the camera and the logistics of TV broadcasting while at the same time, audio is a more accessible format for journalists to explore as it only needs a recorder and a microphone. "One of the things I love about the [audio] format is that there is this intimacy because you're hearing someone's voice like it's in their ears, like you're taking them, like they're in your house," she added.

The bottom line 

Reporting on traumatic and difficult subjects requires an enormous amount of care and empathy from journalists, particularly when asking interviewees to recount their experiences. With her award-winning podcast, Walker was able to intertwine her own personal experiences and identity with the bigger story of residential school abuses in Canada. That, coupled with the podcasting format itself, allowed for more intimate and impactful reporting. 

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