‘When did this story actually begin?’: Connie Walker’s quest to centre missing Indigenous women

Highlights from the award-winning investigative journalist’s keynote speech at Vancouver Island University.

This article contains details of violence, racism and hate toward Indigenous women. Please read with care.

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As a former CBC journalist and award-winning podcaster, reporter and producer, Connie Walker understands the world of storytelling better than most.

But it was one story in particular that marked a pivotal moment on her journey to become one of the most prominent and talented investigative journalists in Canada.

In a keynote speech at Vancouver Island University, as part of their Indigenous Speakers series on Nov. 22, Walker talked about how growing up, she was affected by the story of Pamela George and how it was reported in the media.

“Like most kids on my reserve, I was bussed into the local small town to go to school. I remember that I was in Grade 12 when I first heard about Pamela George,” says Walker, who is Cree and grew up on the Okanese First Nation reserve on Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan.

“Pamela was a young Salteaux mother of two. She was from the Sakimay First Nation, which is not far from where I grew up, but she lived in Regina with her two young children. Pamela died in 1995. She was beaten and left on a rural road outside of the city by two white men. Now I wasn’t a teenager who paid much attention to the news, but I knew about Pamela. It was a high-profile case that dominated the headlines in Saskatchewan, and also made national news. And as a young First Nations woman, I was keenly aware of the way that Pamela was spoken about in the media and how it differed from the way the two white men who were charged in her death were described.”

She then shares a quote from a news story that aired at the time: “The accused are young and clean cut. Steven Kummerfield, a basketball star. Alex Ternowetsky, a hockey standout. They come from middle-class families. The victim was Aboriginal and a prostitute.” 

Walker felt a keen sense of injustice around the way the case was being reported; she felt like she knew more about the murderers than she did about Pamela and her life.

“One of them hid in the trunk when they picked her up. And they admitted to taking her to a rural area outside of the city, sexually assaulting and beating her, and they abandoned her out there. Her body was found the next day. One of their friends testified that Kummerfield and Ternowetsky called him to brag about what they had done. He said they told him, quote, they got drunk, drove around and killed this chick. And that she deserved it. She was Indian,” says Walker. 

“At the time I remember wondering if there were any First Nations journalists working in the newsrooms that were covering the trial. And it was the first time that I thought about becoming a journalist.”

A black and white image of Pamela George shows her smiling face and long hair.
Pamela George was just 28 years old when she was murdered by Kummerfield and Ternowetsky. The two men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. The original source for this photo is unknown.

In the years since, Walker has pushed a variety of challenges — including resistance and ignorance from editors, like one who responded to a story pitch by saying, “This isn’t another ‘poor Indian’ story, is it?” — in her fight to cover Indigenous stories with compassion, context and depth. 

By around 2012, Indigenous representation in the media slowly started to shift, says Walker, citing an increase in the numbers of Indigenous journalists in newsrooms, the shift to digital media, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its Calls to Action directed at media, as primary factors.

That year, she worked as a producer and video journalist on what became a groundbreaking four-part documentary series called 8th Fire that aired on CBC and was hosted by Wab Kinew, which explored the theme of “Aboriginal peoples, Canada and the way forward.”

“The series was dedicated to exploring the relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada over the last 500 years. And this is key. It was told primarily using Indigenous voices. It was the first time in my career that that much time and resources — four hours on primetime television — was dedicated to telling our stories,” Walker says. 

“We interviewed Indigenous academics, artists and leaders, and we tried to be inclusive of the diversity in our communities. We included First Nations, Inuit and Métis from coast to coast to coast. I remember the night that the first documentary aired, and I still get goosebumps when I think of the feeling that I had, hearing Native people on TV with Native accents, sharing their truths and telling their stories.”

Connie Walker, right, in conversation with Nahlah Ayed.
After her speech, Connie Walker, right, answered questions both from CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed and from the audience present and watching from home online. Photo courtesy of Jenn McGarrigle/VIU

That show led to the development of what is now known as CBC Indigenous, and by 2015, when Walker covered the final TRC event in Ottawa, it was the biggest story in the country. In response to the TRC’s findings that directly linked the legacy of residential “schools” with the disproportionate violence that Indigenous women and girls face, Walker then helped the CBC start a database that focused on unsolved cases.

“Our goal was to raise awareness about the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls, but in a way that didn’t only focus on that violence that resulted in their death or disappearance,” says Walker.

“We wanted to show that, like Pamela George, every single woman and girl has a family that loves and misses them. The profiles in our database included photos, anecdotes of favorite memories, and for many of them, it was the first time their loved one’s story was ever mentioned in the media.”

The CBC Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls database, which Connie Walker helped produce, displays the faces and stories of the hundreds of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered.
The CBC Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls database, which Connie Walker helped produce, displays the faces and stories of the hundreds of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered. Screenshot from CBC News

This work led Walker to the creation of her first award-winning podcast series, Missing and Murdered, the first season of which focused on the unsolved murder of Alberta Williams, a 24-year old woman who was found in 1989 just off the Highway of Tears in Northern B.C.

When Walker attended a journalism conference in Saskatoon that was convened in the wake of the shooting death of Colten Boushie in the summer of 2016, she says she came to realize that a serialized podcast was an ideal way to do a deep dive on a story and “properly situate it in Canadian history.”

Called Reconciliation and the Media, the conference brought together journalists, editors and newsroom leaders to discuss the issue of Indigenous representation in the media.

“What I learned there changed the way I do my job. It changed the way I report on all Indigenous issues,” says Walker. “One of the keynote speakers that day was Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A former journalist, she understood the pressures we were all under in daily news. But she said that wasn’t a good enough excuse. She said that as journalists we needed to do a better job when covering stories about Indigenous people. She said, ‘Don’t skip the context. That’s the biggest trap I know for all working journalists, when time is of the essence. If you can’t explain it in this story, explain it in the follow up. Explain it. When did this story actually begin?’”

“When she said that, I thought about Alberta’s story. When did it actually begin? It wasn’t when she was killed in 1989. It wasn’t even when she was born. In a way, Alberta’s story, and every MMIWG story that I’ve covered began long before they died or went missing. All of their stories, all of our stories, are connected to a part of Canadian history that many Canadians don’t know,” she says. 

“They begin with the ’60s Scoop, with residential schools, with the Indian Act and with colonization. Marie Wilson said it’s our job as journalists to connect the dots to provide that context. To help people understand a part of our shared history that we weren’t taught in schools, a part of our history that has often been ignored or misunderstood by the media.”

Since then, Walker has been diving deep with her award-winning series, producing a second award-winning series of Missing and Murdered in 2018 called Finding Cleo, and, after her departure from CBC, a new series for Gimlet Media called Stolen: The Search for Jermain Charlo

For the next season of Stolen, Walker has decided to delve inwards, and over the last few months has been digging into her own father’s experience at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

“Although I’ve done so much reporting about survivors and intergenerational survivors, I had never asked my own father about his experience. I didn’t even know where he went to residential school or for how long. I didn’t truly understand how residential schools had impacted my dad’s life, and therefore my own,” she says.

“I think on one hand all trauma survivors, people who have been through trauma, there’s a tendency to want to avoid it and to not talk about it, understandably. And I think what has happened recently in the last few years with the work of the TRC and with the discovery [of unmarked graves] in Kamloops is that people are feeling that there’s a space to talk about it now in a way there hasn’t been. And that has been, for me, I think that it’s been… incredibly hard. It’s harder because I’m personally connected, obviously, to every person I’m interviewing and personally connected to what I’m learning,” she says.

“But I think it’s also been beautiful, in a way. And I feel so honoured to be hearing stories, hearing my family’s truths and hopefully giving them the space to share it in a way where I hope they feel respected and safe.”

Walker’s keynote speech and her question and answer session with CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed will be broadcast on the show this winter.

VIU’s Indigenous Speakers Series is an annual event delivered in partnership with CBC Radio One’s show Ideas, and aims to further the dialogue on truth and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. [end]

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