How Storytelling Can Also Heal...Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's
Connie Walker won the two biggest awards in journalism last spring…but the real win was the door it opened to a frank and honest discussion about Truth and Reconciliation
As part of the week of Truth and Reconciliation Day, September 30, I want to honour the work of Connie Walker and share these groundbreaking stories with you. This is the third year that Canada has recognized this as a National Statutory holiday. HERE is a list of resources. And to donate to a NTCR-supported fund click here.
Last spring, Connie Walker made history when she won both of the top honours in journalism: A Peabody Award and a Pulitzer Prize, for the second season of the podcast Stolen: Surviving St. Michaels.
This series, produced by Gimlet Media, was the fourth podcast series that she had reported and hosted since 2016.
Prior to Gimlet, Connie worked for the CBC for almost 20 years, primarily in Investigative TV News. Podcasts were just her side gig at CBC, a special project done as an experiment. (At the bottom, I will share a playlist of the series that Connie has made, along with two excellent interviews that feature Connie)
This week, as part of the journey towards Truth and Reconcilliation Day, which is recognized tomorrow, September 30, I want to share this podcast as Required Listening…because it not only shares this story with the world, but it does so in a way that opens the pathway to sharing these stories.
But most importantly, Connie Walker tells these stories in a way that promotes healing. Her story untangles to some very nuanced and difficult chapters to the story of centuries of institutionalized racism, colonization and abuse.
She not only talks about what happened, but then why it happened, and then even goes to the end of the road to confront the accused oppressor herself. Episode 6 has stayed with me on a very deep level. The courage, the tenacity and the bravery to do this is unparalled.
Her early work at CBC led to the founding of an entire news unit, CBC Aboriginal, for Indigenous News and Current Affairs in 2013. After Finding Cleo, she completed a fellowship at the Dart Center for Investigative Journalism, where she realized it wasn’t just war zones that cover trauma; it was also Indigenous reporters who faced trauma while reporting in their communities. And then when she moved to Gimlet in 2020, she convinced them to fund her and an entire team to follow a story about an Indigenous man, her father, from Saskatchewan.
Her work following stories that mattered to her led her to convince the Mother Corp to create brand new silos in an institution not known to make radical changes;
She went to another Mothership of journalism, Columbia University, and through them helped to re-cast what the definition of trauma looks like in the newsroom, and who needs to be trained in these specific investigative techniques;
And then she convinced the biggest and possibly the most successful podcast company to follow her lead and dive deep into her family’s story, from tiny community in Saskatchewan, because she knew it was going to lead to bigger things.
These are some serious Ninja moves. But what it points me to, more specifically than the hat trick awards in 2023, was the beginning of a legacy. And if I were a betting woman, I would say that for a woman in her early forties, this is only the beginning.
We all know that podcasts have the ability to reach an immense audience
The infinite dial that is the podcast RSS universe, coupled with the growing interest in listening to these longform stories, and the proliferation of the technology now means that millions upon millions of people now know the names of these women, and all the details of their stories: Alberta, Cleo, and Jermaine. With Stolen: Surviving St. Michaels, millions more listeners also know the story of her father: Howard Cameron.
It’s hard to get accurate data about the audience size, but I have read that there were as many as 30 million downloads of Missing and Murdered, the first series that Walker produced with the CBC. As for Stolen, it still sits in the top 100 True Crime charts, which means those numbers are huge as well.
This massive audience, and specifically the ability to measure and track this, would open doors for Walker. It was hard to hold on to the argument that there wasn’t a big enough appetite for these sorts of stories. She would use these metrics to explain to CBC that these stories weren’t fringe; they were core stories, central to the narrative of this country.
Somehow, even after the massive success of Finding Cleo, the CBC still did not calculate that she was one of their biggest stars. The CBC told her that she could possibly get special permission to work on a follow up story, hopefully for six months. Walker told Evan Ratliff on the The Longform podcast that she then pitched herself to Gimlet, to see if they would bring her on to continue this work. The rest, as they say, is history.
Walker explained in an interview on The Longform podcast why she pushed so hard to make the leap from television to podcasts:
[Connie Walker]: In news, we're fighting for seconds. Your Facebook video can't be longer than one minute, you have to get people within the first three seconds. Most people are only going to read 30 seconds of your online article, and who knows who's even watching television anymore.
But this idea that you can tell one story over eight episodes, and people are going to put headphones in their ears and listen to something that's seven hours long in total, felt a dream for me. And I really wanted to get to do that.
She went on to explain how this ability to reach listeners, over many many hours, offered a door into a story that no other medium allows for; she knew this because she tried, over a decade, to connect with an audience by the television minute.
Narrative, investigative podcasts, on the other hand, offer the time and attention to speak slowly and carefully to a guest. They allow for the ability to ask questions and wait, sometimes with silence, for a fullsome reply. It allows for a narrator to tell her story, but then also bring in the voices of others whose voice should be leading the conversation.
But how do you put that to work, exactly? How do you pull all those levers at once?
The fourth episode of Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s is the perfect example of this. By now, three episodes in, we know the story; we’ve met the main characters; we understand the key tension is the school itself, the actual buidling. Framed around the incident when the school actually burned to the ground, the survivors share some details of what happened in those walls.
In this episode, we hear exclusively from the survivors. It is their story to tell, in their own words. It is not prefaced and introduced by a narrator. It is not put inside the frame of another narrative agenda. It’s also not produced and cut together to sound like a collage. It’s full thoughts, with pauses, and the stumbles that come naturally in difficult moments. Slow radio, if you will.
Here’s what this changes: It’s not just names of people, extracted from the headlines and dished up to the podcast audience, small plate by small plate. It’s their stories, in their own words, told without a filter.
Finding the onramp to have these discussions is tricky
Yes, inside of like-minded communities, the conversation is active. But that doesn’t change the fact that stories are not to report on, and not always easy to listen to. They tell stories of difficult stories that require digging back into painful memories.
There’s some kind of undeniable alchemy that has been able to mash up the popularity of the True Crime genre, but then with this work, Walker skillfully takes it a few steps to the side and into a slightly new genre: True Crime: Truth, Healing and Straight Talk.
Part of the way she does this is to confront the challenges that the people in her stories face head-on. She shares very vulnerable details about her life with her father, and then she asks difficult questions to her direct family members.
In Season 1 of Stolen: The Search for Jermaine, she doesn’t skirt around the fact that Jermaine was a teenage mother, whom some people reported that she abused substances, whom some had accused her of violence and that her mother wasn’t really in the picture and that she was mostly raised by her grandmother.
These are all facts, not judgements. They aren’t sallacious details; they are raised along with other facts, like what we know about the day she went missing, the missing cell phone, and what she and others said on social media. Walker says it all straight and plain. No fancy discussions or couched with disclaimers. They are just part of what a journalist needs to uncover as she burrows her way down to the end of the story.
Connie Walker helps translate the popularity of the True Crime genre into something more whole-hearted and sincere, more trauma-informed
The survival rate of Indigenous children who went to these schools over the course of about 120 years, was less than fifty percent. One of every two children who went did not come home. Many of them vanished; two years ago, this painful legacy, a truth well known inside Indigengous communities across the country, finally made international news headlines with these forensic discoveries. It was just the start, just the tipping point for where these stories would go.
These stories were horrific to learn about; but for many communities that still hold survivors, and the descendants of survivors near and far, it was particularly challenging.
After completing Find Cleo, Walker realized that she needed to learn more about what it meant to tell these stories. So she applied to and was accepted to the Ochberg Fellowship, part of the Dart Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University.
She explained to Dr. Pam Palmeter on her podcast Warrior Life, why this made sense for her:
[Connie Walker]: It really inspired me to learn more about using the power of storytelling to help heal from trauma and, and PTSD. And it was around the time I attended a fellowship at Columbia University, Ochberg Fellowship, to really learning about the science of trauma, [and also] how to heal from trauma. And the latest research on PTSD.
One of the treatments that I learned about was a treatment called Exposure Therapy. And the idea is that, as somebody who's experienced trauma, and who has PTSD, you spent so much time and energy trying to avoid thinking about that traumatic experience.
[But that] is such a cost in terms of your energy and your space and your time. One of the ways to manage trauma is to actually expose it and to shine a spotlight on it, and to revisit it over and over and over again.
And that's actually a form of therapy.
There's power, if you have agency and if you are treated with respect, and if you are in a position where you have control, that that can actually be a powerful healing thing.
When the discovery was made in Kamloops, in May of 2021, it was it was such a triggering experience even for me, and I didn't go to a residential school.
Part of it was was that the response which was for the first time people stopped and, and listened and understood that this actually happened, [made me] really angry. I was glad people are paying attention. Yes. But I also was so frustrated and upset by it.
This “Exposure Therapy” of the Kamloops discovery started many conversations
It was in one of these moments when Connie stumbled across a post on Facebook from one of her brothers, when he described a story he know about their father Howard. The post told the story about how one night, back in the 1970s, while he was working as an RCMP Officer, Howard pulled over the car of someone who looked to be impaired.
But he recognized the man behind the wheel: he was a Priest who had been a teacher at St. Michael’s. He was also the Priest who had abused him.
The story recounted that Howard dragged this man out of his car and beat him up. No charges were ever laid. This story was never spoken of in any official capacity. He went back to his job without any repercussions. It was like a secret that no one wanted to share, because that would involve too many new pieces of information.
Be a storyteller, not a storytaker
In the interviews I found, Walker often refers to one of her CBC colleagues and mentor Duncan McCue, also an Indigenous journalist and TMU professor [and podcaster, with his incredible Kuper Island podcast series].
McCue talks about moving away from the history of journalists going into Indigenous communities to extract a story, which is then offered for publication as a transcational exchange.
The alternative to being a storytaker, is to be a storyteller.
During the making of Finding Cleo, Walker pivoted to make sure that the story was also being told through the eyes of those left behind; the sister of Cleo, Christine. She shared the story of the moment, during a reporting trip to Cleo’s reserve in Saskatchewan, that she realized this.
This was in the Longform podcast interview with Evan Ratliff:
[Connie Walker]: I realized that I shouldn't be there that these were all the things that Christine had been telling us that she was longing for that she had lost, not being raised in her community, with her culture with her language close to her family. I was meeting her family I was taking part in.
My colleague and one of my mentors and indigenous journalist named Duncan McCue talks about being a storyteller versus a storytaker. For so long, there has been this kind of history of journalists coming in and taking stories from Indigenous communities. And that that kind of extractive transactional kind of journalism really causes a lot of harm.
And I realized that it should have been Christine sitting there. She should be the one who's kind of she's the one leading this journey to find her sister. She's the one who reached out to me, she's the one who's calling social services.
And so it changed the way that we did the rest of the story.
In the next leg of the journey, when we [went] back to New Jersey, we had to get special permission from CBC to pay for Christine to come down with us. Now we were following her as she continued to lead this quest to find her sister.
While it must have been thrilling and exceptional for both of these awards to land on her desk (in the same week!) after doing extended reading about the career of Connie Walker, I can see these that what these awards signal more clearly is a waypoint on her career path that began decades ago.
Good news for us, there’s much more to come…including Season 3 of Stolen, set to be released next February.
Here are teacher and learning resources for Truth and Reconciliation
The National Residential School Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419
The Dart Center for Journalism And Trauma at Columbia University
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