CBC North’s new senior managing director says he has learned from past mistakes and will prioritize the training and hiring of more Indigenous journalists for northern newsrooms.
Mervin Brass admitted he had erred in trying to merge the three territories’ morning newscasts late last year – a decision the CBC reversed within 48 hours, amid opposition from staff and listeners.
But while Brass disputed former CBC host Christine Genier’s suggestion that the broadcaster lacked Indigenous and Black representation – Genier resigned in June, saying those voices were under-represented – he acknowledged a “need to improve” numbers of Indigenous, northern reporters.
“We need to have Indigenous reporters and journalists, and it’s really hard to find because there are few right now,” Brass told Cabin Radio.
“We need to create those entry-level opportunities so we can bring them in, train them, work with them, and help them grow their careers.”
Brass is Anishinaabe from Saskatchewan’s Key First Nation. He was CBC North’s managing editor for four years prior to his appointment this week to succeed Janice Stein as managing director. Stein left her post last week, while Brass said he will formally assume his role on October 19.
At the same time as hiring Brass – having pledged Stein’s successor would be Indigenous – the CBC also upgraded the CBC North managing director’s role. The North will now be considered its own region instead of being grouped with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, handing Brass a larger voice at national level.
Brass said he would try to adopt a “slow and steady” approach as the North’s new leader, with responsibility for operations primarily based in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and Iqaluit.
He will look to grow the CBC’s northern Indigenous-language broadcasting alongside the hiring of more Indigenous journalists. He feels the CBC can more closely work with other broadcasters and Aurora College to institute training for young, Indigenous northerners, which currently does not exist in forms comparable to southern courses.
Brass was CBC North’s managing editor, responsible for its reporting and on-air output, at the time of last November’s two-day debacle surrounding the aborted decision to merge the three territories’ morning newscasts.
He told Cabin Radio he “had a hand in” the initial decision to merge the broadcasts into one – and regretted it.
“That was a mistake,” he said.
“I made an error in judgment. I’ve taken responsibility for that. I’ve met with the teams, I’ve answered emails, I’ve talked to people, and I took ownership of it.”
Brass pledged “no major changes” of a similar nature were in the pipeline.
“I learned some things from that,” he said. “One thing is to plan better and have more consultation with the audience and with the teams.
“That was a huge learning experience for me. I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to do better.”
Below, read a transcript of the full interview. You can listen to the interview on Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News at 12pm on Friday, October 2, 2020.
This interview was recorded on October 1, 2020. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: You’ve been a CBC North executive for a few years but not everyone may know you. How would you introduce yourself to our audience?
Mervin Brass: I’m an Anishinaabe person from the Key First Nation, which is in the eastern central side of Saskatchewan. We are traditionally trappers and fishermen. When Treaty 4 was signed, we were out hunting and gathering so it took us a year to sign on in 1875. I grew up learning and understanding the ways of treaty. My father was a big treaty advocate, he was a former leader in Saskatchewan, a politician. My mother was a school guidance counsellor.
Both of them spoke their language – my father Anishinaabe and my mom Cree. However, both were products of their residential schools. As a result of that, the children, including myself, never really got to learn the language.
Yesterday’s announcement [that Brass had been appointed managing director of CBC North] was really significant to me – it happened on Orange Shirt Day, which remembers all the little kids that were taken away into residential schools. It brought memories of my parents. Both went to residential school and both suffered horrendous abuse. To be appointed the highest level of manager in the CBC for an Indigenous person is quite an achievement, but it also really put into perspective the reconciliation efforts that are taking place across this country. To me, that’s really important.
The job description, when this position was advertised, said you’ll be responsible for setting the audience growth strategy and the key priorities for CBC North. What are your key priorities for CBC North?
Well, stability right now. Whenever you get a new leader, you don’t want to come in and shake things up. You want to assure your team that things are gonna move moderately, you know? There are some things we’re gonna change eventually.
One of those is I would really like to focus on the growth of Indigenous languages. A lot of languages were lost as a result of residential schools. The CBC, as a public broadcaster, is in a great position to really help with that growth of Indigenous languages here in the North. That’s high, high on my priority list, to help grow that with more Indigenous programming – looking at younger audiences, because a lot of younger people in my generation and the generation behind me have lost a lot of their linguistics. I see our very talented team of Indigenous broadcasters having a role in that. Those people are fabulous announcers and I want to really support them and help them grow our content.
What role do you think the CBC has in ensuring that there is a next generation of Indigenous broadcasters to follow on from those people? What steps do you think you and CBC North should be taking to train young, Indigenous broadcasters?
That’s really important. Where I come from, in the south, way back in the late 1960s and early 70s, First Nation leaders said they needed to take control of their own destiny, their own Indian education – that’s what it was called at the time They said: “We need to create our institutions, we need to support our people in their academic goals.” And so they created a First Nations university – the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies.
Up here in the North, we have Aurora College. Companies like the CBC, and Cabin Radio, and other media outlets really need to get in there and see if we can help support and bring in some journalism programs, working in partnership with the college and in partnership as the media in Yellowknife and the NWT to attract young, northern people to look into that field.
I know it’s been very rewarding for me. Back home, we have a program called the Indian Communication Arts program. It’s a pre-journalism class. It’s turned out very, very good journalists. I see the CBC as being pivotal in helping to bring in young people and create some opportunities.
You’re based in Yellowknife but of course, you oversee three very spread-out, very different newsrooms in Whitehorse, Iqaluit, and Yellowknife. How do you intend to ensure that each territory’s staff and each territory’s audiences feel well listened-to and well served?
Well, it’s supporting our teams in the newsroom and in the studios, and giving them the resources that they need – the support, the training, the development, the constant upgrading of their skills. Getting their teams out into the community, deep into the communities – communities that we haven’t been able to get to in the last couple of years, making those our priorities.
However, with Covid-19 and the pandemic, that’s really put a damper on some of those plans, but we’re doing our best. We’re getting into some communities right now but making sure, first and foremost, that safety is adhered to and that the community welcomes us and wants us there.
Right across the North we’ve got some unique challenges. In Iqaluit, for example, travel to those communities is really expensive, so you really need to plan ahead and make sure that, when you go up there, you’re well-planned and everything’s gonna work out, eh? Because it’s a big trip. In Whitehorse, a lot of their communities you can reach by vehicle. So there’s a difference. I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to travel to those locations and support the teams. It’s really about supporting the teams on the ground, getting into the communities, and telling those stories.
I want to look at a couple of examples of issues that do affect your newsrooms. In November last year, CBC North said it would merge each territory’s morning newscast into one. The staff hated the idea, the audiences hated the idea. Two days later, CBC North reversed track and said it wouldn’t do that. Now, was that a mistake made by southern senior executives, or were those decisions being taken locally?
That was a mistake that I had a hand in, you know. I made an error in judgment. I’ve taken responsibility for that. I’ve met with the teams, I’ve answered emails, I’ve talked to people, and I took ownership of it. It was a mistake and I learned some things from that. One thing is to plan better and have more consultation with the audience and with the teams. That was a huge learning experience for me. I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to do better.
Having learned from that, can you guarantee there will be no more merging, stripping back, diluting of northern services, and that the CBC will look to expand its services instead?
Well, you know, with this pandemic there are a lot of new variables. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Like I said earlier, we’re going to have a slow, steady course here. As things come up, we’ll deal with them at that time. Right now, I don’t have any plans to do any major changes other than just get a good handle on what our priorities are.
To take another example, the host of CBC Yukon’s morning show, Christine Genier, resigned in June over a lack of Indigenous and Black voices at CBC. That representation is obviously critically important at CBC North. What are you doing to improve that?
Well, I would take a look at our numbers. A lack of representation? We had Christine at the time, Christine was our morning show host. We had Leonard Linklater as our noon show host in Whitehorse. Here in the NWT we’ve got Lawrence Nayally and Wanda McLeod, Indigenous. Juanita Taylor is our host of Northbeat. In Iqaluit, we have all sorts of Inuktitut voices there speaking in that language. You know? So to say that we don’t have that representation, I think is, you know–
You disagree with her?
Well, it’s inaccurate. I just pointed out the number of hosts and we have all kinds of Indigenous-language programming that we offer. To say that we don’t have those voices is inaccurate and unfair.
You listed a lot of hosts there. What if we look at journalists and reporters? Do you feel as though you have adequate representation there?
No. We need to improve on those numbers, and we need to grow that. We talked earlier about creating opportunities for young, northern journalists. We have to do that, eh? It’s a must. For us to be reflective of our communities, we need to have that in our newsrooms.
We need to have Indigenous reporters and journalists, and it’s really hard to find because there are few right now. So we need to create those entry-level opportunities so we can bring them in, train them, work with them, and help them grow their careers.
I know you’ve said you want it to be a slow and steady start for you but I am going to press you on this issue, in particular, because it is important. How quickly do you think you can move to create those opportunities?
I’m in constant discussion with journalists right now, trying to get them to come north. The pandemic is again an obstacle. People don’t really want to leave home because of this right now. They want to stay where they feel safe. But I’m actively on the phone calling people, calling other–
People within the territory can move freely. I mean, who are you calling in the territory to come and take a job with you?
Well, we had a reporter in Hay River – from Hay River – she was working with us, but unfortunately some personal matters came up and she left. It was unrelated to what we were doing here. So we are doing that kind of work. It takes time to get people ready for the newsroom, because it’s demanding work.
On a broader scale, the CBC has some longstanding issues in these fields. We’ve talked about representation. There are issues about gender equality. The treatment of casual employees, too, is something that I know internally the CBC has struggled with for a long time, and that’s a concern to staff in the North. How would you characterize the morale in your newsrooms right now?
Morale in the newsrooms? Hmm. I think it’s good considering that people abruptly had to go and work from home. That was a huge change. One day, we’re all in the office. The next day, we’re told people need to go work from home. So it’s been a big change. In the early days, I was phoning my staff regularly just to see how they’re doing, because mental health is a real challenge in these times, not just for journalists but for everybody who’s working from home and living through this pandemic. It’s a priority of mine to make sure that my staff are feeling secure, and that they can do the best job that they can, considering the conditions we have.
As far as temporary casuals go, you know, that’s where I got my start with CBC. I started out as a temporary casual and it was every day: you wake up and you hope you get that call that you’ve got some work that day. The days that you don’t get that call, I had to be freelancing and writing for other magazines. It got to the point for me where I was able to have a consistent income with the work I was doing as a temporary casual plus my freelancing gigs, eh? But that only lasted so long and I had to make a decision. I got offered a full-time job and I had to relocate and take that job. I was raising my daughter as a single dad.
I really understand the challenges and the frustrations that temp casuals have. I do my very best to try to help them stay positive and find them the hours and the shifts that they need.
And of course you have a bigger voice now, because this job comes with a change at CBC North. You’re the senior managing director, I believe it is now. The CBC North region has kind-of been bumped up a little bit at the same time, it has more of a voice at the national table is my understanding from the way things have been restructured internally. But before I let you go, Mervin, I want to just look at your last job. You were the managing editor. You’re now the managing director. My characterization of that – and you can correct me if I’m wrong here, because you know better than I do – is the managing director has overall responsibility for all the operations, while the managing editor has editorial responsibility for the news, the broadcasting that’s going out on the air. That managing editor at the top of the editorial tree – will the next one be Indigenous?
Well, we’re gonna look and have a search for that. We’re going to start it as soon as possible here. We’re going to look at all the candidates and whoever is the best candidate will get the job.
These things sometimes take quite a while, recruiting. With this pandemic, again, this pandemic causes lots of wrinkles in people’s plans – for people to move, if they need to move, and relocate.
Ideally, if a strong candidate emerged from the North, it would be the best thing for CBC to have somebody who understands the culture up here, understands the people, they know what the communities are like, they know the lay of the land. They can just jump right in and move forward. We have a few people internally that would make fine managing editors. It’s up to them if they want to apply.