Sharing real-life experiences: Duncan McCue Q&A

CBC journalist Duncan McCue is teaching students how to navigate situations where reporting practices come in conflict with Indigenous customs.

By Lisa Cumming

Ryerson School of Journalism


CBC journalist Duncan McCue is teaching students how to navigate situations where reporting practices come in conflict with Indigenous customs.

For example, journalism standards typically don’t favour paid sources, says McCue. But that can go against some Indigenous teachings.  

“Indigenous culture expects that you will honour the time and wisdom that an elder is sharing with you with some type of gift or some type of acknowledgement,” he says.

McCue created an online guide to offer suggestions for journalists in this situation and others. The journalist should ask if giving a gift to the interview subject is appropriate. Next, the guide suggests a common gift of tobacco, as it is considered to be sacred medicine.

McCue joins the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ) faculty as a Rogers Visiting Journalist. He will use his experience both as a reporter and as an instructor to help students and faculty develop their ideas and curriculum, says RSJ chair Janice Neil.


Read the Q & A with Duncan McCue below. (Photo: Ryerson University/Duncan McCue)
Read the Q & A with Duncan McCue below. (Photo: Ryerson University/Duncan McCue)

His appointment comes nine months after the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on media and journalism schools to educate students about Indigenous history in Canada, an action that McCue says he is “thrilled” about.

“Students across the country want to see themselves reflected in the schools they’re going to,” said Tracey King, Aboriginal Human Resources Consultant for Ryerson University.

“To know that there’s Aboriginal [faculty] in schools, I would say that these scholars are role-models for our future generations.”

The 2011 census reported that a little under 10 per cent of Canadian Indigenous peoples ages 25 to 64 held a university degree. This is in comparison to the 26.5 per cent of non-Indigenous people who held university degrees at that time.

Below, read a Q&A with McCue about his new role, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s calls-to-action and McCue’s recently published memoir.

L: You’ve been at the CBC for 18 years. Over that time, what changes have you seen in the newsroom when it comes to reporting on Indigenous communities?

D: Big changes. There have been two really distinct changes. One is that fortunately there are more Indigenous staff now than there were when I started. We’ve always had a strong contingent of Indigenous reporters, producers and hosts in the North, but in the South Indigenous reporters were few and far between when I started. Fortunately, that is starting to change for the better. CBC is simply hiring more Indigenous reporters, producers and hosts now than when I started, so that’s a really positive change. The second thing is that there is more content now, certainly on the radio and definitely online – online didn’t even exist when I started – but on TV as well. So, in particular the creation of CBC Aboriginal has made huge strides in terms of offering our audiences more Indigenous content, a broader range of stories from Indigenous communities than whatever existed when I started out in the business.

L: When did the Ryerson School of Journalism first approach you to become a Rogers Visiting Journalist?

D: I was asked to give a workshop to, not just Ryerson professors, but journalism professors from various schools in Toronto in May on Indigenous issues and incorporating Indigenous issues in the classroom. That was a full-day workshop that also included a panel of journalists on covering missing and murdered Indigenous women. I entered into conversation with Ryerson and said that it’s great that [the journalism program] is embarking on offering a new course this year and also making many efforts to try and incorporate more Indigenous content into the classroom in various courses, and that’s something that I’d love to be part of.

L: Will you be giving input on the new course that Ryerson is starting?

D: The idea is that I’ll be available to the instructor of that course but also any instructor who wants to figure out how to increase student accessibility to Indigenous communities and how to start providing more Indigenous content in the classroom.

L: In a broad sense, what do you hope to add to the journalism course at Ryerson?

I’ll give you an example:

[Lynda] Calvert teaches ethics and has asked me to come [in]. There’s one class in particular where she focuses on the ethics of reporting in Indigenous communities, so I’ll be coming to share some of my real-life experiences with the students. I have been at it for 18 years and I have put together a guide called “Reporting In Indigenous Communities (RIIC),” which tries to take these issues out of the realm of the theoretical and give journalists real tips on how they can adapt their journalism practices and, frankly, the journalism culture so that it better fits the Indigenous communities that they’re operating in. That’s the kind of thing that I’ll be doing.

I’ll be asking the really nitty-gritty questions about how do you honour an elder, for example, when journalism standards typically don’t allow us to pay our sources. But, Indigenous cultures expects that you will honour the time and wisdom that an elder is sharing with you with some type of gift or some type of acknowledgement of the time and wisdom that an elder is sharing with you. Those can be thorny questions journalistically to tackle and so that’s the kind of thing that I’ll be discussing in the ethics class. It’s also really important just to be generally aware of some basic core principles of Indigenous culture. I call it having a cultural baseline, if you will. That allows you to understand the community that you’re operating in as a journalist and that can also really help to improve your journalism.


L: Can students expect a lesson on proper terminology to be used when writing about Indigenous communities?

D: Terminology is really important. There are people who will get quite offended when you use the wrong terminology. So there are some right and wrongs. Just personally I’m not one to get really hung up on the many different terms for Indigenous people but I recognize that it’s important that we try to be as responsive to our audience as possible and as consistent as possible in the terminology we use. Absolutely there’s a discussion to be had about terminology, but I also don’t like to be really hung up on it because ultimately what’s more important is the story and not semantics.

L: You spoke about the cultural differences surrounding time in an interview, is this something you plan on touching on as well?

D: There are a number of cultural “tips” that I think are helpful when operating in any minority community. “Indian Time” is one that is particular to Indigenous people. Understanding that things operate a little bit more slowly and may not operate according to the deadline that’s expected from the newsroom helps you in terms of your planning. If you can incorporate slower journalism into your deadline somehow, then you will find that your story subjects will respond to you in a much more positive way. It’s a phrase, “Indian Time”, that some people may find offensive and may find stereotypical, but it’s a phrase that we commonly use in the Native community ourselves. Helping students understand that can really help their journalism.

L: I wanted to pick your brain for a moment about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee [TRC] and their calls-to-action for journalism and media schools. Since that came out, have you heard of your guide book, the RIIC, being used in more journalism and media schools? In what capacity?

D: When I put the guide together back in 2010, frankly, my goal was to make it available to working journalists. I also started a course at the UBC [University of British Columbia] graduate school of journalism called Reporting In Indigenous Communities and I knew that I would be able to pass on those lessons to my students in that course, but I wanted there to be something available to working journalists who needed some quick advice if they were reporting on Indigenous communities. Someone who could kind of whisper in their ear and say “Hey, here’s something you might want to try.” To my surprise and pleasure what I have learned is probably the biggest audience for has been students and academics. Every year at the end of term I hear from boatloads of students who are using the guide in their classroom, or using it in their papers or have questions for me, or want me to follow up on a particular aspect of the guide. I’m thrilled to hear that students are finding it to be a really helpful resource right across the country and, frankly, not just in Canada but all over the world. That’s fantastic, that’s what it was intended for and if it helps students, that’s great. I will say the one thing about the TRC is that I was thrilled with Recommendation 86, which specifically was directed at journalism schools, which said: “If reconciliation is going to happen, then journalism schools need to step up and start offering more Indigenous content in the classroom.” I have to say that it is great to see so many journalism schools taking that call to action seriously. Whether it’s Ryerson in terms of offering a new course this year and the many other aspects of the curriculum where they’re trying to incorporate Indigenous content, or Carleton [University], which is offering a new course this year on Indigenous Issues and the Media, which is taught by Hayden King, or there are other journalism schools, [such as] Kings [University College] in Halifax that is wrestling with how to make their curriculum and content responsive to the needs of Canadian journalism students in the 21st century.

L: Speaking on your experience with the Reporting In Indigenous Communities course at UBC, you said that course uses RIIC like a textbook. Is the aim to also have students at Ryerson use it like that, too?

D: How professors chose to incorporate it I have to leave to them. My philosophy on teaching is very much that students need to get their hands dirty and learn for themselves. I would hope that the guide might act as a starting point, a jumping-off point or a conversation piece, but you’re not going to learn everything you need to learn about reporting in Indigenous communities simply by sitting down and reading my online guide for half an hour. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done and it hopefully will start a conversation and the wheels turning for some students but I would hope that it’s only the beginning point and not an end point.

L: To get their hands dirty, would you encourage students to seek out stories in Indigenous communities and go with as much knowledge as they have and just try their best?

D: I do think a little bit of preparation for any story is helpful, in the same way that any smart journalist tries to learn as much as possible on any topic before they head out into the field. I think the same should apply to Indigenous issues. You have to recognize, as a journalist, we carry the weight of the sins of our fathers, if you will. There is unfortunately a negative relationship between media and many Indigenous peoples, which has developed over the course of a century of interaction. It behooves us to prepare as much as possible before we go out in the field. That said, I also tell students, you don’t need to feel like you’re ignorant and that you don’t know anything, and you don’t need to feel like you need to be an expert on absolutely everything Indian before you go out into the field. It’s important not to be scared of these stories, and important not to be fearful of being politically correct or fearful that someone is going to call you a racist. You need to just go out and start to meet people in First Nations or in Indigenous Communities in the city. The only way to do that is simply by getting out and meeting them and finding those stories. Will students make mistakes? Of course. But that’s how we learn. Doing it in the safety of a classroom setting is a really good way to learn properly.

L: I wanted to talk to you a bit about your new book, The Shoe Boy. Why did you decide that now is a good time to publish this book?

D: I actually wrote the book about four or five years ago and it sat on my hard drive for a couple of years. It just so happened that I made a connection with a publisher last year who was excited about publishing it and I was excited that he wanted to publish it. Nonvella is a small start-up publisher in BC that has a great idea. The idea is this: there’s a market out there for long reads. There are people who are interested in reading material that is longer than a magazine article but shorter than a full-on book, and I think that Nonvella is on to something so I was proud to have my piece be a part of their line-up. It was a great connection with a publisher that I felt was going to honour the material. I will say that the thing I’m happiest about publishing the book is that I do think that the experiences of the James Bay Cree are really instructive to Canadians all over about how to move forward in terms of relationships with Indigenous people. The story of the James Bay Cree is not one that many Canadians will be familiar with, and so for that reason I was really pleased to be able to release the book now.

L: In your Knight Fellowships Talk you mentioned that you are pegged as a “Native reporter.” With your position on Cross Country Checkup, do you try to engage Canadians in talking about Indigenous issues?

D:  Absolutely. People will see me how they want to see me. I have no control over that. I am an Indigenous person, I am a journalist and do I report exclusively on Indigenous issues? No, not at all. Is it important for me to report on Indigenous issues? Absolutely. So, my role on Cross Country Checkup is to engage Canadians in the conversations that matter to them, and that’s going to range from week to week. This week we’re talking about distracted driving and texting while driving and crackdowns on that kind of behaviour. The week before it was about why Canadians seem to be dropping in terms of the participation in sports. But, we’ve also included some Indigenous topics as well in terms of social media and racism in the context of the Colton Boushie case, and the launch of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s inquiryIt’s important to me that we will have Indigenous content on Cross Country Checkup and that we have indigenous voices on the air and I know that it’s important to CBC Radio as well that the airwaves start to do a better job of reflecting Canada than CBC Radio has done in the past, but will I report exclusively on Indigenous issues? No, I won’t. And I never have. I’ve always been a journalist first, a journalist who just happens to be a proud Indigenous person.

L: What do you do when someone comes on the air and they’re obviously very prejudiced?

D: Cross Country Checkup is a show where there are going to be many different opinions expressed every week and the idea behind this show is that Canadians won’t always agree with one another but the show will be two hours where they can talk and listen to one another, and that’s going to be on any topic. The tone of the show has always tried to be respectful and that’ll continue with me as host as well. We obviously work very hard to be sure that we don’t subject our listeners to racism, that’s not something that we’re trying to do on the air, we’re always trying to avoid that, but live radio is live radio and stuff happens. So if it were to happen that we had a caller on the air who expressed opinions that were not tasteful, what I can do is do my best to suggest to them that it isn’t tasteful and not the right place to be expressing those opinions and then do my best to try and move the conversation along to a more productive conversation. If someone insists on being rude or racist, it is fortunate that I am able to simply shut a conversation down so I am no longer hearing from them. We don’t want to subject our listeners to that, that’s not the idea. We’re not a show looking to anger people. We’re a show looking to encourage smart conversation.