Before pandemic lockdowns went into place across British Columbia, CBC reporter Angela Sterritt travelled to Bella Bella to report on a washing ceremony by the Heiltsuk Nation.
Her trip to the community followed her reporting on an incident in which Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter, Tori-Anne — both from the Heiltsuk Nation — were handcuffed by Vancouver police outside a downtown Vancouver branch of the Bank of Montreal. An employee had falsely suspected them of fraud as they tried to open Tori’s first bank account and had called the police on them. Tori-Anne cried through the ordeal.
Sterritt broke the original story and spent days chasing down the bank and police to get answers and fill in a clearer picture of what happened. Both the bank and the police later apologized for their actions, and just yesterday Johnson filed a human rights complaint against BMO and the Vancouver Police Board.
Sterritt was invited to the washing ceremony — a traditional purification ceremony intended to help a person heal from trauma and restore balance to the situation — as both a journalist and a witness. She remembers the day with pride and admiration. “That was one of the most precious times in my life,” she said.
In her story, she writes that Johnson felt as though the ceremony “put his mind and soul at ease.”
In the end, much good came out of Sterritt’s lead on the story: The Vancouver Police Department received more cultural sensitivity training, BMO created an Indigenous advisory board, and 15 BMO representatives actually attended the ceremony.
“I think when you have that impact, it makes it feel like it’s worth it,” she said.
“We ended up in the community, with [Johnson and Tori-Anne’s] community just wrapping around them and doing the washing ceremony with BMO there. It was so powerful,” she added, as she described the general feeling after the ceremony had taken place.
Sterritt said that sharing the washing ceremony as part of the story was important. It showed that while Indigenous people are often the victims of racism, their lives are also more colourful and complex than the stories frequently told about them. The connection to community and culture is strong for so many Indigenous people, and the potential to heal through community and culture is there, too.
Sterritt always aims for this kind of balance in her work, she said.
The story also shows that the traditional Heiltsuk method of justice is something non-Indigenous people can learn from, she adds.
Sterritt has clearly made an impact as a journalist. At the ceremony, the Gitxsan Nation member was gifted regalia from the Heiltsuk Nation for her reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which she has covered extensively over her 20-year career. Just last week, she was named one of Vancouver Magazine’s Power 50, a yearly list of the most influential Vancouverites.
The acknowledgement came as a result of her work on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and Johnson and Tori-Anne’s case.
Despite her seemingly natural ability to ask much-needed questions and get answers, Sterritt didn’t always know she would become a journalist.
“I was actually living on the street and was getting my Grade 12 through a learning centre,” said Sterritt, about getting her start back in the late 1990s. There was a poster on the wall of the learning centre about a journalism program through Vancouver Co-op Radio, and one of the learning centre teachers said, “I think you’d be awesome for this.”
While Sterritt at first said no — mainly because she didn’t feel confident enough in herself, having not yet even finished her Grade 12 — her teacher convinced her that it was “right up her alley.”
Sterritt enrolled in the program and worked at the radio station for almost a year after she finished it. She laughs as she reflects over the phone how archaic the gear was, calling it “war times” era equipment, with tape reels that you cut by hand.
For a few years after, she worked on and off in the journalism industry, taking jobs in radio wherever she could, including in Prince George. She had various quick detours from journalism — becoming a certified carpenter and spending three years working in the construction industry — before landing a job with CBC in 2002.
She even tucked a UBC political science degree under her belt in 2009.
Sterritt has seen many changes in the industry, as well as some stagnation. But in that time, she says the most significant change she’s noticed is what gets attention from readers.
In the co-op radio program, she published stories about poverty in the Downtown Eastside and the problems that real estate development in the city was causing for lower-income people.
When she moved to mainstream media, a lot of what she was talking about just wasn’t considered interesting. “Even missing and murdered Indigenous women... I remember hearing grumblings about that,” said Sterritt.
In her earlier days, it was sometimes so disheartening that she took breaks and worked for smaller and Indigenous-run outlets.
However, in recent years Sterritt has noticed drastic changes in how the industry operates.
In June, Sterritt and the team at CBC News hosted a town hall on racism, to tackle some of the major issues of the summer. Anti-Asian racism as a result of COVID-19 and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were top of mind for many viewers.
The fact that the show was produced by a female BIPOC producer and that Sterritt herself was able to ask on air, “How do we dismantle white supremacy?” was truly groundbreaking and a sign of better times, Sterritt said.
“I remember those words coming out of my mouth, and in my brain being like, ‘Holy crap.... Holy Toledo.' And kind of almost chuckling, too, like, ‘I cannot believe I said that,’” she said.
Sterritt has worked consciously over the years to decolonize media, share the stories and views of other Indigenous people and pave the way for them to become members of the media themselves.
She has also recently started to request that a mentorship opportunity be created for a BIPOC individual whenever she’s hired for a new job.
Right now, she’s the Asper visiting professor at UBC’s school of journalism writing and media. As part of this role, she spoke in an online seminar called Decolonize This (a play on the title of her CBC column started in 2017, Reconcile This) in October, in which she shared her expertise and her goals going forward.
In her interview with The Tyee, she reminisced on some of the smaller — yet still fundamental — changes she’s seen in the newsroom over the years.
“It’s like a reckoning... but it has been a very long, long road,” she said.
Some of her own most conscious efforts have been about the words and phrases she uses in her writing.
She remembers, for example, the controversy around using the word “survivor” instead of “student” for those who attended residential schools in Canada. And while editors and even other journalists once objected to the word choice, a greater understanding of what actually went on in the schools has helped the shift happen.
Because of her efforts and the issues she’s tried to cover, she has at times been accused of being an “advocate” for Indigenous people and causes. But in more recent years, her experience is viewed more as expertise than bias.
“I feel like now I’m respected, whereas before it would be like, ‘You’re not really a journalist, are you?’ I mean, these were top investigative producers, national producers, national hosts... telling me, like, ‘Are you really a journalist or are you an advocate?’ because I’m fighting for or have been fighting, to be able to tell Indigenous stories, and have them told right,” she said.
Being trauma-informed is also a key part of decolonizing media for her. And it’s really not that hard, she said.
“A lot of it is just being a human being and having compassion and empathy. I think journalism schools have made us feel like we need to be devoid of that, and have no compassion and be robotic, and I think that’s the worst kind of storytelling,” said Sterritt.
Over the years, she’s witnessed Indigenous people be treated extremely poorly by their interviewers — as though they were “suspects” or required some level of accountability, even while grieving the loss of a loved one.
Sometimes an accountability interview and hard data is needed, she said, but not from a mother who just lost a child, for example.
“We don’t want to create our own trauma.... We want to let people have the ability to tell their own stories and do that in a way that’s not going to harm them,” she said.
Sterritt’s followers now have her forthcoming book Unbroken to anticipate in fall 2021. It’s part memoir and partly focused on a few specific stories of missing and murdered women that she’s been investigating.
“A few times in my life I’ve been left for dead, because of the violence that I experienced on the street,” she said. “And I felt like I could relate to so many women’s stories of just how vulnerable you are, and just how kind of abandoned you are... and just surviving.”
Though she experienced some guilt during the writing process — because she had survived while other women did not, and she didn’t want to overshadow their importance — in the end she chose to share her own story in hopes that it would engage others.
“I feel like things that I’ve been talking about for like 10 years are finally coming to fruition, and people are like, ‘Oh, this is important now,’” Sterritt said.
“And I don’t feel like, ‘I told you so,’ I just feel like, ‘Ah, thank God... finally.’ It’s a sense of relief.”