Despite its far-reaching and growing impacts on our lives, labour as a beat has been largely neglected in B.C. and Canadian media for years now. We’re working to change that.
Please welcome Zak Vescera, who will be giving this beat a fair shake for The Tyee. For the next six months, he’ll be our full-time, dedicated labour reporter, telling the story of workers in B.C. and the changing nature of work in the province.
Senior editor Paul Willcocks said the new beat is critically important. Vescera, “an experienced journalist with a keen understanding of the issues and the British Columbia scene,” will make a real difference.
“People’s working lives affect every aspect of their existence and collectively determine what kind of society we have,” Willcocks said. “Precarious work, the gig economy, loss of pensions — so much has changed.”
These issues are underreported and The Tyee can make a high-impact contribution, he added.
Vescera is an award-winning reporter who comes to The Tyee by way of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, where he reported on and won awards for his stories on issues ranging from Saskatchewan’s toxic drug crisis to abuse allegations at a Christian private school.
More recently, Vescera was part of the newspaper’s coverage of one of the most horrific tragedies in Canadian history.
As police poured into the reserve and his neighbours took shelter, Herbert Burns rode the dusty roads of James Smith Cree Nation on an ATV, determined to help find the man who killed his sister.— Zak Vescera (@zakvescera) September 10, 2022
A story about one family's grief, forgiveness and healing.https://t.co/q33DnVdEbR
Vescera has also crossed paths with the The Tyee several times in the past, writing stories for us about the effects of seismic upgrades at Vancouver schools and online hate speech in Canada. And already in his first week here he’s published pieces on a shipyard shut down due to a labour dispute and workers pressing for, and winning, cost of living increases.
Zak’s coverage of the fast-changing landscape of work is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative, a federal program that subsidizes the reporter’s pay while guaranteeing editorial independence. One aspect of the arrangement is that what Zak publishes in The Tyee can be republished by other outlets who belong to the LJI network. Another LJI member of the Tyee team is health reporter Moira Wyton.
We caught up with Vescera and talked to him about his unexpected stumble into journalism, one of the hardest stories he’s ever covered and why this moment in labour history excites him. Also, weird owls.
The Tyee: Hi Zak! It’s a pleasure to have you here with us. Tell us about yourself.
Zak Vescera: I was never supposed to be a reporter. Way back in high school, I landed an interview with Nardwuar the Human Serviette for a music publication some friends had started. I took a day off my construction job, bought a recorder and an oversized blazer and spoke to him in the back alley of Zulu Records on West Fourth Avenue. I had this awful bowl cut at the time, too.
Journalism sort of stayed in my life after that. I got involved with my [UBC] student paper, the Ubyssey, where I really fell in love with it. After that, I did a three-year stint in Saskatchewan, covering the toxic drug crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and a horrific mass murder. Now I’m back home. It’s been a wild ride that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
How are you feeling about being The Tyee’s new labour reporter?
A mix of excitement and terror — which is also how most of my sources seem to feel. B.C. hasn’t had a dedicated labour reporter for a few years. Lots of people are just overjoyed there’s someone back on the beat. A few others don’t know what to do with me because, frankly, these topics haven’t been adequately covered in a long while. I think it’s going to be a challenging, rewarding file, and I’m psyched to dive in.
What drew you to The Tyee?
I think The Tyee is one of those places that is good for the world just by existing. It gives space and time to dive into stories you won’t find anywhere else. It attracts such a talented crew of writers and editors who care about people, and that shines through in what they do. This was one of the first places I ever freelanced when I was a university student trying to figure out what post-graduation looked like. It feels very right to be here now on this LJI contract.
To you, what is journalism good for?
Definitely not my blood pressure. Maybe I’ll tell you a story. A few weeks ago, I covered the killing of 11 people at the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done — a lot of people aren’t happy to see media in those moments, for very fair reasons.
I interviewed one family member of a victim about who his relative was. A couple days later, I ran into him in a parking lot, and he took me aside, shook my hand and thanked me. He said he wanted his relative known as who they were, and not as a statistic, and that I had done a good job. I think any time we can make people feel heard and like they’ve had a fair shake, we’ve done our jobs well. Little moments like that are what keep me going.
How was your summer?
Weird. It was a time of transition and change for me. Saskatoon was my home for three years, and so the move back to Vancouver was a shake-up. But I spent as much time as I could on patios, hiking in the woods and travelling and reuniting with dear friends. I capped it off with a long road trip across the Prairies and the mountains. It felt right. Now I’m just excited for fall. I’m a big decorative gourd guy.
What are you currently obsessed with?
Burrowing owls. Why does an animal with wings live underground? For context, it doesn’t even dig its own holes. It just camps out in burrows dug by prairie dogs and other animals. It is mother nature’s glorious flying subterranean squatter, and I am 100 per cent behind it.
What issues are you particularly interested in focusing on here at The Tyee?
I don’t think you can talk about labour in British Columbia without talking about affordability. There’s a serious mismatch between our wages and average housing costs. The result is longer commutes, precarious living conditions and real challenges for employers and the public sector in finding and hiring enough staff. It just spirals into every part of our lives.
Mental health is also a big one for me. I’m curious to see how employers are helping and supporting staff, particularly in fields like health care after two and a half years of COVID-19. And I’m keeping an eye on sectors like forestry, where we’ve seen a steady decline in employment numbers.
What are you looking forward to the most in this new role?
I used to joke that journalism is like assigning yourself homework for the rest of your life. The truth is I don’t mind that. I like having conversations that flip my personal understanding of something. I like puzzling over a policy report until my eyes fall out, because I’m waiting for the moment where it all clicks. I genuinely enjoy learning for the sake of it. The paycheque is a very neat bonus.
Could you tell us about the stories you’re working on? A little sneak peek as a treat?
This is a bananas time to become a labour reporter. The province’s biggest public unions are all in bargaining. Inflation is crazy, and that’s putting pressure on employers to increase pay. There’s a labour shortage, like, everywhere. And there’s an ongoing train of regulatory changes that are changing the way we do work. I think you’re going to see lots of stories on that — but I want to also go off the beaten trail. I want to tell the story of workers in this province and how they’re making it on the day to day. You can expect plenty of good yarns.
Zak Vescera is raring to cover labour and the world of work for The Tyee! Feel free to leave a nice welcome and any information you think he’d find interesting in the comment thread below.