Adrian Harewood On Three Decades Of Fighting Systemic Racism In Media

The CBC anchor refuses to have his humanity debated

Adrian Harewood is the co-anchor of CBC Ottawa’s 6:00 news and host of the network’s Our Ottawa newsmagazine. He is also one of the few on-air journalists to have been consistently outspoken about the public broadcaster’s deep-rooted deficiencies with regard to race and representation, well prior to this month.

In 2016, he spoke to reporter Farnia Fekri for a Canadaland story about the overwhelming whiteness of the CBC’s workforce, explaining that the institution seemed in no rush to rectify the situation. Soon after, he led colleagues in a campaign to put pressure on the corporation’s senior leadership, whose “ongoing failure to effectively address matters of diversity in all aspects of CBC/Radio-Canada operations [was] eroding the integrity of our beloved institution.”

But his engagement with these issues both expands beyond and predates his affiliation with the CBC. Over a three-decade career that began in campus and community media, and included a stint as an anti-racist organizer, Harewood has spent a large chunk of his life thinking about — and actively challenging — anti-Black racism in Canadian media.

“I am a Black person and part of the Black community, and I’m familiar with the history of the Black community in this country,” he told the Ottawa Citizen in 2006, when CBC Ottawa hired him as its first permanent BIPOC radio host. “It’s a history that’s important to me and a history that has helped to shape me. But it isn’t the only thing that defines me. First and foremost, I’m a person.”

Late last week, Harewood spoke to CANADALAND’s Jesse Brown about how that history has informed both his journalism and his advocacy and why, after nearly 30 years at this, the current discussions feel quite familiar yet also very different. (A few days later, the CBC announced new measures to improve the diversity of its uppermost levels, with concrete targets and commitments.)

You can listen to the episode, “A CBC News Anchor On Systemic Racism At Work,” or read the edited and condensed Q&A below.

Jesse Brown: Being a news anchor, you’re comfortable interviewing other people and delivering the news, not being the subject of an interview. Why did you decide to speak to us about these issues?

Adrian Harewood: Well, because I think I have a responsibility to do it. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position of relative power, as the host of a program on the public broadcaster. And it’s always incumbent upon those people who have the ability to make positive change to do so.

This has been a long struggle, and this fight that we’re in right now is not new. Nearly 30 years ago, I attended a Canadian University Press conference in Valleyfield, Quebec. At the time, I was a contributor to The McGill Daily. And that conference was attended by the likes of Naomi Klein, Doug Saunders, Nahlah Ayed, Stephanie Nolen. The hot topic was representation in Canadian media. And we were talking about systemic racism. And it was a very, very emotionally charged event. There were a lot of tears, and there was a lot of anger. There was hostility. There was fear expressed. All these things that we’re seeing today. The same debate that we’re having today happened almost 30 years ago.

I’ve committed myself to trying to be part of the solution to what I see as an existential problem for the CBC, but also just in general for Canadian media.

My parents were educators. They taught at university and community college. But they were also activists in the late 1960s, 1970s, and they were national columnists for Contrast, which was the main English-language Black newspaper in the 1970s.

That paper emerged because there was a feeling in the Black community that the mainstream media was not being true to who we were as human beings — that the mainstream media was not telling our story and that we needed our own organ in order to talk about our reality. There wasn’t space for Black journalists in much of Canadian mainstream journalism. So they created that.

That’s why I’m here.

Four years ago, you shocked me by giving us comment for a story on diversity at the CBC. Shortly after, you tweeted that “some folks at CBC are reluctant to talk about ‘race matters’ at the corporation out of fear, and that fear is real. Whenever one talks about race in a professional context in Canada, there’s always concern about the repercussions, that one will be labelled or pigeonholed as a whiner or a troublemaker, as an amateur or incompetent who ‘uses the race card.'” Have there been repercussions for you for speaking out about this?

I determined that in spite of whatever professional ramifications there might be for speaking up, that I had no choice but to do so. The late Toni Morrison said something to the effect of “When you are in a position of power, and if you are free, then your job is to free other people.” Your job is to create space for other people. Sometimes that involves putting things that you care about in jeopardy, but that’s what you have to do.

But let’s not exaggerate the risk that I’m taking. People have made and are currently making much greater sacrifices, and taking much greater risks, than I am.

In terms of being sanctioned for speaking out about these things, in a kind of a formal, official way? No. I should also say that at the time, I think I actually informed CBC in advance that I was going to be doing it, just like I did now.

With the recent campaign where current CBC employees were tweeting about incidents of racism and systemic racism at the CBC, I’m pretty sure not all those journalists got permission.

I would venture to say that none of them got permission. But I think what’s happened is that people have lost their fear. There’s such momentum. And the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

The horrendous killing of George Floyd has had an impact that’s reverberated around the globe. And it has caused movement in Canada, provoking all kinds of conversations about race, about systemic racism, about anti-Black racism that I don’t remember having in my entire life.

What is the relationship between the lack of newsroom diversity at the CBC, and throughout the media, and coverage of what’s happening right now?

If you want to ask good, informed questions about anything, you need to know your stuff, right? So it helps if you’ve grounded yourself in the material. In covering these kinds of stories, you want people who understand the history and who can put things into context. There’s also value in being able to relate to the struggles that people are engaged in.

As someone who has been involved in journalism for almost 30 years, my experience tells me that those people who are connected to communities can often bring something a little bit different to the table. Just by virtue of having that kind of credibility, it allows a subject to open up and offer things that they might not offer other journalists. I’ve actually seen that in my daily practice.

So what that tells me is that if we are not representing those communities, we are going to miss out on a lot.

What are the broader implications for society of having a representative media?

My parents are immigrants. They came to Canada in the 1950s and the 1960s to attend university. They had five kids. I’m the first in the family.

We got the Globe at home, and I think I started reading it at the age of six. It was very, very rare to see positive stories, or nuanced stories, about members of the Black community in the media organs of record when I was growing up. I was talking to my dad the other day, and he was saying that invariably in the 1970s, the stories that were told specifically about Black people in a newspaper like the Globe were often about crime. There was always some kind of pathology attached. Imagine the effect that it has on a kid when the only images they see or hear of themselves are negative stories, are stories which suggest that there’s something inherently criminal about people who look like them. Imagine the impact that it has on them when they see any kind of discussion, let’s say, about continental Africa, only if it involves some kind of pathology? That has a very real, material effect on an individual.

The other reason why it’s important is that I’m a citizen of this country. I have two kids, and they deserve every single opportunity that your kids have. They deserve to be able to participate in every space in this society, just like your kids do. So I feel as if we have a stake in every single institution in this country. Because the CBC isn’t owned by any particular group. It is owned by Canadians, or at least by all the people who live in this territory, and they have a right to have their story told with the same depth of sincerity and rigour and nuance as anyone else. This is about our humanity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that conference in Valleyfield and how emotional it was. What was really interesting to me was that a lot of the people who were considered the liberal progressives at the time were the ones who seemed to be most resistant to change.

What was the conflict about?

It was about, you know, the mechanisms that we use in order to make change in institutions. So it might have been a conversation about some form of affirmative action as a remedy for the kind of institutional entrenched imbalances that existed in Canadian media.

If I remember correctly, some of the liberal progressives were concerned. The feeling was that people of colour should allow progress to happen, and that progress was naturally going to occur and there didn’t need to be these kinds of interventions in order to make the change. For folks like Doug Saunders, a white journalist, and me, a Black journalist — we had a different conception of politics and the function of the media. For people who were in my circle, we were effectively struggling for our humanity. We weren’t necessarily thinking about a job or even a career in journalism. That wasn’t the point. What we were trying to do was change the power dynamic. We were trying to change the stories that were being told.

There is a conflict there that I feel like people are still not over, in acknowledging that there is a value to having people who are representative. It’s not just about fairness to that community. It’s going to impact the product. And I think a lot of people in our field do not recognize that, and disagree with that, on a basic level.

We all have things that have happened in our lives that inform the kind of individuals we become.

When I was nine years old, Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant, was shot by the Toronto police inside his home. It was a case of police brutality, and it had a huge effect on the Black Canadian community. Being exposed to that and having read about it, experiencing that moment, has affected who I am today. And it affects the way I approach some of these stories. These are stories that affect people who might be my friends, cousins, neighbours. Because I have a particular kind of grounding in some instances, it allows me to ask certain questions and even challenge power in a way that maybe others can’t because they don’t have that. And hopefully it leads to deeper, richer, more nuanced conversations.

If we don’t have that kind of diversity in our staff, then we’re not going to do good journalism. The team that eventually wins the Stanley Cup isn’t necessarily the team that’s the most talented; it’s usually the team that’s the most balanced. When you’re putting together a team and you really want to win, you’re trying to ensure that you’re going to be able to deal with every particular situation that you’re going to be presented with. If we want to do good journalism, we want to make sure that we have all the bases covered and that our staff at every level reflects the society that we’re covering. And if it doesn’t, then that’s bad management. That’s bad leadership.

This is not just about CBC. This is about every media organization in this country. We all need to scrutinize ourselves. The question that we always need to ask ourselves, wherever we are, is “Who is not at the table?” That’s a key question for journalists. We always need to be aware of who isn’t there and what isn’t being said. We need to be asking ourselves, “What are we missing?” And in including more people, perhaps we might get closer to a better understanding of the society in which we’re living.

I used to think that the way to have a non-racist organization was just to not be racist. And that’s not true. It takes work. When you’re trying to hire at senior levels, the structures of the world impact that.

The tendency is to hire your own, right? You hire people within your group. And what ends up happening when you do that is that you end up perpetuating the inequalities that exist in the society because not everyone has the same access to power. Not everyone has access to those networks. Not everyone gets those opportunities. And so we sometimes have to be intentional in recognizing our deficiencies as an organization and in addressing those gaps.

It’s a travesty in 2020 that any media organization could have a senior leadership comprised only of white people.

Now, we do need to acknowledge that progress has happened in our lifetime. Twenty, 30 years ago, a place like CBC was a male preserve. It was mainly men — mainly white men — who were in positions of power. Twenty, 30 years on, there has been a change. The fact that there are many more women in powerful positions at a place like CBC speaks to the struggles that women have been engaged in for a long time in order to create space for themselves. And that’s something that should be celebrated.

But there’s something missing there. White women have made progress, and they have access to power. But we don’t see a proportional representation of Indigenous women, women of colour, Black women in these senior positions. And that has an impact on the stories that we’re telling. It has an impact on our journalism. And it’s something that we really need to be concerned about. There’s no reason why what has happened to women, particularly white women, within a place like CBC, cannot happen to Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. There’s no reason why we cannot see that kind of power shift within the public broadcaster, and I would dare say at other media organs — at the National Post, at The Globe and Mail, at Canadaland, at the Toronto Star. At all the other media organizations in this country.

Early in your career, you were also involved in activism as the anti-racist project coordinator at the Global Community Centre in Kingston, Ontario. So you’ve encountered these issues in a variety of ways. Is that informing where you’re coming from now?

I think it’s important for us to talk about how we got to where we are. The reason why I came to journalism when I was at McGill was because I was involved in a movement. Nelson Mandela was still in jail in 1989, when I entered my first year at McGill. I was part of the anti-Apartheid group on campus, the Southern Africa Committee. I was the librarian for the Black Students’ Network, probably the most prominent group on campus at the time. And we saw media as being a way of trying to raise people’s consciousness about issues. We saw it as a way to tell different stories and change the narrative, because we saw the way in which our community was framed. My entry into journalism was through activism.

Am I still an activist? No. But I am interested in change, always. So yes, these are things that I’ve been preoccupied with for a long time.

I’ve been associated with CBC for 17, 18 years. I talk to people all the time. Every single person at CBC has politics. Everyone. There’s not a single person, not a single colleague who does not have politics. And you know what, sometimes your politics is that you have no politics — that you’re apolitical. That’s a position. Because when it comes to matters of a person’s humanity, if you don’t stand up for the person’s humanity, then that’s a problem.

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices state, “We are guided by the principle of impartiality.…CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality.” When a racialized CBC employee cannot agree online with the statement that Black Lives Matter, because that would count as taking a position on a controversial protest movement… Do we need to do away with this idea that journalists are just a voice from nowhere and don’t have a subjective reality or experience?

I was in a meeting with the president of the CBC this week, along with a number of Black colleagues across the country. That was a topic that came up. There’s lots of conversations happening right now, and that has come up in almost every single session. There’s a recognition that it’s not necessarily serving the corporation well — certainly not serving the journalists who work at the CBC well — and that we need to consider amending it.

Has it taken us too long to get to this point? I would say yes. What I would also say is that my humanity is never up for debate. I don’t debate my humanity, and I don’t think anyone should ever debate their humanity. My humanity is my humanity. When I affirm that, it’s not a political position.

What you recognize is that it’s all about power. It’s not about changing people’s minds, it’s not about appealing to the humanity or the niceness of management. People don’t willingly give up power. It’s when the circumstances change, so that, like, “Wow, if I want to maintain my legitimacy, this is a bad look. I’m gonna have to be more representative. I’m gonna have to give real power.” That’s when institutions change. The CBC has acknowledged that they have to hire differently. And they’ve done a decent job of that with who’s on air. But that hasn’t yet reached into senior management, into the board of directors, to the president and CEO.

I want to make something clear: I’m not pleading for a seat at the table. That’s not what I’m doing. And that’s certainly not what people in my circle are doing.

We’re saying that this organization cannot stand if we’re not there. It can’t continue if we’re not there. We have to be there; there’s not a debate. We own the place, just like everyone else owns the place. We have a right to be there. So it has to change, period.

Organizations are organic, right? They live and they die. And CBC can die. Like any other organization. It doesn’t have to. But I am fully comfortable with the notion that at a certain point, something needs to die. And then you create something anew. And that’s life. That’s not necessarily something to be afraid of, and I’m fully comfortable going down that route, if that’s the route that we need to go down.

But at this point, I think that there’s a possibility for transformation. How long that will last — who knows?

Top image from Harewood’s introduction to his interview with Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly on CBC Ottawa’s 6:00 newscast for June 1.

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