Duncan McCue is a national reporter for CBC-TV News in Vancouver, and his current affairs documentaries are featured on the CBC’s The National. His work has been nominated for Gemini and Webster awards, and he received an RTNDA Award for investigative reporting and multiple honours from the Native American Journalists Association for investigative, news and feature reporting. McCue is Anishinaabe and a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nations in southern Ontario. Throughout his career, he has worked diligently to bring Native stories into the mainstream media. He was recently appointed the first Visiting Professor in Media and Indigenous Peoples at the UBC School of Journalism.
During undergrad, you studied English and Journalism. Why the shift to law?
It had more to do with what I was doing in the rest of my life, and being Native. In my first summer job during my undergrad, I worked for a Native political organization in Ontario called the Union of Ontario Indians. I was excited about what was going on in Native politics at the time. That was in 1990, and 1990 of course is when Oka happened. It was a highly political time to be a young Native man. There was a lot of talk going on about the rights of our Nations and that was the environment that I found myself going to university in. I was wrestling with the questions “Why are we still under the Indian Act?” and “What does Section 35 mean?” At that point we were eight years into the [new] Constitution and there had been four conferences between the Government of Canada and Aboriginal leaders trying to define what Section 35 was going to mean. I grew up in a home where we talked about these things, so I was very conscious of the law and how the law had treated my people.
When you sit down and start thinking about the ways the Indian Act defines what I can do, I have been defined by the law. A lot of Canadians may not be conscious about how Supreme Court of Canada cases impact them, but Indians are. If you go down to Musqueum, they can tell you when they can go fishing, how much they can fish, and can probably discuss what a fiduciary responsibility means, because our rights have been defined by legal decisions. When I worked for the Indian political organization in Ontario, I found the Chiefs were often reliant upon the lawyers to tell them where they could go to direct politics and I thought, “I don’t always want to have to look over my shoulder and ask the lawyer, ‘What do we do next?’ ” I wanted to try to understand it.
Did you ever practice law?
No. I did my articles with a small firm in Gastown. I’d had a fantastic experience at UBC’s First Nations Legal Clinic and thought for a while that I wanted to be a criminal lawyer, but didn’t get a criminal article. My principal did primarily Aboriginal Law, and I did personal injury and wills and estates. At the same time, right through law school, I had been freelancing in journalism as well. Oddly enough, as I was articling at this small firm, I was called in to do a commentary at a local CBC station on Delgamuukw. Afterwards, one of the producers asked, “Have you ever thought about being a reporter?” I had done a couple of years of television, but had never thought about being a reporter until they offered me a job.
I was conscious as I was going through school of trying to keep up the two careers and I wanted to have the option open to me. It was a tough decision because I knew it was one of those tough crossroads: was I going to be a lawyer or was I going to be a TV guy? I wrestled with it for a long time.
As an Aboriginal journalist, did you face obstacles moving into the mainstream media?
The most obvious obstacle was that when I started I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked for a show called Road Movies and for YTV News, but that was an unusual experience in that they were asking for me to do commentaries. I could write whatever I wanted and they encouraged me to express my point of view. Journalism is a very different beast. The learning curve was huge for me, and the CBC, bless their hearts, took me on and I learned on the job. I was also the only Native reporter at CBC Vancouver for a long time. And still, there aren’t many of us. Also, I had some strong views about the ways that Aboriginal communities had been covered in the mainstream media and I wanted to change that. I found that it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was doing to be. It’s not that there was resistance to my ideas, but the definition of what makes news and what the lead story is—that definition has been around for a long time and my idea of what is newsworthy wasn’t always what my producers thought was newsworthy.
In the first couple of years, I was racing off to blockades and things like that, which was exciting and fun. But then after a while I thought, “There’s more to life in Native communities than blockades.” That’s when I started to pitch different ideas, and that’s when it became tougher for me.
You have covered some very difficult stories addressing social and political issues. How do you balance reporting on hard issues and reporting on the positive?
I think that is partly why I have been at the CBC so long. I don’t mind tackling tough issues in the Native community, whereas a lot of young Native people who come into the system want to tell positive stories. There’s an old line about the “Four Ds” of news coverage for Native people. They were either “drunk, dead or drumming or dancing.” And if you are not doing one of those things then you’re not going to make it on the news that night.
So there have been a lot of people who have said they want to promote more positive role models. I think there are all kinds of problems in Native communities that need to be addressed. Whether we are poaching eagles, or our kids are working the streets and being abused, or we’re dealing with financial accountability—those are all tough issues that communities are grappling with. I think Native reporters have a responsibility to try to report on those, and I can put things in context in a way that non-Native reporters might not be able to.
Is there a story that really resonates for you in your career?
The one I just did on Judge Ramsey [referring to “Abuse of Authority” which aired on CBC’s The National on September 17, 2007. The episode tells the story of Jennifer, a victim of former BC Judge David Ramsey who was convicted for sex crimes against young girls]. I first met Jen three years ago and did that interview, but I couldn’t put it to air because of a publication ban, and that was intensely frustrating. She resonated with me, really in a big way, partly because of her strength and because she isso articulate for a young woman who has been through so much. On a larger scale, what happened to her at the hands of David Ramsey stands for what has happened to a lot of Native people at the hands of a non-Native justice system.
Do you feel you are becoming a role model?
Yeah, I guess I am. But someone described me as the “first” Professor of Indigenous Media the other day, and I think that’s an awful thing. I think of Judge Scow coming to UBC, and all throughout his career being described as the “first Indian lawyer,” and the “first Aboriginal Judge,” and I think “poor Judge Scow.” First of all, being on your own for that length of time, but also that it’s not a thing to celebrate [being the first]. There should be a bunch of Aboriginal journalists. There are more today, but there are still not enough, which is part of the reason I have started teaching. There are no Aboriginal students at the Journalism school right now … and there need to be. If my going there helps some Native kid or even some middle-aged Native person think they can do it, then great.
Tell me more about what inspired you to become an educator.
CBC is a really great place to be. It is maybe not like it was 30 years ago, but it is still one of the premier training grounds for young journalists and technicians in Canada. Training has always been part of the CBC, to ensure we produce the kind of quality we expect of ourselves and that Canadians expect from us. Two or three years ago, I realized that if I am at all good at my craft, it’s in part due to the training I had, and that I wanted to pass that on—particularly because I despair about the small number of Native people who are going into journalism. There’s a strong network of Native newspapers and radio stations, and now we have APTN, so there’s lots of people interested in working within Indigenous media. But there are very few who want to make that cross-over into the mainstream, and there needs to be Native voices in the mainstream, otherwise our voices are not being heard in the full complexity that they should be.
What is the next career step for you?
I don’t know, but I am looking forward to finding out! I’ve always said if I get a gold watch from the CBC then I’ll be disappointed with myself because at some point I’d really like to help build the Indigenous media capacity in the country, and help shape it. And I haven’t done that yet, and I do feel a really strong responsibility. At some point, I would like to take some of the skills I have learned and try to blend it with my experience in the Native community and create something that would really knock the socks off of Native communities, and the rest of Canada.
Written by Penny Cholmondeley and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2008.