Starting the Conversation

By Nathaniel Marksman

Without intentionally meaning to put labels on what we perceive, people unconsciously make decisions that reflect certain biases.

It is difficult to admit it, but these biases have become part of society, like where to work or deciding who to hire for a new position.

After the spring of 2020 there was no denying the problems of racism and bias in Canada and the media industry was no exception.

In the fall of 2020, Humber College hosted a seminar called ‘Racism in the Newsroom: The Unapologetic Reckoning in Canadian Media’. The event attracted over 130 students and faculty and provided an inside view of how newsrooms tackle racism and inequality.

Not very well in most cases.

During the day-long seminar, a variety of stories and perspectives were shared. One of the stories really stood out for attendees that day. That speaker was Donnovan Bennett, an experienced host and senior writer for Sportsnet.

It was during the seminar when he said, “I’ve never had an executive above me, manager, editor, producer or anyone at a high level who has looked like me, never, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who this has happened to.”

Bennett was born in Canada but is of Caribbean heritage and describes himself as a family man who loves to spend time with his wife and child. He describes himself as self-driven and pursues stories he wants to cover, even if it means “going rogue” to get the right story.

Bennett is a reporter at heart who also enjoys covering sports stories like basketball and football, but that’s not the only journalism beat he enjoys covering.

“At this point in my career, I cover everything. I really cover human interest stories, cultural stories that transcend the individual sports they actually happen in. And so that’s, you know, an aspect of what I see in my daily life, both in and outside of the actual arenas, in offices,” Bennett says.

To most people, that does not seem like such a big deal when it comes to stereotypes, but in the Black community, it is prevalent, which is why some want to attain those levels of power to see a change.

Asha Tomlinson, an investigative reporter with CBC News and Marketplace, agrees.

“I can relate with Donnovan and agree that I can’t think of one senior executive or manager that was a person of colour or Black. Not in my entire career.”

Her stories have shed light on tech companies and personal data collection; anti-maskers and racism.

Tomlinson has travelled across Canada as a reporter and anchor, working for Global News in Winnipeg, CityTV in Edmonton and Iqaluit, Windsor and Toronto for CBC.

As a woman of Caribbean descent, Tomlinson has worked very hard pursuing her dreams of becoming a journalist.

“Growing up and the way I was raised, I have always had this perseverance just to keep plugging away and keep pushing on,” she says. “But I guess there was always the fear of being a dark-skinned woman who’s not thick-skinned. You know that was always a fear of, will I get a job? Will I be able to move up in the world?”

She has taken opportunities to explore different regions of Canada, which she says has helped her career immensely.

Tomlinson says she has an abundance of stories to tell about her past, paving her journey to the media industry.

But, one of Tomlinson’s hopes for the future generation of young Black people invested in pursuing journalism is that they will receive equal opportunities in prominent Canadian media outlets.

Like Tomlinson, Jaren Kerr is looking for change in Canadian media.

Kerr, who worked for the Toronto Star and Canada Land, is now a reporter for The Globe and Mail covering finance, politics, pandemic, and says he loves to pursue investigative stories. He has been working in the journalism industry for more than five years, and says he’s still learning and working his way up.

“We all want to see newsrooms become more diverse. We all want to see people of colour in senior positions,” Kerr says. “But if you are one of a couple in the newsroom, then you have something just by the fact of who you are. Quite possibly, that’s different. That’s unique. And that’s valuable.”

These journalists are among many in Canadian media who have stories and memories that they carry, reminding them of what it means to be viewed through the lens of colour instead of focusing on their abilities. Working in environments where most don’t know that it is a problem.

Peter Ash is a 23-year-old who works for TSN and understands this all too well. Ash is of mixed heritage, his mom was born in Nova Scotia, and his father born in Ghana. Before Ash even started his career, he encountered a situation that he never expected and it stays with him.

A professor at his Toronto university had just wrapped up the last lecture of the day, and a group of his peers stayed behind to chat and ask their professor a few questions.

Among them was a small group of students from various races, including Ash and other Black students. During the conversation, the professor had said something which shocked Ash and his classmates.

Ash said his professor told them “I didn’t really know racism existed in Canada.” At that moment he says, some students were angry and others remained silent.

“People in positions of power and people who have been around the industry still think like that,” Ash says.

“To me, it’s like, wow! But hearing something like that from someone who I respected very much. It was definitely, a game-changer.”

And while he had his opinions and his ways of dealing with the situation, a classmate with whom he graduated had a different reaction.

His classmate Adjani Ngako Toussaint, who is also 23, works for Project Canada and also heard the professor’s comment. She had to take a step back to realize what was said.

She remembers the incident vividly and her immediate reaction. “It’s a perfect example of the problems in the journalism industry,” Toussaint says. “Somebody, you’re supposed to be taking lessons from, somebody who’s supposed to teach you how to be a good journalist says something like there’s no racism in Canada.”

She says she realized then the necessity of self-education in school.

Change needs to start in education and continue in industry Bennett says.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Bennett says. “How stories are told matters and shapes our perceptions. We need more diversity in who has the ability to be on camera or write stories.”