Using true crime to teach Indigenous history: Reporter Connie Walker on ‘Finding Cleo’

Reporter Connie Walker. Photo courtesy of CBC.

Amid reports that the American government has forcibly separated children from thousands of migrant families, listening to a ten-part Canadian podcast about a vanished Indigenous child who had been a victim of her country’s systematic relocation efforts is doubly painful. The second season of the CBC’s Missing & Murdered, “Finding Cleo,” released in March, is widely listened to in Canada but not yet in the US.

The first season of Missing & Murdered, created by reporter Connie Walker and Marnie Luke, is about the decades-old case of 24-year-old Alberta Williams, an Indigenous woman murdered in British Columbia in 1989.

For the second season, Walker and her producer, Marnie Luke, found an even older case: Cleopatra Nicotine, a First Nations child last seen by her family in the 1970s.

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With not much more to go on than a photo of Cleo provided by her older sister, Christine, Walker and her team conduct its own investigation. Over the course of a year, the team interviews the girl’s biological family members, traversing parts of America and wending their way through our bureaucracies, and grappling with the deeds of the Canadian government: Cleo had been adopted during the Sixties Scoop, when tens of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted into white families.

Recently, Walker and I talked about the conception of Missing & Murdered, Indigenous representation in Canadian media, and her most difficult interviews. (Note: Throughout the podcast, there are conflicting accounts of what befell Cleopatra Nicotine. This interview does  not disclose what the investigation eventually uncovered.)

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How did you conceive Missing & Murdered?

I’m a Cree woman who happens to be a journalist at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. I’ve always been interested in reporting on Indigenous issues. But it’s only in the last five years that there’s been an appetite for stories from our community. I remember pitching my first MMIWG [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] ten or eleven years ago, and a producer said to mein the middle of a pitchThis isn’t another ‘poor Indian story,’ is it? There just wasn’t any appetite.

In 2015, we started a database of unsolved cases, 230 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. We tried to focus not only on the violence that resulted in their death or disappearance, but to show that the victims were loved and missed; they’re mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters.

We did a number of reports on the cases online and for television. One was the case of Leah Anderson, a 15-year-old, and I was frustrated that we weren’t able to tell the bigger picture. So much of what made her more vulnerable to violence was in her community; she was part of the child welfare system and she didn’t have equal access to education. That’s important context when we’re talking about Indigenous people in the media.

When we got a tip about the murder of Alberta Williams, we found people who had new information and had never spoken to police beforepeople who were there the night she had been killed. We turned it into a podcast because it gave us the space to fully explore these issues, to connect the dots for people. That was the first season.

 

How did you hear about the case of Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine?

Season one reached a pretty big audience in Canada. Cleo’s sister, Christine, had heard about the podcast, and sent me a story she had written about her sister and the questions she had about her disappearance. As soon as I saw her photo, I felt like I knew Cleo, that she could have been somebody that I grew up with on the reserve in Saskatchewan.

The only proof Christine had that her sister even existed was a tiny photograph, which she sent me. I’m looking at it right now because it’s still at my desk.

Christine told us how she and her family had been separated, and that their sister was stolen then murdered, and was missing. I felt there had to be more to this story. My producer, Marnie, was immediately captivated, too. We had no idea where it would end up a year later.

 

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Cleopatra’s disappearance is the engine of the story, but the Sixties Scoop is the larger tragedy. Why did you focus on it?

It was important for us not only to focus on an unsolved true crime case, but also examine the bigger picture. With the first season, we explored the issue generally. We touched on the effects and legacy of residential schools on families and communities, as well as the history of relationship between the police and the Indigenous. Alberta’s story was about these breakdowns in a police investigation that led to it being unsolved for 28 years.

Focusing on the Sixties Scoop was a facet of the second season. We’re trying to help people understand what the realities are for Indigenous people in Canada. Even though we have this shared historywe’ve lived alongside one another for 500 yearsthere is still such a lack of understanding.

 

That’s the value of true crime as a genre, right? To give a sense of the larger history.

We’re giving people the medicine alongside the treat. I think there’s such an appetite right now for true crime podcasts. It just seems insatiable.

I’m not actually interested in true crime. I don’t listen to other true crime podcasts. I am mostly interested in the context.

Obviously, we didn’t have the expectation that we were going to uncover everything that did, about what happened to Cleo and her family. But we knew we wanted to tell the story of this family, and their experiences within the child welfare system. In order to do that, we had to tell the story of their mother and what happened to her that led to all six of her children being adopted into white families and scattered across North America. It’s a story about a mystery and the death of a young girl, but it’s also a story about the effects of colonization on Indigenous women and girls.

 

Going into season 2, how much did you know about the Sixties Scoop?

What I knew was mostly from personal experience growing up in Saskatchewan, rather than anything that was ever taught in schools. I’ve been reporting on Indigenous issues and communities for a number of years. I had done a story five or six years ago with a family from my own community of Okanese. There was a woman whose three children were taken during the Scoop. I also worked on “8th Fire,” a four-part series focused on our shared relationship, but told through mostly Indigenous voices. There was an element of the Sixties Scoop there as well.

 

How did you prepare for season 2?

I wouldn’t say there was much initial preparation. With any kind of investigative story, you just don’t necessarily know what you’re getting into. But there was a lot of preparation once we began.

During our first conversation with [Cleo’s sister] April, she reveals some of the challenges that she’s still living with today, that she feels were a result of childhood trauma. There was a lot of discussion between my team and I about how to approach thatwhether we should even visit her at all: What responsibility did we have as journalists, but also as human beings?

I don’t want to leave people in a worse situation. When you’re dealing with Indigenous communities, trauma is interwoven into so many aspects of life. You have to be careful and respectful of how that impacts people.

 

There’s an extraordinary scene with Cleopatra’s old school friend, Jill. It’s the first time we hear from a classmate, and she reacts with surprising emotion. You’re talking to her and she tells you to turn off the recorder. You do, but then you secretly turn it back on. Had she not agreed later to talk to you, would you have kept that in the podcast?

No. But we stayed in touch with her and she agreed to do an on-the-record interview. After that interview, we decided we would ask if we could use that first recording because it was such a great moment. When she said yes, we were relieved. But no, I don’t think we would have used it otherwise. Although we really, really wanted to.

 

At the outset of this project, did you entertain the possibility that Cleopatra was alive? I personally held out some hope.

We didn’t know for sure, but I would have been very surprised. There was even a point where Christine says after a call with the government of Saskatchewan, “Maybe she’s still alive?” But by the time we were writing the episodes, we knew the whole story.

 

I’m guessing that, at various points, being Cree was helpful to this project. Was it ever a hindrance?

I don’t think so. You’re right and that it’s generally beneficial for me, because there’s a lot of mistrust or apprehension in Indigenous communities when it comes to talking to mainstream media. For so long, our stories have been misrepresented, or underrepresentedor there’s only interest when there’s a terrible conflict or crisis. There’s overrepresentation of negative stories that don’t reflect the diversity in our communitiesthere are so many individual nations across the countrybut also the diversity of experiences. We’re more than stories of violence or the suicide epidemic or protests, or whatever the common tropes are. So people are willing to talk to me.

 

Of the dozens of interview you conducted, which was the most difficult?

The interviews with all of Cleo’s siblings were difficult. When you’re reporting on an issue where there hasn’t been a lot of media coverage, that helps you. I get asked, How did you convince them to talk to you? Well, I say, I don’t think I convinced them. I think this is the first time that anyone had ever asked. These stories have not been given the attention they deserve and not been recognized as important. There’s so many families out there who have not been given even the opportunity to tell their story or to share their experience, or to honor their loved one, or to talk about their quest for justice.

As much as people want to share their story, the flip side is that it’s also very hard; the thread of trauma throughout so many communities and families really compounds the devastation. They’re often very emotional. I always want to be sensitive, and give space, and check in with people throughout project, but I also want to leave them in a good place, you know?

Cleo’s siblings all experienced the child welfare system. They had very different experiences, but all were equally devastating. Those were very hard conversations. Interviews with family members are definitely the hardest, and they stay with you, and you worry about them long after they’re over. You feel a responsibility to not do more harm.

 

You say you want to leave them in good place, but that’s not always possible, right?

It’s about not having the last thing be some terrible revelation. Like, Okay, we’re done.

I want to give people the space to talk about that and not to feel rushed. One of my colleagues, Duncan McCue, who is also Indigenous, does a lot of reporting in the Indigenous community. He talks about being a storyteller and not a storytaker. It’s about being respectful of the people that you’re reporting on, but also amplifying voices as opposed to telling stories for people.

 

There were some genuinely shocking moments in “Finding Cleo.” Like, for example, accidentally meeting one of Cleopatra’s old friends. In such situations, how do you maintain your composure?

I don’t know that I necessarily do. I’m thinking of when we were in New Jersey with Christine. We had just had coffee with her and Jill. We imagined it would be a short, quick interview in the parking lot. She’d tell us what was it like to meet a childhood friend of her sister that she’d been searching for. And then Christine revealed the abuse that she experienced as a child, which she hadn’t disclosed to us before.

I remember being overcome in that moment. There was no composure. I couldn’t separate myself as a person from the reporter who’s supposed to be somewhat composed.

 

One of the more shocking interviews was with Florence and Otto Driedger, a former Saskatchewan director of welfare. Why did they talk to you?

They had been asked for interviews before and were hesitant. In the last few years, the Sixties Scoop has gotten some attention in Canada — and rightly so — It’s been largely focused on the survivors and how it’s impacted them and their families. There hasn’t been necessarily the same kind of deep dive into the A.I.M. [Adopt Indian Métis] program, so I think the Driedgers talked to us because we were doing such a comprehensive look at it. We wanted to be as representative as we could about all of the different shades of gray. There were so many factors impacting the decisions of social workers, of parents, and of bureaucrats.

We spent quite a bit of time with them. We wanted to make sure to show that these decisions were made by social workers who didn’t necessarily understand Indigenous family systems, and who came at cases with a Eurocentric view that didn’t incorporate Indigenous knowledge or family communities, but who maintain they had the best of intentions and sometimes encountered children living in terrible circumstances, and they did what they believed they needed to do to help them.

 

It’s an eight-hour project, and the whole thing is devastating for the listener. How did you deal emotionally with the material?

I don’t know that I was quite prepared for it because I hadn’t worked on a story that was that intensive for that length of time. One of the heaviest parts was the feeling that this is something that is happening to them right now. We’re talking about what happened to them as children, but also they’re still living this.

We all had moments where we felt the weight of everything that we were trying to produce. But I feel like because I’m an Indigenous woman, I have a particular motivation to do this kind of work, right? It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it motivates me to hopefully help people understand part of my own story.

That’s why I am an investigative journalist. The stories that I do are sometimes more difficult, but that’s a part of life for us. But there are other parts as well; there’s so much strength and resilience that comes out through the telling of Cleo’s story, and that exists in my family and in my community, too. It’s a common thread in all Indigenous families and communities. I draw strength from that.

 

During production, how much of the outside world did you let in?

When I’m working on a really intense story, and I don’t want to be more immersed in the same subject matter during my leisure time, I knit and I sew a lot. That is my stress relief. I watch a lot of Mad Men. It’s one of my favorite shows.

I work a lot from home. I was writing evenings and weekends, and it would not be uncommon for me to have a script due at 10:00 a.m. and be up at 5:00 a.m. working on it. It was taxing. I also have a daughter. She’s six and she was upset that she couldn’t listen to the podcast. Why can’t I listen?

 

You must have hugged her extra tight during the production.

Honestly, it’s hard to even fathom having all those experiences.

My father went to a residential school when he was a child. My grandparents both went to residential schools, and my grandmother ran away from one in Manitoba. She made it back home to Saskatchewan and she never went to school again after that. My grandfather went to a residential school when he was six years old until he was in grade eight. So these are not stories and issues that I can separate from myself. That’s something that gives me an insight that maybe non-Indigenous journalists don’t have, but in some ways that also makes it harder to separate from the story.

 

Is there anything you regret leaving out of “Finding Cleo”?

There was a murder trial that was happening in Saskatchewan involving the death of a young, indigenous man named Colten Boushie. He was shot by a farmer after going onto his property. This was a high-profile case that ignited a lot of the racial tension in the province. The farmer, Gerald Stanley, was eventually acquitted of Colten’s murder.

I felt Colton and Cleo were actually from the same area. Colten was from Red Pheasant and Cleo was from Little Pine, but they’re very close together. Colten’s mother’s last name is Baptiste and Cleo’s mother’s maiden name was Baptiste. I don’t know what family connection there actually was between them, if any, but I remember thinking, as I was writing Cleo’s story and exploring the systemic and institutional racism and how it impacted her life in the 1970s, that there were many parallels between the stories of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan and Cleo.

There should have been a way to incorporate some of that or try to draw the parallel to what the reality of life is for young Indigenous people in Saskatchewan today. Has it changed? Was a better than when Cleo was a young indigenous Cree girl in Saskatchewan?

That trial wrapped up in mid-February and our first episode started rolling out at the beginning of March, so I never had the space or capacity to figure out how to draw that parallel.

 

You cited Duncan McCue as an Indigenous colleague. Are there others?

We’re still very underrepresented in newsrooms, but CBC has made a really big commitment, especially in the last few years, to improve our numbers and to prioritize inclusion and diversity, and to improve our coverage of Indigenous communities across the country.

In 2013, I helped start what was then called the Aboriginal Unit at CBC. It was a digital space that aggregated content from across the network. Before we started Aboriginal, there was not a dedicated hub or space for our stories, or for our community to access our content. Now it’s called CBC Indigenous. We have a team of ten reporters and producers, all but one Indigenous, across the country. It’s been a huge transformation.

 

You must have at least some anger that it took people so long to realize the importance of Indigenous stories.

What I feel most is relief that there’s finally recognition, that there’s finally an interest and appetite where there wasn’t before. Because these stories have always been important to me, and affect my community and family.

I don’t want this to stop. I feel like there’s so much more that people aren’t taught in schools, that people don’t know about our shared history. People don’t really understand what’s behind the headlines that we see about the number of Indigenous women are victims of violence or about the incarceration rate for Indigenous youth in Canada. We just had a report this weekend that over half the youth incarcerated in this country are Indigenous. And in Saskatchewan, where I’m from, 98 percent of the girls that are incarcerated are Indigenous.

We’re hearing these stories all the time, and I think they actually serve to perpetuate these stereotypes and misconceptions about what life is like for Indigenous people. My job as a journalist is to shine a light on how we got to this point.

 

Are there certain subjects that can only be covered by an Indigenous reporter or a Cree reporter?

I feel that, but I also don’t think we can be the only ones who tell these stories. The reality is that we need non-Indigenous journalists to also take up this work, to think about what it means to thoughtfully represent or amplify voices from a marginalized community. We need to educate each other, to be a resource for each other to do a better job.

 

Listening to “Finding Cleo” was especially horrifying, what with reports of the United States essentially abducting the children of immigrants.

The podcast is really an exploration of the trauma that children experience, about what Cleo and her siblings experienced when they were taken from not only their communities and their families, but their siblings as well. That’s had a lifelong impact.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.