Mervin Brass remembers looking up at a wall of prominent Canadian journalists in Regina in the fall of 1992.
Before him were the likenesses of such Canadian journalistic titans as Allan Fotheringham, Pamela Wallin, Peter Mansbridge and Knowlton Nash. He was at the time a student at the University of Regina, studying journalism and communications. He remembers being struck by two thoughts.
First, “there are no Indigenous people on that wall.” Second, “I want to be on that wall.”
As the newly appointed senior managing director of CBC North, Brass is making it a priority to increase Indigenous representation in the media so that more Indigenous journalists can find themselves on that wall.
Brass, hailing from the Key First Nation in Saskatchewan, formerly assumes his new role on Oct. 19. He was announced Janice Stein’s successor in a press release Oct. 2, following her retirement late last month. The CBC is still in the process of hiring a recruit to fill Brass’s former position of CBC North’s managing editor, a role he served in for four years.
His career has been one of “highs and lows and lots of hard work,” he said.
“There’s been disappointment in my career where I couldn’t get a job I applied for,” he said. “But I firmly believe that every time something happens, it’s for a reason. It’s guiding you into a certain direction.”
As the post changes hands, the North is once again being considered its own news region with the three territories, as opposed to its previous grouping with Saskatchewan and Manitoba as a “super-region.”
Still, Brass acknowledges that between the territories, “we’re all three different regions with different priorities.”
While he will remain stationed in Yellowknife, he will be travelling constantly to hear from residents of the different communities.
At the top of Brass’s priorities is increasing Indigenous representation in newsrooms. He said that once he officially assumes the senior managing role, he plans to meet with communities, educators, institutions and language specialists to create a strategy to offer Indigenous media studies courses at the high school level for students to get “a taste of what the media is about,” he said.
Brass said those types of introductory courses “could spark some interest,” and possibly lead to a year-long training program.
“We need Indigenous storytellers,” he said. “We need Indigenous representation at all levels of the media. Not just at the CBC, but all other media organizations. We need reporters, managers, editors, publishers and producers. We need to get these Indigenous perspectives out into the media to tell those stories.”
In the meantime, Brass said the CBC is working to increase its Indigenous language programming. One project in development to that end is a podcasting project with previously recorded stories from Elders from the 1970s and `80s that has been archived and is now being revived.
Brass has noted the importance of producing Indigenous language content and described how his parents, residential school survivors, spoke their languages – his father Anishaanabe and his mother Cree – but neither Brass nor his siblings spoke the language fluently.
He recalls sitting at traditional ceremonies growing up and not understanding what was happening in front of him.
“I did my best, you know, I would pray when I was there,” he said. “But it just felt like I wasn’t fully a participant. When you don’t have your culture, for me anyways, I feel literally empty inside. Like there’s a void.”
“Our culture is tied to the land, our language is tied to the land. So without that language you have that disconnect. And we are the people, the stewards of the land.”
On progressing into his new role, Brass said he’s “honoured” and “excited” about it.
“It’s going to be a challenge but I’m looking forward to it,” he said.