Five people gathered around facing a desk
KSS students went to work with Concordia journalism students to put their stories together. Photo by Robin Della Corte

Building bridges between Indigenous high school students and journalism

CBC journalist Kristy Snell on the collaboration between her Concordia journalism students and Kahnawake Survival School and how partnerships can inspire Indigenous youth to tell their own stories Continue Reading Building bridges between Indigenous high school students and journalism

There’s a part of me that still can’t believe the chair of Concordia University’s journalism school ever agreed to what I was pitching.

“I want to throw my students into the back of a 10-year-old Toyota and cross the Mercier Bridge to teach journalism to high school kids in Kahnawà:ke.”

The pitch was slightly more elegant than that, but you get the idea.

I was just starting a one-year term as journalist-in-residence after reading morning radio newscasts at CBC Montreal for 14 years, and was considering projects to pursue during my time at Concordia.  

I’ve spent my career as the only Indigenous journalist in nearly every newsroom I’ve worked in. I’ve also seen the stats: the Canadian Association of Journalists found in its 2023 Newsroom Diversity survey that Indigenous journalists continue to be underrepresented in management, with most Indigenous journalists in part-time positions or intern roles. 

So I kept coming back to one question: how can we get more Indigenous youth interested in studying journalism?      

What I eventually came up with was an idea for a collaboration between Concordia’s Journalism department, Kahnawake Survival School, and CBC. My class of third and fourth-year journalism students would mentor Grade 11 students as they worked to create original journalism for CBC Montreal’s website and airwaves. We could call it the KSS Newsroom Project.   

After getting the go-ahead from Concordia, I reached out to the KSS administration, which expressed interest and agreed to meet. The managing editor at CBC Montreal seemed enthusiastic. But I was still wondering how to make this into a productive and meaningful relationship between the two sets of students. Would our Concordia students want to work as mentors? Would the KSS students be interested in journalism? How would we make this work?   

I was nervous heading into the exploratory meeting at the school in Kahnawà:ke. As an Indigenous educator and researcher, I approach any Indigenous-related project or research with two guiding principles in mind: 1) What is the benefit to the community? And 2) What kind of ancestor do I want to be?   

My goal was to create a meaningful learning experience that would empower both sets of students, and I wanted to convince the KSS administration that we would approach this in a good way (which encompasses “the right way” while it also reflects honouring Indigenous principles and methodologies).      

KSS had reason to be wary. I learned that in the past, certain organizations and individuals had tried to take advantage of school partnerships, entering into projects with an agenda or ignoring consent issues when it came to the students and publicity. During that first meeting, the educators I spoke with were thoughtful and thorough, with a list of questions about the project and how it would operate. They were dedicated to ensuring a safe and positive educational experience, offering suggestions as I outlined my proposal. I assured them that we would approach this as a partnership and not just a project, that the students’ well-being was our priority, and that we would not post photos or anything else without advance consent. I completed the school’s ethics review of the proposal, and was grateful and relieved when we were given the green light.  

We had ourselves a collaboration.

But even though we had the go-ahead from all sides, we were still a long way from entering the classroom in Kahnawà:ke. Part of the project I’d pitched involved several weeks of learning and preparation for my Concordia journalism students. They couldn’t simply wander into the high school without a solid foundation of knowledge and an understanding of what was expected of them.  

I had just four Concordia students in the Fall 2022 semester as I was creating a brand-new course while building this initiative. My tiny class got to work learning about our collective history in Canada, focusing on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #86, which calls on journalism programs to teach about treaties, Crown-Indigenous relations, the legacy of residential institutions and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. My students also learned about the Sixties Scoop and the Indian Act. I wanted them to understand policies and systems which have historically caused harm, many of which continue to affect us today.  

Three students sitting around a desk.
Photo by Robin Della Corte

They analyzed media coverage of Indigenous stories and reflected on their own positionality, considering the lens through which they view the world. And they did some reading and learning about Kahnawà:ke, because if you’re going to be working in a community, you should get to know it.

They also worked on positive feedback and refreshing the journalism skills they’d be using while working with the students at KSS. The student journalists would be working from a step-by-step guide book I’d created, but I wanted my Concordia crew to have the vocabulary and tools to explain things with confidence and kindness. I found my students to be incredibly open, receptive, and positive about the entire process.  

Meanwhile, I was also working with educators at KSS to plan scheduling and figure out how this would all come together.  

They decided that the fall semester pilot project should be extracurricular and suggested a slideshow presentation for all the Grade 11 students, explaining what we would be doing and inviting them to come out and work with us. The students were polite and asked questions, but I had no idea whether any would actually want to stay after school for an hour to learn about journalism. We couldn’t believe it when ten showed up for our first session, although it quickly whittled down to four stalwarts who stuck through to the end.

I was amazed at how quickly the two groups of students came together and started working, even in that first session. My aim was for each KSS student to find a story idea and maybe even the names of a few people they might interview for the story. Their only restriction was that there had to be a connection to their community. KSS teachers had told me some previous partners had pushed students toward certain topics or issues, so we wanted to ensure they felt free to report on what they liked.  By the end of that first session, several of the students were already on track with ideas and names.

Subsequent sessions had a similar rhythm. We’d pull up in my aging Toyota carrying doughnuts, there’d be some laughs and chatting about things unrelated to journalism, and then they’d get down to business. There’s a lot to process when you’re just starting to learn about reporting: finding the focus of the story, planning interviews, booking and doing interviews, choosing quotes, planning the story, and writing. The KSS students even took their own photos, which we discussed and planned.  

Our Concordia team didn’t push at all as we did this work—we facilitated and suggested, but KSS determined the pace. This project was extracurricular and the groups were having fun as things progressed, but we soon started noticing how quickly the end of the semester was approaching. We’d planned for four sessions together and the KSS students did do some work outside the sessions, but I’d clearly underestimated how long this would take. They were just starting to write when it ended. 

My Concordia students were fairly philosophical about it. Talia Kliot later wrote, “I’ve really enjoyed making these connections and getting to share my love for journalism with them.” 

“Our goal wasn’t to get a few articles published with the CBC and then walk away. It was to get the ball rolling, create interest in journalism, and improve representation within the field,” another student, Evan Lindsay, wrote. “I am very proud of the work that we have done and thankful to have been a part of it.”  

Two students in a podcast studio facing mics
Students appeared on CBC Radio’s Let’s Go to talk about their unique collaboration. Photo by Robin Della Corte

But even though they didn’t seem to mind not actually finishing the stories, I felt badly. Both sets of students had been so excited and invested, and my feeling was that I’d somehow failed them in building up this CBC publication finish line that they would never get to see.   

Nevertheless, the school liked the project and believed in it. Our partners there now trusted us enough to shift us into a film and media class for the winter semester, making our collaboration part of the actual Grade 11 curriculum. I was thrilled, but after not publishing anything the previous semester, the stakes now felt astronomically high.  

I had 11 students in my class for the winter semester and we immediately got going on our preparation process.    

Then, in mid-January, I was surprised when one of the KSS students we’d worked with in the fall got in touch, saying she wanted to try to publish her story.  Wahsontanoron Jamie Diabo had been quietly working on a feature about her cousin, a Kahnawà:ke-based fashion designer doing a show at New York Fashion Week. Jamie was sharp and a hard worker; spending each after-school session with her head down, writing furiously in her notebook. She had a full story written and ready for me to look at, so I went out to KSS to help her get it ready for a CBC edit.  Jamie had done a remarkably solid job; we talked it through and she added a few sentences, made a few small changes, and off it went.  

On Feb. 7, CBC Montreal published Jamie’s first story on its website.  

Jamie had done it. She’d actually done it.  

And that one story was enough to convince me: we can do this.  

I should point out that it was only at this point that Concordia posted online about the KSS Newsroom project. We were proud of the work we were doing, but I felt it was critical that we wait until we had established a solid relationship with KSS before posting anything. Concordia continues to ensure that KSS has given consent to any and all content shared online (including this article). This type of approval process is not traditional practice in journalism, but in this particular context, informed consent is a critical component of the partnership.

A few weeks after Jamie’s story was published on the CBC website, we arrived for our first radio session as part of an actual class at Kahnawake Survival School. I asked the KSS students whether they listened to radio newscasts and they looked at me like I was an alien. “What about podcasts?” I asked. “Do you listen to any podcasts?” One student answered that he thought he’d listened to one once. Maybe. But he wasn’t sure.

It turns out that the shorter story format of radio news is an excellent way to teach young people about journalism. Every class, I’d show a few slides to introduce a concept, and they’d use the guide books I’d created to work their way through the process. We also showed them how to use real newsroom-quality recording equipment but it felt complicated and cumbersome; the students were more nimble and happy when using their phones to record.

The new cohorts of students connected quickly, showing each other videos on their phones and talking about homework and politics and life. The KSS kids quickly figured out how to tease the Concordia students, with the word “beast” being tossed around amid the laughter.

This relaxed approach mattered. Part of my goal with this project was for my Concordia students to recognize the importance of building relationships and really getting to know communities when working on Indigenous-related stories. For nearly all of my students, this was the first time they’d spent any meaningful time in an Indigenous space and I hoped it would teach them that Indigenous people are so much more than just stories of trauma and stereotypes. I wanted the two groups of students to form connections and get to know each other. To learn and grow, yes, but also to have fun.

The students stepped up, planning stories about language revitalization and culture, ways to give back to your community, and even Kahnawà:ke’s history of legends and spirits. The KSS students interviewed teachers, firefighters, iron workers and others who call Kahnawà:ke home. They’d email me the interview files, I’d get them transcribed and send them back, and they’d choose their clips and start writing.  Their teachers were copied on all emails, as we wanted to ensure everything was transparent and that everyone was kept up to date on progress.

Things were moving along well, but still not quite quickly enough. Scheduling sessions with two groups of students had been a challenge; we’d all worked around field trips and exams and the fact our spring breaks did not match up, breaking up weeks of working time. The plan was for the KSS students to come to Concordia’s journalism department for a tour and voicing/editing session in early April, but the end of the semester was bearing down on us.  We bumped the visit back a few days, to give the students a bit more time. 

On the day the KSS students came to Concordia, I was worried. None of the seven teams had a story ready to voice, and all I was thinking was: just one story, folks. You’ve got this. We just need one group to finish a story to know we can do it. Just one. We can do this. 

The KSS students arrived with lacrosse sticks and good humour, touring the radio newsroom and having some fun in the television studios before settling down to work. In an instant, the groups’ collective energy completely changed — you could feel them suddenly get more serious, knowing that they had a deadline and a job to do.   

For the next couple of hours, we had tiny clusters of students working EVERYWHERE, scattered around the radio newsroom and a neighbouring classroom with heads down, murmuring about the writing, asking questions, and making the odd phone call to check on details. It was quiet for a while as they worked.   

Then one group put their heads up and said, “Uh … we think we’re ready for a vet”.

I went over and checked the script — and it was good.  After a few tweaks, they went off to a booth to rehearse and record.   

They’d done it. We had a story.  

But there was no time to revel in it; another group was soon ready for a vet. I went through the script with them, and they, too, went off to voice.

We continued this way, with me focusing on the writing while Concordia’s multi-media instructor AJ Cordeiro handled the voice recording.  Each group had chosen one student to do the voicing, and one by one, they went into the studio and sat behind the mic. This was brand new for the KSS students and many were nervous, but AJ’s warmth and steady praise helped to make them more comfortable.  Some of my Concordia students also sat with them to provide support and I later heard their voices on the recordings, gently giving advice to the younger students and cheering when they did a good take.

Things continued this way until it was time for the KSS crew to leave. And when the bus pulled out and the dust cleared, we shook our heads at the story count.

Seven. There were seven stories.

Every group had completed the project.  Every student would have something to show for their work. 

They’d done it.  

Four people around a desk with mics.
Photo by Robin Della Corte

CBC Montreal — which has been an amazing partner in all of this — agreed to play the stories on its afternoon radio program Let’s Go. The show also invited a team of Concordia and KSS students into the studio for an interview about their work together. And here, one of the KSS students taught me a valuable lesson.  

The host, Sabrina Marandola, asked young Wyatt Harper what the experience had been like for him.  

Wyatt told her he’d enjoyed it and said, “It was a fun group to work with, having some laughs, getting some memories put in … I’d do this again.”

It took me a moment to realize … he hadn’t mentioned the story at all.  

What actually mattered to Wyatt was the fun he’d had.  

It was a powerful reminder about priorities, and about embracing the process. After all the worries and stress about stories being published or airing, it was a reminder that the learning doesn’t happen at the finish line; it happens during the race.  And the students had run a great race.

But it turned out … they weren’t finished.

One of the KSS students who’d been part of the original pilot project back in the fall, Zye Rashontiiostha Mayo, decided he wanted to finish his web story. Zye had been working on a fantastic piece about a longtime Kanien’kéha language teacher at his school, and asked if I’d help him develop it enough for a CBC edit. I went out to KSS and we talked it through. Then he sent a draft off to CBC, which helped him polish it up.  

On June 7, 2023, CBC Montreal published Zye’s story on its website.  

And we still weren’t done.

One of the KSS educators contacted me to say that Jamie had written a second story and was wondering whether CBC might take it. Jamie had done the work on her own from start to finish; coming up with the idea, doing the interview, choosing quotes, and writing the story.  We did a bit of story development, but the rest was all Jamie. CBC published her second story — about a fitness instructor working to empower others in the community — on June 15.

CBC also requested an hour-long network radio show about the project, after our appearance on Let’s Go. Our radio special “Using Our Voices” aired nationwide on Thanksgiving Monday, featuring the students’ stories and several other produced pieces about ways young people in Kahnawake are using their voices. We also put together a story about the KSS graduation; it was such a gift to go and see the students we’d worked with all dressed up and proud.

Concordia’s department of journalism has since renewed my contract for a second term, and we’ve launched another year of the KSS Newsroom Project with two new cohorts of students. We had 16 students show  up for our first after-school session this fall, and it has been exciting to watch the older and younger students connect and start building their stories together.  We’re comfortable in the work now; the partners know what our students are capable of achieving and are looking forward to seeing what these new groups come up with.  

At this point, it’s impossible to say for certain whether we’ll actually see any journalism careers grow from the collaboration. The KSS students we first worked with have all graduated and are busy with their next steps; some are continuing their education, some are working, and others are learning a trade. They’ve moved on.  

But one little email gives me a bit of hope.

Right after the CBC Radio special aired, I sent the link to one of the former KSS students, who is now studying at a two-year college in Montreal. She emailed back to say thank you. 

She also mentioned that she was looking into studying journalism.