How I got the story: CAJ award-winner Andrew Stobo Sniderman on residential schools

Andrew Stobo Sniderman explains how, on a whim, he ended up bearing witness to stories of pain and suffering of First Nations peoples who survived Canada’s residential schools.

Reconciling with the past

Introduction by David McKie

Andrew Stobo Sniderman explains how, on a whim, he ended up bearing witness to stories of pain and suffering of First Nations peoples who survived Canada’s residential schools.

Reconciling with the past

Introduction by David McKie

Successive federal governments have attempted to tackle the problems affecting First Nations, especially people living on reserves. Poverty, poor housing, sub-standard education and suicide create far too many headlines that lead to outrage and political concern from well-meaning politicians, but few long-lasting solutions.

Native leaders and the federal government can't agree on how to improve education for children on reserves, so the two sides have stopped talking.

The anniversary of last year's housing crisis in Attawapiskat is fast approaching. Chances are, there will be stories reflecting the sad reality that little has changed since the Cree First Nation declared a state of emergency and called in the Red Cross.

What has received less attention, but may hold the key to important reforms is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that's still holding hearings delving into the abuse that Aboriginal students suffered at residential schools, which date back to the 1870s with the last one closing in 1996.

Last year, the commission issued what should have been a wake-up call.  In its interim report, the commission suggested ways to help former residents and their families move forward and end the generational cycle of misery that has characterized the lives of too many First Nations Communities.

It is against this backdrop that Andrew Stobo Sniderman's explanation of how he got his story, "Residential schools: Survivors share the pain," becomes an instructive read. But more than that, perhaps his account should remind us of the importance of continuing to tell stories that need to be heard, even if we think we think the headlines have a sense of Déjà vu.


CAJ Winner in the PRINT FEATURE category:

Andrew Stobo Sniderman: Residential schools: Survivors share the painMontreal Gazette


It seemed like I was doing everything backwards: I picked my subject before I had a story, and I wrote before getting paid. In the end, I produced my best feature ever and even managed to break even.

In the spring of 2011, I attended a speech by Marie Wilson, one of the commissioner’s of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was then travelling across Canada to gather testimony of Aboriginal people who attended residential schools. It seemed terribly important, so I decided this was something I wanted to learn and write about.

Residential schools were places where the Canadian government tried to turn Aboriginal students into English-speaking Christians. They were run by clergy and have become virtually synonymous with acts of abuse and cultural assimilation. The last one closed in 1996, and about 80,000 survivors of residential schools are still alive. Now the former students would finally be sharing their stories.

A few days after Wilson’s speech, I called the TRC headquarters and said I wanted to write something about its work. “We have a spare seat on the plane with the commissioners,” a press officer said. “We are leaving in five days. Meet us in Yellowknife.” So I did, and off we went on a week-long tour of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Very few “southern” reporters were taking the time to attend the TRC’s hearings in the North. I was the only journalist following the commission except for a group of CBC North reporters I met at an event in Yellowknife. Being a solitary journalist is a good feeling, partly because you don’t feel rushed by the competition, and partly because you know you’re covering something neglected.

I was subsisting on a freelancer’s budget—that is, a shoestring. Food and lodging in the North are jaw-droppingly expensive. After a fifty dollar lunch at a hotel, I chuckle-sighed and decided I had to figure out an alternative. This was a problem easily resolved by northern hospitality. In each community we visited, I would talk with locals and soon find myself invited to spend the night.

On my first night in Cambridge Bay, I stayed with a kind woman named Helen Tologanak who served me bannock and tea. She told me stories about her son, Julian. He had died the year before after he jumped out of a commercial airplane at an altitude of over 7,000 metres. I slept in his old room, in his old bed. The next day, Helen gave testimony about her experience with residential schools.

The hearings were often very difficult to attend. There some hopeful stories of recovery and forgiveness, but mostly you’d hear terrible tales of abuse. I tried to listen as carefully as I could, to empathize as much as I could bear. Every hour or so I would duck out and try to get some fresh air. I’d try to call home when I had signal in an effort to dissipate the sadness creeping in. Sometimes the mental health workers taking care of the survivors would come chat, you know, just to see how things were going.

I took notes, copious notes (by hand, gasp!). It was only near the end of the trip that I decided to shape the narrative around the storytellers and one of the commissioners, Wilton Littlechild, who had also attended residential school.

When I returned to Montreal I gathered my notebooks. I decided that the survivors told their story better than I could. That’s when the first and best portion of my article, a collage of their statements, took shape. The best thing I did as a writer was to get out of the way.

Next, I e-mailed all the major papers in Canada pitching the story. I had never published anything in a newspaper, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The Montreal Gazette quickly took me up on the offer, and asked for an additional 1,500 word article to accompany the collated testimony. And just like that, I got the biggest audience I’ve ever had for the best story I’ve ever written.

To others I’d say: if you have the luxury of time, you don’t need a detailed plan. Just dive in and you’ll always find a buyer for good work.


Andrew Stobo Sniderman is a freelance journalist who has written for Maclean’s, Maisonneuve, This, the Montreal Gazette, London’s Sunday Times and the New York Times. His writing is collected at