Leading the way

J-Source's Lauren McKeon joins the audience in Toronto as APTN's Cheryl McKenzie speaks with warmth, wit, and self-deprecation about the aboriginal network, and her own personal journey.

J-Source's Lauren McKeon joins the audience in Toronto as APTN's Cheryl McKenzie speaks with warmth, wit, and self-deprecation about the aboriginal network, and her own personal journey.

First the elder speaks, burning sage in front of the microphone, the screen, and the flashing face of APTN’s Cheryl McKenzie. It’s an anachronistic jumble made starker by the tradition-steeped Arts and Letters Club Toronto venue. In his opening prayer, the elder tells the gathered crowd of 100 that “women must lead First Nations out of our present situation.”

No doubt, McKenzie is one of those women. The Winnipeg-based host/producer of two of APTN’s most lauded shows, InFocus and Investigates, is here for the first lecture in the Ryerson Centre for Indigenous Governance series focusing on indigenous women leaders. Through her work, and by example, McKenzie tackles every bit of the “present situation”: overwhelming suicide rates, addiction, mental health issues, low-income, community violence, high incarceration rates, self-governance struggles – it goes on and on.

In person, McKenzie is warm, witty, and a little self-deprecating all at once. She opens with a quip: “I bet you all are thinking ‘she looked much taller on TV.’” Then she tells us she’s going to share a little bit about herself, starting with this remark about both APTN InFocus and Investigates: “I never thought we were going to say we were going into season three.”

McKenzie grew up in Winnipeg. While she didn’t live on reserve, many of her family members did and she visited often. Both her parents were residential school survivors; her father remained fluent in the Ojibwe language. McKenzie’s first experience with what it might mean to be aboriginal in the larger world came when she overheard her mother pressuring her father to teach her and her siblings how to speak the language. He barked, “What do they need that for?” It was, she told the audience, the first time she thought about the harsh realities her father grew up with – and about the ones that still may exist.

Initially, McKenzie wanted to be a chef. She was working in Winnipeg’s then top restaurant when she was still a teenager. But then at 19 her life changed. “What do young people do?” she asks the crowd, with a smile, “We move to Vancouver.” She did, with her boyfriend at the time. “Well,” she says, “I got pregnant and plans changed.” McKenzie eventually moved back to Winnipeg with her son only.

Shortly after, with some encouragement, McKenzie enrolled in the University of Winnipeg, with the intent to major in political science. The classes made her too angry. “It was Canada this, Canada that,” she says, “[I remember] sitting in class, always wanting to put up my hand [and ask], ‘But where are all the Indians?’” She switched her major to philosophy, graduated and got a job as an employment councilor.

Things changed, however, when a CBC radio internship opening landed on her desk. McKenzie submitted all the applications that came her way – as well as her own. She got the job. After nine months, though, the internship funding dried up. “And,” she tells the audience, “They also told me they didn’t think I could do it.”

Now, here’s why McKenzie is inspiring: “That day they let me go, I walked up five blocks to APTN and there happened to be a job opening.” McKenzie applied on the spot and the very next week she started her career at APTN in June 2001. “APTN believed in me,” she says, “and they gave me the opportunity.”

McKenzie started as a reporter, eventually becoming a full-time anchor. “It wasn’t a smooth start,” she says, laughing, “that’s for sure.” Luckily, she got to learn from some of the best broadcast minds across Canada.

But that’s enough about McKenzie.

Really, that’s enough. McKenzie worries that while APTN is a definite plus, it might also be a bit of a negative. She mulls out loud over whether other networks skimp on aboriginal coverage because they know APTN dedicates all their programming to it. If that’s true, is it right? Probably not.

And so, though McKenzie had an hour to spend talking about her own journey, she instead chooses to show a 20-minute clip highlighting other indigenous women leaders from across Canada, and the issues they’re tackling. That’s just the type of person she is. Because in the end, says McKenzie, it’s all about rebuilding nations, and moving forward – and that cannot happen quickly enough.

Watch APTN’s clip of the event here