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Interview: Connie Walker On Covering MMIP, Transparency And Reclaiming The True Crime Genre

YPR News’ Kaitlyn Nicholas recently spoke with Connie Walker, an award-winning Cree Journalist from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan. She is the host of the 8-episode podcast Stolen: The Search For Jermain from Gimlet Media and Spotify. In "Stolen," Walker shares the story of Jermain Charlo, a 23 year old member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who went missing in Missoula in June 2018.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: Connie Walker has spent years reporting on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis through daily news coverage and the podcasts Missing and Murdered for CBC Radio-Canada, where she uncovered new information in cold cases decades later. In her latest work, Walker turns her investigative reporting skills toward Montana.

Connie Walker: The podcast is very much trying to find the answers around the disappearance of Jermain Charlo. She was last seen in June of 2018 in downtown Missoula, captured on surveillance footage, walking down an alley and turning a corner and was never seen again. What's happened in the two and a half years since she went missing in terms of the police investigation? And really trying to dive deep into that.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: I'm wondering how did reporting on an open case impact your approach to telling this story and how did your previous experiences as an investigative reporter inform this series?

Connie Walker: One of the lead investigators in her disappearance is a detective from the Missoula Police Department named Guy Baker.

In other cases I've reported on that are more recent cases and that are open and active investigations, I'm used to police officers essentially, you know, reciting the same paragraph over and over and over again in an interview. Just the very basic facts and not deviating from that at all. Whereas Detective Baker I think was aware that he didn't want to share certain things, but also that he was quite forthcoming about other things that he was comfortable sharing.

[Excerpt from ‘Stolen’]

Guy Baker: If it's a cold case, we could talk about all these answers for you. But it's unique that you're doing an active case, you know?

Connie Walker: When does a case become cold?

Guy Baker: When all leads are exhausted.

Connie Walker: So is Jermain's anywhere near becoming cold?

Guy Baker: No. That's why it's the big thing to let everybody know. I mean, two years later, this still is an active case being worked on a nearly weekly basis. No, it's not just closed and put in a box on a shelf somewhere. So I don't anticipate closing Jermain's case until I solve it.

[Excerpt ends]

Connie Walker: As soon as I talked to Jermain's family — and they were so generous with their time and their trust in helping to understand that Jermain’s story didn't begin on the night that she disappeared. It didn't even really begin with her birth. That in so many ways, her story is connected back to this history of their family and this history of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: Your series does really delve into the broader scope of not just Jermain's life, but these other factors of what it is like to be an Indigenous woman, particularly in Montana, particularly in this area in Montana, and some of those stories do involve trauma. What are you thinking about when you are reporting on those stories? How do you approach telling those stories?

Connie Walker: I think that the goal of the podcast is obviously to try to find answers about Jermain and try to get to the truth about her disappearance. But it's also to try to show how Jermain is one of thousands of other Indigenous women and girls who experience violence. And when we're talking about Indigenous people, there aren't very many representations of us in media today. And I think that the representations that exist or have existed in the past kind of really serve to reinforce some negative stereotypes about what it means to be an Indigenous woman.

The goal of the podcast is to try to show how complex and diverse our experiences are. But also to get past some of the statistics about these rates of violence. Because the rates of violence in Indigenous communities...It's horrific, you know, that 84% of Indigenous women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. One in two will experience some kind of sexual violence. Like, I think that when you hear those statistics it's very easy to say, “That sounds terrible.” But I think that when you get to listen and when you get to meet women, giving them the space to tell their own stories, for me sitting on the other side of it, I'm so moved by their strength and their resilience and their ability to share those experiences.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: In the podcast, you do share personal stories of your own trauma. How did you decide to bring in your own story when talking about the experiences of these other women that you are reporting on?

Connie Walker: I feel like so much of my work is helping to try to have people understand just how pervasive this violence is that Indigenous women and girls face. And I think that because maybe I'm a reporter or because I am telling stories I feel like sometimes people might think that, ‘Oh, I must have a different experience.’ And I wanted to just, you know, completely push back the curtain and show that that's not the case. My lived experience as an Indigenous woman and as a survivor of violence gives me important context and understanding.

It's also really trying to question some of these notions that we have in journalism around objectivity and what that means and how our lived experiences, whether you're Indigenous or not, shape our reporting and shape our storytelling.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: No and that’s really fascinating to think about kind of questioning these standards of journalism of how it’s almost the opposite of these traditions gets more into the honesty of the story.

Connie Walker: And the thing I love about podcasting is the transparency. The fact that you can show people the process and include more of yourself as a human being. We have the space to kind of explore this in a way that is not black and white, in a way that is nuanced. Everything that we do in journalism is so subjective, like down to, you know, the stories we choose and the people we interview and the questions we ask and the questions we include, like everything is informed by our experiences. And I think that it's actually more transparent.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: Something you've spoken about in previous interviews is how you want your reporting to, “subvert the true crime genre.” Can you say more about how you do that, about reporting a story that avoids making crime and trauma into entertainment?

Connie Walker: I think that's what often happens, right? I think that every true crime story has an opportunity to be about something bigger, but so few of them are. And I think that for me, you know, I think that's just part of, again, my lived experience as an Indigenous woman who's experienced violence, is that, you know, I never want to lose sight of the fact that there are real people at the heart of every single story.

We did a lot of research and a lot of investigation in this podcast. And I'm not at all trying to diminish how important that is, because it is so important, for Jermain's family. They've been in this nightmare for the last two and a half years of not knowing where Jermain is. Finding the truth and finding out the answers and bringing Jermain home is obviously incredibly important.

When I say that we're trying to subvert the true crime genre I think that a big part of it is also trying to include everything in Jermain's life that led up to that moment.

We've been able to, I think, attract listeners who come for the mystery but I think who ultimately appreciate having a bigger story told as well.

I don't want to sensationalize someone's trauma and grief for the sake of a story. I very much want to keep in mind Jermain's “Yaya” Vicki, and her aunts, Dani and Valenda, and her mother, Jenn, and her cousin, Chayla and her friend, Jocelyn. These are all women who are pushing for answers to Jermain's disappearance. And this is more than a story, you know, this is their real life.

Kaitlyn Nicholas: Now that you're finished reporting the series, at least until new information comes out, will you be taking a break or are you already working on other stories?

Connie Walker: I don't feel like I'm moving on in any way. I'm very much committed to continuing to report on this story as much as I can. Unfortunately, there are so many Indigenous women and girls out there who are missing or who have been murdered and whose families are still desperate for answers and who deserve to have their stories told and their voices amplified. And I feel like that's one of my responsibilities as an Indigenous journalist, is to keep telling these stories. Now that there's finally a recognition that these are important stories and that these women and their stories matter and should be heard. You know, I want to do everything I can to keep sharing more of these stories.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

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