Timeless classic Medea gets a timely update with Mojada

“[Judy] Caranto is marvellous … ably capturing [a] mix of drama & humour with authenticity & charisma”
Times Colonist (photo: Megan Farrell)

While the Phoenix Theatre’s season opener Spring Awakening had its origins in a play which debuted in 1906, their closing production Mojada takes its inspiration from even further back in theatrical history: Euripides’ Medea, first produced nearly 2,500 years ago. Yet Mojada is as modern as today’s headlines, blending the ancient Greek family tragedy with Mexican folklore and the bitter reality of America’s immigration system.

“All stories are universal, but what makes them so universal are the specifics,” explains guest direct Carmen Aguirre. “Mojada is very specifically set in contemporary East LA with undocumented Mexican folks—but its theme of exile and the violence of assimilation makes it universal.”

Keeping it fierce

If Aguirre’s name rings a bell, it may be from her international bestseller and CBC Canada Reads winner Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. However, you may also know her as a busy actor, playwright and Siminovitch Prize finalist, who is both artistic associate of new play development at Ontario’s Stratford Festival and a core artist with Vancouver’s acclaimed Electric Company Theatre (co-founded by former classmate Kevin Kerr, UVic’s current Writing chair).

But as a director, Aguirre is thrilled to be offering the Canadian premiere of Mojada—indeed, it was her first choice of production when she was approached about directing at the Phoenix. (Ironically, she has written her own adaptation of Medea, whose debut has been repeatedly delayed due to COVID.)

“I love directing because it’s ultimately your vision, your interpretation of a script,” she says. “How do you communicate your ideas to the actors, the design team and, most importantly, to the audience? My approach—certainly for this script—is to really focus on the text with the actors.”

“[Carmen] Aguirre’s direction is clear and sure-footed” —Times Colonist 
(photo: Alejandra Aguirre)

“A must watch … wonderfully done” —The Martlet
Ximena Garduño Rodriguez & Rowan Watts in Mojada (Megan Farrell)

Latinx representation

Written by her friend, LA-born Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro, Mojada has already engaged audiences in LA, Off-Broadway and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Luis specializes in adapting Greek tragedies and setting them in East LA with Mexican characters,” she explains. “‘Mojada’ translates as ‘wetback’, a racial slur against Latinx folks, which actually refers to undocumented people who have had to cross the Rio Grande river into the US from Mexico . . . thus they have a ‘wet back’.”

Co-founder of the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition, Aguirre is a fierce proponent for Latinx cultural representation—which was also the subject of her second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1 and My Other Roles Since the Revolution.

“There are three Latinx folks involved in this project, and the actor playing Medea is Mexican, so they absolutely understand who these characters are and what they’ve been through,” she says. “The other actors in it are also racialized folks who, while not Latinx, do come from immigrant families, so they understand issues around exile and assimilation.”

Making positive change

No stranger to directing theatre students (“they’re so excited, so open and work so hard!”), Aguirre is also pleased to see positive developments in theatre schools since her days in Vancouver’s Studio 58 in the early ’90s.

“There have been big changes in regard to what’s acceptable for students these days,” she says. “We never had anything like an intimacy coordinator, for example . . . now, a director has to really be in tune with the care needed to keep their actors safe. And when I was in school, everyone was white—the playwrights, the faculty, the designers, the directors . . . all white. We had a student body of about 50 people, and less than 10 percent were racialized folks. That was really challenging for me.”

For an artist who has based her career on making positive change in the industry she loves, Mojada offers the chance to bring so many of her passions together: a timely story, engaging script, strong cast, talented designers and a director who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

“I took the opportunity to bring the research to them—breaking down the story, giving them historical background and cultural context . . . my cast understands what a great opportunity this is to work on such a great script,” she concludes.

“Well worth seeing … a powerful take on an ancient story” —Times Colonist 
Julia Patterson in Mojada (Megan Farrell)

Mojada runs March 16-25 at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. Tickets range from $16-$30 (depending on date & performance time) via 250-721-8000 or in person at the Phoenix Box Office.

Audain Professor Lindsay Delaronde continues her learning journey

Audain Professor Lindsay Delaronde (photo: Tori Jones)

An early morning walk through the visual arts department usually sees a mix of students, faculty and staff arriving with coffee in hand: something not typically seen is an informal smudging ceremony outside the front door. But that’s just one of the ways Lindsday Katsitsakatste Delaronde is looking to make a difference as the latest Audain Professor in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest.

“I’ve never abandoned who I am as a Mohawk person,” says Delaronde. “I really try to work under the value systems of my own knowledge. This position is a marker of the hard work I’ve been doing for the past 20 years: it grounds my artistic practice in relationship to my scholarship in one central place and has a creative grounding that really aligns with who I am.”

It also clearly aligns with the mandate of Vancouver’s Audain Foundation, who originally established the position in 2010 with a $2-million gift from philanthropist and UVic alumnus Michael Audain. Yet in February 2023, they further committed $160,000 in new funding to the professorship—including a three-year, $60,000 project specifically designed to support the Audain Professor’s efforts around outreach, community engagement and related research activities. They additionally fund the annual $7,500 Audain Travel Award for visual arts students, presented to graduate student Kosar Movahedi in fall 2022.

Staying authentic

A Kanienke’haka woman born and raised on the Kahnawake reservation outside of Montreal, Delaronde is no stranger to transforming public spaces: as the City of Victoria’s inaugural Indigenous Artist in Residence (2017-19), her collaborative land-based/site-specific performance art dramatically engaged viewers from the lawn of the BC Legislature to almost every cultural institution in the city.

Yet despite having multiple degrees—including two from UVic (MFA in Visual Arts, MA in Indigenous Communities Counselling Psychology)—and years of professional practice, Delaronde has never lost sight of her own learning journey: in addition to her current three-year term as Audain Professor, she is also pursuing a PhD in applied theatre practice with the Department of Theatre. This, she feels, gives her unique insight into the educational process.

“I love teaching and learning, both inside and outside the classroom,” she says. “I’m just trying to stay authentic to who I am as a person, as an artist, and bring that into the institution. But I can also look back and see the ways I struggled as an Indigenous student, regardless of which department. There’s a lot of folding of time and history that really helps me navigate this position.”

Broadening the scope

Over the past decade, the Audain Professorship has been held by such distinguished practicing artists as Governor General’s Award-winner Rebecca Belmore, Witness Blanket creator Carey Newman, the internationally acclaimed Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas plus the likes of Rande Cook, Nicholas Galanin and Jackson 2Bears.

“These are all foundational artists within the Canadian landscape of Indigenous contemporary art,” she says. “Each has a big history to draw on in terms of tools and techniques and facilitation, and each brings something of themselves into the space. That’s what’s beautiful about the position: it doesn’t have a narrow scope . . . the Audain Professorship creates a platform for Indigenous artists to be themselves within our institution.”

Yet Delaronde’s personal and professional experiences have also fuelled a desire for change which parallels similar societal demands.

“Making change on an institutional level is always a top-down approach, but my philosophy is around grassroots mobilization of new ideas that really surface from the community—and, in this case, my students are the community,” she explains.

“We’re working with a generation of students who are more aware than we were 15 or 20 years ago. They’re looking for anti-oppressive and anti-racist models, an increased sensitivity around cultural appropriation and a safe atmosphere of inclusivity and diversity that retains and encourages the rigour of learning how to talk about culture in good, productive, generative ways. Sometimes we forget we all come from different cultural lenses, and I’d like to see that grow in the department.”

Delaronde supported by dancers during ACHoRd, one of her Indigenous Artist in Residence projects (Photo: Peruzzo)

Being the change

Delaronde’s long connection with UVic also makes her unique in Audain history. “The University of Victoria has been essential not just in my educational journey but also as a place of deep reflection in my purpose,” she says. “I’ve never stopped caring about people and trying to make positive changes in our communities.”

From First Peoples House to Indigenous Studies and the Indigenous Governance program, she’s seen a lot of positive change since she first came to campus 15 years ago . . . yet feels now is not the time to slow down. “It’s important to value and acknowledge the good work that has happened at the institution, but there’s more work to do and there’s no stopping it now.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to see Delaronde herself as being emblematic of the very changes she’s witnessed.

“We need to see ourselves in leadership roles and I need to be there for my students and work with others towards institutional change,” she concludes. “Sometimes I feel like I just have to survive the institution daily, but at the same time I have such a passion and love for the arts. My practice has changed a lot and my teaching continues to reveal itself in terms of who I am today. It’s all very exciting and very fresh!”

UVic contributes talent, technical & creative power to Victoria’s burgeoning film industry

Director & Dept of Writing professor Maureen Bradley (right) on the set of her locally lensed feature film,  Two 4 One 

Connect to any streaming service and it’s not hard to find UVic alumni on screen, thanks to busy actors like Erin Karpluk (The L Word), Peter Outerbridge (Orphan Black) and Emily Piggford (Umbrella Academy). Less obvious is the behind-the-scenes talent, like visual-effects artist Michelle Lo (Black Panther) and production coordinator Amanda Verhagen (Jurassic World: Dominion).

Yet while Vancouver’s Hollywood North casts a mighty shadow over Vancouver Island, alumni filmmakers continue to contribute technical and creative power to Victoria’s steady and growing TV and film industry.

Writing the life of an independent director

In many ways, award-winning director Connor Gaston (MFA ’14) is typical of the quiet talent UVic produces. After directing a string of short films, his 2015 debut feature—The Devout—premiered at Korea’s Busan International Film Festival. It then earned him the BC Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival before it went on to receive Best Picture and six other honours at BC’s own Leo Awards. Gaston, who is also a graduate of Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre, is currently working on his second feature film.

“Getting your first feature made is never easy—but it’s really difficult to make your second,” he admits. “Your first film really has to blow people out of the water to activate the next round of funding, which is usually a big step up, budget-wise.” By way of comparison, The Devout came in at $150,000, while his in-progress feature, Baby Tooth, is budgeted at $1.7 million: still a bargain compared to typical Hollywood productions.

“Even at $1.7 million, it’s almost like having no money again—all your budget goes to paying people very little for what they’re actually doing… and then all your money is gone,” he says. “But most people work on independent films because they want to be there—to learn, to help—so some money for them is better than no money at all.”

While BC’s film and digital-media industry generates $3.2 billion and 71,000 jobs annually, the vast majority of that work remains in Vancouver. The Island received roughly $55 million in direct spending of that amount and about 800 jobs in 2021, with 40 different productions shot across the region.

But a typical day in Gaston’s life mainly involves a lot of writing, not bean counting. “Working on the screenplay, writing grants… it’s very much a slog,” he says. Gaston keeps his cinematic chops in shape with short films—2022 saw him direct both Year of the Tortoise and The Cameraman Chapter II (a sequel to his 2016 short The Cameraman, inspired by the book of the same name by his novelist father, Bill Gaston). But unlike some directors, he doesn’t work on other peoples’ films. “I’m actually quite useless,” he laughs. “I wish I could do something more practical.”

While it’s a medium he clearly loves, Gaston acknowledges being a filmmaker comes with serious challenges. 

“Directing is so strange. If you’re a painter, you can paint every day, but with directing you need money to even practise your art. Writing helps, but you can only envision your screenplay so much.” 

Connor Gaston

Snapshot of a working filmmaker

As a self-described “working filmmaker,” Chen Wang, BFA ’18, is on the move. After a “quick” visit home to China in February 2020 turned into a two-year, COVID-restricted stay, Wang is happy to be back on campus to both complete his MFA in screenwriting and continue his work as cinematographer on the interdisciplinary research documentary Four Stories About Food Sovereignty. The project started in 2018 and includes UVic professors Elizabeth Vibert (History), Maureen Bradley (Writing), Matthew Murphy (Business), Astrid Pérez Piñán (Public Administration) and a team of international partners.

It was specifically thanks to his involvement with Four Stories that he was finally able to leave China in 2022 to film the latest installment, “Aisha’s Story”, in Jordan. “Aisha is a Palestinian woman who lives in the Baqa’a refugee camp,” Wang explains, “and she’s trying to keep her Palestinian culture alive through food: growing, cooking and passing that knowledge along to the next generations.”

Wang also shot the short film about UVic’s Voices In Motion intergenerational choir for adults with memory loss—one of the many pre-pandemic projects that kept him hopping on campus and in the community. As an undergrad, he founded the UVic Film Club, joined the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers, started his own commercial production company and created over 20 commercials with CHEK TV’s production team, as well as crewing on both professional and independent-film productions. “Before COVID, I was quite busy: features, shorts, documentaries, music videos… generally, I do camera, cinematography, director of photography, sometimes directing,” he says.

Guochen Wang

In addition to completing his MFA, Wang is also keen to finish the international Four Stories, which has shot in Sooke, Jordan and South Africa, with only Colombia remaining. “We’ve captured such an amazing story, I now want to complete it,” he says. “Not only is it the project that got me back to Canada, but I was so fascinated by what I saw in Jordan: I want people to see this film.”

Despite the proximity of Vancouver’s studios, Wang likes the idea of staying in Victoria. “I could shoot in other cities, but I like it here,” he says. “I like the environment, and there are so many talented people who work very hard.”  

Wang also shot the short film about UVic’s Voices In Motion intergenerational choir for adults with memory loss—one of the many pre-pandemic projects that kept him hopping on campus and in the community. As an undergrad, he founded the UVic Film Club, joined the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers, started his own commercial production company and created over 20 commercials with CHEK TV’s production team, as well as crewing on both professional and independent-film productions. “Before COVID, I was quite busy: features, shorts, documentaries, music videos… generally, I do camera, cinematography, director of photography, sometimes directing,” he says.

Mentoring future filmmakers

If you want to get a feel for the homegrown film scene, look no further than the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers. Founded in 1991, the artist-run society provides affordable professional-grade equipment, facilities, training and screening opportunities to local filmmakers and media artists; previous members—like South Island Film Commissioner Kathleen Gilbert and longtime Victoria Film Festival director Kathy Kay—make a clear case for CineVic’s importance as a local training ground.

Current executive director David Geiss (MFA ’13) has spent the past six years furthering the cinematic ambitions of CineVic’s 125 members. “I realized it was actually more satisfying to help other people with their work than spend an inordinate amount of time and money to make my own short films, which then may—or may not—be screened at a film festival,” he says, with a chuckle.

Geiss is no stranger to the indie film world: his films and documentaries have been broadcast nationally and seen worldwide, he’s taught screenwriting and served as programmer for the likes of the Short Circuit Pacific Rim Film Festival, National Student Film Festival and Queer City Cinema Film Festival, among others. But it’s only by running CineVic that his past experiences and skills have really been spliced together.

“In many ways, it feels like this was the job I was born to do,” he admits. “I realized I actually like the support work—the planning, the advising—more than making short films. I no longer wake up at three in the morning with ‘Eureka!’ ideas… As an arts administrator, I now just get a good night’s sleep.”

Geiss says CineVic has a diverse membership from students to hobbyists, and from people looking to break into the film industry to those already working—like local photographer and director Arnold Lim, whose award-winning 2020 feature film debut All-In Madonna was penned by screenwriter and UVic alumna Susie Winters, BFA ’16.

David Geiss (Victoria News photo)

Teaching film production on campus

Daniel Hogg, BFA ’04, is another local filmmaker who focuses on both teaching and creating. Currently completing his screenwriting MFA at UVic, he has twice been part of Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch program and his credits as producer include the award-winning feature film Two 4 One (the world’s first transgender romantic-comedy, directed by writing professor Maureen Bradley) and both the animated feature Esluna: The Crown of Babylon and the original nine-episode animated web series Esluna: The First Monolith. He was also executive producer on Connor Gaston’s The Devout.

Hogg is an experienced cinematographer and screenwriter as well as producer and has been teaching the Writing department’s film-production classes for years. The class is modelled on a professional film set, and students take on all the individual roles in a production—from director, producer, camera operator to editor, sound work and even catering.

“It’s not a production program per se, it’s a screenwriting program—it’s just supposed to give them a taste of the industry,” Hogg says. “Certainly, we’ve had students move into film and TV where they work as production managers, assistant directors or screenwriters.” (All-In Madonna’s Susie Winters is a good example of students making this leap.)

Hogg is excited for the future of Victoria’s burgeoning film industry.

“It’s growing and will continue to grow, but a lot of the community aren’t necessarily connected and integrated: not everyone knows everybody else,” he says. “A lot of people are doing things independently while others are connected through organizations like CineVic. But either way, we’re living in a time where people are actively trying to find ways to tell their stories.”

Putting Indigenous stories on screen

After spending 30 years producing and directing hundreds of live plays, UVic grad Leslie Bland, MFA ’99, started his own film company—Less Bland Productions—in 2011. “I felt like I was hitting the ceiling of what could be accomplished with live theatre, but film and television offer a bigger, broader canvas,” says the producer of popular documentaries like Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood and the all-female comedy series She Kills Me. “There’s a complexity in working with film that I really enjoy.”

Sporting a solid track record of film-fest screenings and experience with broadcasters CBC, Discovery Networks, Super Channel, Knowledge Network and Télé Quebec, Bland has partnered with fellow producer Harold Joe, a member of the Cowichan Tribes, in a joint venture, Orca Cove Media, which focuses exclusively on celebrating First Nations storytelling.

From left: Harold Joe, Leslie Bland, Graham Greene

So far, the producing pair have had hits with hot docs like Dust n’ Bones (examining the preservation and rededication of First Nations remains and artifacts) and Tzouhalem, a cinematic investigation into the story of legendary Cowichan Chief Tzouhalem. “Orca Cove’s mandate is to allow Indigenous creators to tell the stories they want to tell,” says Bland. “A lot of the stories are hyper-local, but they also have broader appeal and a point of authenticity.”

That broad appeal can either come through subject matter—their current documentary, A Cedar Is Life, explores the cedar tree’s pivotal role in the cultural life of coastal First Nations from Alaska to California—or narrative approach. The team has completed filming The Great Salish Heist (starring Dances with Wolves’ Graham Greene and Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer), set to be the world’s first comedic Indigenous heist film; also in development is Pow Wow Summer, a coming-of-age romance set on the Canadian pow-wow circuit.

Talent on the rise

With alumni talent both on- and off-screen, and the next generation of young filmmakers being mentored to tell their own stories, the future looks bright for Victoria’s film scene. As plans for production facilities continue to evolve with hoped-for studios in both Saanich and Langford, director Connor Gaston’s optimism is reflective of the local industry as a whole.

“In film, there are so many things that need to go right and so many elements you need to put it all together, but I still have fun doing it,” he reflects. “Being on set is still my favourite thing. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

One to watch: Letay Williams 

New grad Letay Williams (MFA ’ 22) is a screenwriter who is intentional about creating stories that resonate with a global audience but are also infused with the diverse, vibrant culture of her Jamaican heritage. In 2021, her project Traytown won the Audience Choice Award at the Creators of Colour “Big Pitch at TIFF” competition, and she was one of only eight writers chosen to participate in the 2022 Toronto-based BIPOC TV & Film Episodic Writers’ Lab.

In May 2022, she produced a live public reading of her as-yet-unproduced MFA script, Inheritance, a feature-length film set in both Jamaica and Canada. Described as a “heartwarming, LGBT/family drama,” the script was read by a cast of local and out-of-town talent (Kelowna, Toronto) who said they’ve “never read a story like this” and that it’s “the movie intersectional communities are longing to see on screen.”

This story originally ran in the fall 2022 issue of UVic’s Torch alumni magazine


Letay Williams

Fighting disinformation with theatre

Cast photos by Megan Farrell

When is a witch not a witch? That was the question facing famed British playwright Caryl Churchill back in 1976 when she penned Vinegar Tom, a scathing feminist satire that re-examines the social motives behind the accusation and persecution of those who were branded “witches”. Her solution? Write a play that has no witches . . . but plenty of persecution.

Yet while we would like to think those days are behind us—be they 17th-century history or the protest-oriented ’70s—current Department of Theatre MFA candidate Francis Matheu feels Vinegar Tom is a distressingly contemporary piece of political theatre ideally suited to our tumultuous times.     

Who benefits from inequality?

“There’s a lot of disinformation happening in our society right now, both here in North America and at home in the Philippines, my own country,” says Matheu, who is directing Vinegar Tom as his thesis dissertation. “I’d like to use theatre to combat that. When I was reading the play, I kept asking myself, ‘How can this be so relevant to our society today? Who benefits from inequality?’ As a theatre artist, it became a calling for me—I needed to do something.”

Running February 16-25 at the Phoenix Theatre, Vinegar Tom has lost none of its raw power over the years; indeed, it seems eerily prescient today given the recent spate of right-wing uprisings, the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, and an ongoing frenzy of public accusations on social media.

“Churchill depicts not only gender inequality and misogyny in this play, but also how ordinary people and those in power are coerced to fabricate baseless stories against the powerless, the innocent and the marginalized,” he says. “That’s powerful material to move forward with.”

Vinegar Tom director Francis Matheu

International connection

The latest Filipino graduate student to select UVic’s Theatre department for their Master’s degree (alongside the recent likes of Dennis Gupa and Chari Arespacochaga), Matheu has directed 40 shows over the years and, as an actor, has appeared in nearly 50 more. He’s also no stranger to political theatre. Given that the majority of shows in the Philippines lean tend to be popular plays and musicals (“and there’s nothing wrong with that: I’ve done lots of Broadway musicals as an actor,” he chuckles), he decided to start his own company, Twin Bill Theatre . . . with his twin brother.

“Twin Bill was always meant to be different,” he explains. “We focus on material with social relevance.” Rather than song-and-dance, their shows tackled topics like depression (via Andrew Hinderaker’s Suicide, Incorporated), autism (Mark St. Germain’s Dancing Lessons) and cancer (Margaret Edson’s Wit).

“I’ve definitely become more political in the latter part of my theatre career . . . I like to use drama for social change: I call it ‘constructive societal revolution’.”

Yet it was his participation in a local production directed by then-Theatre PhD candidate and friend Dennis Gupa—2018’s Murupuro / The Islands of Constellation—which brought Matheu to Victoria.

“That was my first time in North America and I got attracted to the people here—their respect for each other, for the First Nations—as well as the weather,” he laughs. “When I learned I could do this as a cultural worker and an international student, I decided to take the chance.”

A cautionary tale

Made possible in part by funding from the Philippines National Commission for Culture & the Arts, Vinegar Tom also sees the interdisciplinary participation of School of Music undergraduates Naomi Harris (as music director) and Naomi Sehn (music arranger) who help bring the play’s musical component to life.

Ultimately, says Matheu, Vinegar Tom should be seen more as a cautionary tale than a historical allegory.

“Misogyny, conspiracy theories, the ruling patriarchal powers . . . these are all still as much a part of us today as they were for people in the 17th century,” he says. “But what can we learn from the past? Have we learned from the past? As a global society, I’m not really sure.”

Vinegar Tom runs in-person 8pm Tuesday to Friday + 2pm Saturdays and will be offering streaming performances at 7pm Feb 23 & 24 + 3pm Feb 25. Tickets available in person at the Phoenix Box Office or by phone (250-721-8000).

Prices range from $30 (Fri-Sat) & $26 (Wed-Thurs + Sat matinees) to $21 for UVic Alumni (Sat matinees only, with UVic Alumni ONECard) & $16 Cheap Tuesdays. And $16 student rush tickets are available 30 minutes before every show. Streaming Performances are $26 (Thurs & Sat), $30 (Friday). Please review the current COVID-19 protocols and vaccination requirements for in-person performances.

Southam Lecture: David Beers & “The War on Journalists”

When veteran journalist David Beers founded The Tyee two decades ago as one of Canada’s very first independent online-only news sites, he intended an “experiment to see if the nascent internet would allow the flourishing of diverse, public interest-minded journalism organizations, which collectively would strengthen Canada’s existing journalism ecosystem.”

Today he’s sobered to see that ecosystem not stronger but decimated — a situation that sparked his Feb 7 talk at UVic, “The War on Journalists: Who’s waging it and why … and what’s at stake if they win”.

Fresh layoffs at Canada’s largest newspaper chain Postmedia, as well as Victoria’s vibrant online startup Capital Daily, are further blows to the diminishing ranks of journalists in Canada. The trend is global, and Beers thinks it’s not by some accident of technological fate that journalism crafted to high standards — which he terms a “bulwark of democracy” — is left to atrophy.

Beers, an award-winning writer who worked in senior editor roles in two big city newsrooms and Mother Jones magazine before starting The Tyee in Vancouver, gives this year’s prestigious Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecture, organized by UVic’s Department of Writing.

You can watch the talk here:

The paradox of journalism on the internet

In this interview with Writing professor Deborah Campbell, excerpted from the full version on The Tyee, he offers a preview of some of what he discusses in his talk.

Deborah Campbell: Maybe we should start with your definition of “journalist”. Can’t anyone with a Twitter, YouTube or Substack account be a journalist today?

David Beers: They can certainly inhabit the media ecosystem and compete for attention with journalists who adhere to traditional methods of gathering, preparing and sharing news. But there can be a world of difference between the two types.

Joe Rogan’s podcast pulls in 11 million listeners per episode. His listeners may imagine him to be, perhaps, just an edgier version of a news interviewer on the CBC. In fact, Rogan has proven, over and over again, to provide a portal for disinformation, some of it deadly, as in the case of the quack anti-vax voices he’s had on. When Rogan took fire for that, his excuse was to say, sorry, maybe I should start vetting the guests I afford my powerful platform. In saying that he was declaring he’s no journalist whatsoever — more of a carnival barker flogging the next bogus attraction.

Actual journalists understand they will suffer direct consequences if they get things wrong, or distort the facts to suit their own aims and biases. Journalists with this understanding of their role can be found working in a variety of settings — corporate, the state-funded CBC or for a member-supported non-profit like The Tyee. What they all have in common are formal standards and practices and a commitment to finding and presenting fact-based truths instead of roping in rubes.

In my talk I’ll address the paradox that The Tyee could only exist on the internet, yet aspects of the internet have been weaponized to harass and defeat journalists. And I’ll spend a bit of time discussing how it is possible to hold distinct political values — mine are progressive — yet as a journalist adhere to rigorous principles, ethics and methods.

Declaring war on journalists

DC: A “war” on journalists? That’s a pretty heavy word. What makes you say there is a war on journalists in Canada today?

DB: A lot of discussion about the waning of our basic journalistic infrastructure in this country is talked about in the passive voice. What a shame, the shrinking of our newsrooms, the collapse of the advertisement-funded business model. So sad, the blurring of lines between solid information intended to empower citizens to reform democratic institutions, and destructive disinformation that merely disrupts and destabilizes.

I think it’s too passive to just keep repeating, “Journalism is in crisis. Journalists face challenges.” Talking this way about the dire state of professional journalism can give the impression that the weather simply, mysteriously changed and we all must get used to the new reality.

But one well-cited definition of war is organized theft on a large scale. So what I am trying to say with my use of the term “war” is that, indeed, there are identifiable forces actively working to steal from citizens this bulwark of democracy we call professional journalism in the public interest.

And so I start with a standard question for investigative journalists. Who stands to benefit? Who would gain from so massive a disruption?

The answer, as I’ll spend some of my talk explaining, is powerful figures who have no regard for democracy because it does not serve their egos, bank accounts or wills to power. Exhibit A, of course, has been Donald Trump, who’s followed the classic authoritarian playbook by trying to replace our understanding of reality with his own by uttering endless self-serving lies disseminated via cable television, radio and the internet. These lies find a receptive swath of the public hungry for a cult-like figure to lend meaning to their existences. Such tactics, and why they find a willing audience in atomized, confused and disillusioned people, was brilliantly explicated by the philosopher Hannah Arendt regarding mid-20th century fascism.

So the war on journalists might aptly be termed the war on reality itself. Once a citizenry’s shared reality is shattered, once basic facts that form the spine of narratives can’t be agreed upon, the playing field is open to would-be authoritarian leaders. We see the result played out today in Orbán’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, the Philippines shaped by Duterte, China and elsewhere.

Mental health concerns

DC: What’s it like to be in the trenches then as a journalist these days?

DB: Well, it’s increasingly hard on your mental health, particularly for reporters in the field. Researchers have found higher incidences of depression, anxiety and PTSD among journalists than the wider population. Some of that is because of the revved-up demands of the 24-hour internet news cycle, which can thrust some journalists into grim or scary circumstances without much time to process.

Some of it arises from the precariousness of jobs in journalism combined with that grind. Some journalists in the digital age are made to view horrible images by the bushel, and we’re learning that can take a real toll.

And a key source of harm to mental health in journalism is exposure to malevolent trolls who, via the internet, can target and anonymously and viciously attack journalists for what they’ve published. I consider these the foot soldiers of the war on journalists, mobilized to sow doubt, confusion and inchoate anger.

In October I joined over 40 practitioners in the field of Canadian journalism in a summit on mental health among journalists at Carleton University. Our top conclusion was that journalism has become a hazardous worksite and the industry doesn’t do a good enough job of protecting those on the frontlines. So, life during wartime, I suppose.

Solutions needed

DC: What’s to be done?

DB: In making my case that there is a war on journalists, my aim is to issue a recruitment appeal. As precariously difficult as it has become to be a journalist these days, the stakes have never been higher. Even ten years ago, I’d not have imagined myself making the case that the bedrock of shared reality was itself under siege and that journalists — who after all are a pretty nerdy, earnest bunch — form a vital, small line of defense that powerful actors are striving to breach and overwhelm.

We need a new generation of journalists committed to fact-finding to solve problems and hold power accountable. We need business models and work cultures to support them in ways that take less of an emotional and physical toll. Nothing less than our democratic way of life is at stake.


About the Southam Lecture series

Each year, a journalist of national renown is invited to share their knowledge with the university and local community as a visiting lecturer and/or a journalist-in-residence, thanks to the Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecture Fund in Journalism and Non-Fiction.

The visiting lecturer engages with a variety of our classes and gives an annual public lecture offering an insider’s view of the shifting media landscape, while the journalist-in-residence teaches a class in the area of their unique expertise for one semester in our Writing department. Both of these positions give our students an opportunity to learn from some of Canada’s top working journalists and experience valuable mentorship for young writers and aspiring journalists. 

The fund was made possible due to a $250,000 donation from one of the country’s leading publishing families and the program has been an immea­surable success since its introduction in 1994. In its original incarnation, the Harvey Southam Diploma provided several students a year the opportunity to complete post-degree studies in UVic’s professional writing program. Diploma graduates have gone on to successful careers in journalism, publishing, com­munications.

Well over a dozen lecturers have delivered a diverse range of courses to our students and talks to the general public, including the likes of climate journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, photojournalist Farah Nosh, bestselling author Brian Payton, CBC broadcaster JoAnn Roberts and Ojibway journalist and author Richard Wagamese, to name a few.


About Harvey S. Southam

Harvey Southam, the son of Gordon Thomas and Gertrude Jean (nee MacMillan) Southam, worked as a journalist at the Winnipeg Tribune, the Vancouver Province, and Vancouver Sun before serving as a director of a number of Southam companies—including Southam Inc., Southam Printing Ltd., and Coles Book Stores Ltd.—as well as being the founder and editor of the Vancouver-based Equity, a monthly Vancouver business magazine. Southam was also a University of Victoria alumnus. He died suddenly in 1991.