CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, Artsci’77, will receive the Alumni Humanitarian Award from the Queen’s University Alumni Association at a gala event on April 5. She talked to us about her student days at Queen’s, her start at CFRC Radio, and her advocacy work in mental health and Aboriginal issues.
Q&A with Andrea Gunn
When you were choosing a university, what made you pick Queen’s?
I was told it was the dying wish of my late grandmother Dorothy Shannon Sutherland. She loved her time at Queen’s and wanted me to have that experience.
You were an art history major at Queen's. Were there any classes or teachers who made a lasting impression on you?
Two women who are (sadly) no longer with us: Kathleen Moran and Natalie Luckyj. Professor Moran’s first year art history course was what made me study art history. In particular, she really opened up the so-called “Dark Ages” for me, revealing a time of great creativity. Natalie was inspiring because of her passion for Canadian art history. She had the ability to energize a room and galvinize a crowd. A wonderful intelligence. I would also have to add Prof. Diego Bastianutti, in the Italian department. I took his Intensive Italian in Venice. He believed in education as defined by its Latin roots: educare, literally to lead out of. He brought out the best in his students.
You started out at CFRC Radio, becoming host of a classical music show, and then chief announcer. Had you done any radio before, or thought about a career/hobby in radio, before you came to Queen’s?
I hadn’t given it any thought at all and I was completely “green” when I walked through the basement door of Carruthers Hall. Being able to join CFRC was, and is, one of the great gifts of attending Queen’s.
Can you tell me a bit more about the station when you were a student? What was the station culture like?
It was a blessing. I didn’t feel as though I fit in with my floor in residence (more to do with my own insecurity at the time) and when I arrived at CFRC, there seemed to be others like me. I found my group. And they were people who loved music, loved the science of transmitters, operetta fanatics and people who wanted to try something they had never tried before.
Was the station culture organized or chaotic? Filled with artistic free-for-all expression, or humming with investigative journalists-in-training?
Quite organized, actually. Steve Cutway was the station manager. And Gail Glode was the assistant station manager. They kept things running smoothly and professionally. And they were, and are, great people, to boot. They became my friends.
There was a great deal of freedom. If we wanted to interview someone, we just called them up and did it, live on the air. I loved that spontaneity.
What type of shows do you remember being broadcast, besides your music show?
There were all kinds of music programs...classical, jazz, rock, folk...I tried my hand at them all, at one point or another. I remember loving JazzFM which was on between 10 and midnight. A great time to be on-air. And I was the operator for “The Music Department,” hosted by Dr. F.R.C. Clarke. I was a great admirer of his and being his tech was like having a private tutorial.
How much of your time did the station take up, and did it ever overshadow your classes and other activities at Queen’s?
It became a consuming passion. CFRC was my home away from home. And yes, I confess it did overtake my classes.
When you sat in front of a microphone for the first time and began to talk to an unknown audience, how did it make you feel?
Terrified, in the first instance. But then when I pushed the on button, I directed what I was saying to my operator and I realized I was only talking to one person, not a stadium. I felt I could do that. Peter Gzowski later gave me the same lesson: use the second person singular when addressing the listener. Radio is intimate. You aren’t doing a lecture in someone’s car, kitchen or bedroom.
You have become well known across Canada in the past few years for speaking up about issues that many people are uncomfortable with: mental illness and injustice to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. Was there a struggle for you to talk openly about these issues? Or have you always been the kind of person who needs to speak out on issues important to you?
I think I’m the kind of person who gets very itchy if I don’t speak up. I once asked a young friend of mine who was active in social issues what drove her to step up to the plate. Her answer was “if you do nothing, nothing will happen.” Yup.
Of course, we cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we have to know the real history of this country in order to move on from it. The version I received in my high school days was laundered. Spot remover applied. It may not be comfortable to know what was done by the Government of Canada and the churches to the Indigenous people, but it’s essential, if we are going to live on this land with any sense of integrity. We must acknowledge the colonial past (and the policies that project that colonialism into the present) and learn from it in order to build a new partnership with Indigenous people. And that we must do to enter into reconciliation. I don’t think we grow when we are comfortable and complacent. We just stay the same.
In 2007, on your showSounds like Canada, you produced the radio series “A Cruel Confusion” which not only explored issues facing families living with mental illness, but in which you also talked about your own struggles with depression. Was the decision to bring your own life experiences into the conversation a difficult one?
Yes, it was. The program was about other people’s stories, not mine. However, I was challenged to “come out” by someone I interviewed about post-partum depression. It was the singer/songwriter Amy Sky. She felt I was unusually sympathetic as a listener during our conversation and when we were off air, she asked me about that. I told her I’d been diagnosed with depression in 2003 so I understood the broad strokes of what she was talking about. She told me there was such a need to hear from people with a national voice, who weren’t afraid of microphones. What she said really cracked me open. And not a day goes by when I don’t think about Amy Sky.You continue to speak publically on Aboriginal and on mental health issues and sharing your stories with others, and hearing from others. Another person might have said, “You know, I’ve worked on my committees: I’ve done my shows: I have raised awareness across the country about these issues. I can take a break and focus on something else.” Why is it important for you to continue the conversation?
The short answer is because I can. The longer answer is because with both of these issues, the national conversation is only beginning. A few days after I became an Officer of the Order of Canada, I ran into Peter Herrndorf, CEO of the National Arts Centre. He offered his congratulations and asked why I wasn’t wearing my little snowflake pin that goes with the honour (he always wears his). I said I didn’t want to flaunt it. And he said “You should wear it every day to remind yourself that you’ve got to earn it every day”. So I try to do something every day to push things forward, even if it’s only tweeting something or sending an email.
How do you maintain your work-life balance, and ensure that you have time for yourself, as well as for others?
Let’s just say it’s a challenge and I’m working on it. I hear the term “self-care” all the time in the company of Aboriginal people: taking care of yourself first. I have a dear Coast Salish friend who is a counsellor. She is a phone call away. Also, I’m now a freelancer with the CBC and fortunate that I work with a producer, Jacqueline Kirk, who supports what I’m doing beyond The Next Chapter. We record a few weeks ahead so that some of the pressure is off. This is an enormous accommodation, not only for my “causes”, but also my mental illness.
You obviously see the benefit of talking things out, whatever issue one is tackling. I was struck by your words in the foreword toSpeaking My Truth. You wrote, “It is important that you allow yourself to feel uncomfortable.” Why is this important message to hear for non-Aboriginal people? Many non-Aboriginal people might say “I don’t want to intrude on/superimpose my white privilege on an Aboriginal issue.” or “This doesn’t have anything to do with me; it’s a historical disgrace, but there is nothing I can do about it.”
My friend Paulette Regan has written a very good book about exactly that calledUnsettling the Settler Within. She writes that in order to head into real reconciliation, we have to undergo a process of decolonization. She argues that Canadians “must relinquish the persistent myth of themselves as peacemakers and acknowledge the destructive legacy of a society that has stubbornly ignored and devalued Indigenous experience.” Just happen to have the book right here...This places most Canadians in the “uncomfortable pew”. I believe we have to listen to what Indigenous people are saying. It may not be easy to hear a counter-narrative to the one we grew up with. But it is necessary. And besides, the times we grow in our lives...puberty, middle-age...we are not comfortable. We have growing pains. We go through something. But we do grow...
As for having “nothing to do with it” or there being “nothing I can do about it”, I don’t buy either. I know an elder who challenged me to investigate my family history. I did. Hudson’s Bay men from Orkney Island. My own history is steeped in colonization and how I have benefitted from it and from merely being non-Aboriginal. So I do have something to do with it. I do And if I do nothing about it, I will still be complicit in it. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes as I work to decolonize my thoughts and practices. I am lucky to have patient teachers. I think this work needs to be done to move into a more compassionate, respectful and humane future.
You are adept in asking questions, of yourself and of others, and in exploring ideas (and recognize that there isn’t always a neat solution to a complex problem). Is this instinct of yours something that has been honed by your broadcasting work? Or are you in the radio business because this is instinctively how you look at the world?
You are very kind. I had a wonderful mentor in Peter Gzowski who was the great listener. And another broadcast elder Harry Elton kept a list of what you had to have to be a good interviewer: Imagination, Curiosity, Enthusiasm, Energy, Intelligence, Integrity and Humour.
Jane Jacobs, the great urban philospher, once told me that stories get us closer to the truth than anything else and that we should not devalue anecdotal evidence. She felt we should be looking for all sides to a story and there are always more than two. Stories are what will change the narrative of Canada. Stories enlarge us.
Where do you see your focus in the next year, or in the next few years? Continue on the same path, or see what life brings you?
Yes and yes.
In recent years, Queen’s University has done a lot of work on mental health issues and talking about mental illness and mental health. Much of this work has been driven by our students, who have prioritized talking about disability and illness and stress, creating a safe and supportive environment, and reaching out to peers in need of support. Do you have any words of advice for today’s Queen’s students, on looking after their own health and looking out for their peers?
So pleased to see my alma mater moving ahead on this. Peer support is critical. Finding a safe and secure place to talk or to just be. I spent some time at a high school recently where if the students are feeling like they just aren’t themselves on a given day, they wear a green ribbon around their wrist. The other students know to either give them space or stay close by. I think a green ribbon campaign in other spheres of society is a good idea.
Make yourself a priority. Feed yourself with good food. Get as much sleep as you can (I know, I know). And get down to Lake Ontario to be closer to nature. The thing I wish I had known is that a mental illness is not a character flaw or a moral failure. It’s an illness and should be viewed as such. And there is help.