Books

Angela Sterritt's memoir emphasizes the importance of empathy in journalism and storytelling

In her memoir Unbroken, Angela Sterritt shares her story from navigating life on the streets to becoming an award-winning journalist. Unbroken is shortlisted for the 2023 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
On the left is a black and orange book cover with a drawing of a woman who is holding up a feather. There is another woman standing beside her. There is white and orange white text overlay that is the book title and the author's name. On the right is a headshot photo of a woman who is smiling at the camera and wearing a black blazer with a yellow-coloured shirt.
Unbroken is a book by Angela Sterritt. (Greystone Books, CBC)
The award-winning journalist Angela Sterritt talks to Shelagh Rogers about Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls.

In her memoir Unbroken, Angela Sterritt shares her story from navigating life on the streets to becoming an award-winning journalist. As a teenager, she wrote in her notebook to survive. Now, she reports on cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, showing how colonialism and racism create a society where Indigenous people are devalued. 

Unbroken is shortlisted for the 2023 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize, a $75,000 award recognizing the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. 

The other nominated titles are Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe, Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant,  My Road from Damascus by Jamal Saeed and translated by Catherine Cobham and Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Erquhart.  

Sterritt is a journalist, writer and artist. She has previously worked as a host and reporter with CBC Vancouver. Sterritt is a member of the Gitxsan Nation and lives on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh territories in Vancouver.

She discussed Unbroken with The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers earlier this year. 

You drew on those journals from when you were in your teens as you began to write this book. What did those journals mean to you?

I think I talk about it a little bit in the book about just how shy and introverted and awkward I was as a teen. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in a city and people were all chatting and talking as teenagers do. And I just couldn't. And I just would keep my head down and keep drawing and people would ask me questions like "Who are you? What's your name?" And I would just kind of look up and answer yes or no. 

Those drawings and those words were illustrations of my pain. And I think when you're in pain — as a teenager, for me, I was freshly abandoned and bruised and hurt — and you don't really know that at the time, right? It's just like, "I'm in this awkward position and I'm just feeling what I'm feeling." 

What I was feeling then is that I hope my situation changes and I hope I survive. And I hope that there's better days to come than where I'm at right now.- Angela Sterritt

Looking back at the drawings, they're really weird to be honest, I'm like, "What was I thinking?" But really beautiful, very emotive and talking a lot, to be honest, about what I hoped for the world and that feeling of strength and power and hope and a desire of something better in the world. It's really where I still stand today. What I was feeling then is that I hope my situation changes and I hope I survive. And I hope that there's better days to come than where I'm at right now. 

Can you talk about what it's been like to convince lineup editors and gatekeepers that [missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls'] stories were and are important stories?

That piece of my book, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, — not just myself as a survivor — but those who didn't survive and including those family members' voices was incredibly important to me. In fact, when I first started my book, I was really encouraged to put myself in there and it was difficult for me. It felt like I was taking away from them and I still have that concern. Because I survived and their family members did not.

And maybe that's why I did feel very compelled as a journalist to tell these stories because I could relate. And I think that was scary for me, in early parts of my career, to write about missing and murdered Indigenous women because it did feel too close. And that's what you're always told as a journalist. Don't get too close or you'll be breaking the rules. You know, when you could face losing your job or not getting your contract renewed.

And it felt like sometimes I'd be in the downtown East side and it would take me back; it would sometimes be triggering. And sometimes it gave me an incredible insight that no one else had: incredible contacts, incredible sources. 

Oftentimes I think of people in newsrooms across Canada who have police sources or who have incredibly hard to cultivate sources that are rare and they're lauded and they win awards for such incredible investigative work. Whereas I find with myself and other Indigenous journalists, when we have Indigenous sources that won't talk to anybody and will only talk to us because they trust us and they know that we're going to do our due diligence and we're going to do good journalism when it comes to their stories, instead of being called exclusive or a coveted source or incredible journalism, we're called bias. 

The kinds of stories that you have delivered, which have won awards and meant so much to many, many people, to Indigenous families of people who have lost their partners, their spouses, their aunties, their daughters, and so on. When you hear, "don't get too close," what does that mean to you?

That's a really great question. I think it's always in the back of my head. I feel a little bit different now because I've written a book and I had to be pushed again to [give my opinion.] And so I kind of had that, 'don't get too close,' kind of washed out of me, which I think is really good because I think a lot of the message behind 'don't get too close' is don't have compassion, don't have care. That goes against our journalistic standards and practices.

If I'm breaking the rules by showing kindness and compassion and telling someone, "You can tell me when this isn't quite okay with you. You can stop the interview. You can cancel the interview," which, as I'm sure you know, Shelagh is a big no-no to say. But I give people a sense of control. When you have PTSD, the biggest thing you're lacking is a sense of control. Your body is taking over. Your body is like flight or fight, go or freeze. And I know this, and when you're interviewing somebody, they're going back into that, those stories and those details that might trigger their trauma or put them back in that place and being able to have a journalist say "It's okay, take your time. You don't need to share this. You can stop it." Giving them a little sense of control for their trauma is tremendous as an Indigenous journalist.

When I leave this earth, I'd like to leave love and I'd like to leave compassion. I don't want to leave more pain, because there's enough of that in the world.- Angela Sterritt

I don't want to extract, I don't want to exploit. I don't want to get that clip of someone crying for a compelling story. That's not my goal. And if my goal is at odds with journalistic standards and practices of journalism, for me that's okay. Because when I leave this earth, I'd like to leave love and I'd like to leave compassion. I don't want to leave more pain, because there's enough of that in the world.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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