As a child, Julien Gignac looked forward to visiting his family on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, an hour outside of his hometown of London, Ont. One of the highlights of those visits was sitting on his great-grandmother’s porch and listening to her stories. Themes of interconnectedness, respect for the natural world and the importance of giving back ran through her narratives, laying the foundation for Julien’s work as a journalist, which has recently brought him to The Narwhal as our new Yukon reporter — a position funded through the federal government’s Local Journalism Initiative.
“She had this wealth of knowledge,” Julien says of his late great-grandmother, a residential school survivor. “She was my connection to my culture.”
After graduating from Carleton University’s School of Journalism, Julien, who is Mohawk, landed coveted roles at Canada’s top legacy newspapers. He had a year-long Indigenous fellowship at The Globe and Mail before joining the Toronto Star as a breaking news reporter. Then one day he up and left “The Six” for Yukon, where he had never stepped foot before. Here he tells us about his path to The Narwhal and his work as a journalist.
Q: Why did you move to Yukon?
A: I wanted a beat, I wanted to cover politics and a job came up at Yukon News. The paper is really scrappy and has an investigative bent to it — much like The Narwhal — so that was a definite draw. I wanted to get my feet wet and study how the governments work, including First Nations. Yukon First Nations are trailblazers. How they operate is totally different from how First Nations operate in the south. They have far more jurisdiction over their own matters, which is really fascinating to me, and I wanted to learn more about it. I also wanted an adventure. I wanted to be in a new place unlike any I’d been before and get really far out there. Having a little bit more space to think and learn and be close to nature has been great. Now being at The Narwhal, I’m able to focus exclusively on environmental and First Nations issues, which have always lit a fire under me. I’m looking forward to bringing more awareness to issues here that might otherwise not be on people’s radar and having more impact with my stories.
Q: What challenges and opportunities do you have as an Indigenous journalist?
A: Some topics can feel deeply personal, whether I’m covering or reading about them — racism and oppression, for example. It can be a tough slog sometimes. I’ve realized my place in it all, though, and the type of power I have, which, historically, wasn’t there. This translates to more reporting on underrepresented communities, to giving back. Running through it all is a big dose of responsibility and care for the people and places I report on in order to effect what could be positive change. This last bit is the greatest thing about journalism, in my opinion.
Q: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve received as a journalist?
A: On my last day at Yukon News, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said, “Wow, you’re one of the guys I trust out there.” This meant a lot to me, more than he probably knew. I don’t think he was even fully aware of my background. It didn’t matter. Hearing he trusted me to tell stories that affect his community, given the rocky relationship between journalists and First Nations in the past, made me think I must be doing something right. As a Native person, it made me feel like I am contributing in some way despite being so far away from my home.
Q: What’s the toughest story you’ve ever covered?
A: Recently, it was the inquest into the death of Cynthia Blackjack, a 29-year-old First Nations woman. Blackjack had contacted the community health centre in Carmacks, Yukon, several days in a row due to dental pain. The day before she died, she was tentatively diagnosed with alcohol-induced gastritis. She was told to find a ride to the hospital in Whitehorse. When her condition worsened, she was medevaced to hospital but died on the flight due to organ failure. The whole case centred on whether there were systemic failings. The jury deemed it an accident. The people who felt it the most were her family, members of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation. It was a tough two weeks — the arguments, reams of paperwork and deadlines, and the emotional toll that was, at times, palpable in the room.
Q: You’re also a photographer. What can photos do that words can’t?
A: Photos can slow everything down. Everything is super-fast nowadays, and people can get a bit swept up in the news cycle. Photos allow you to present an issue in a really concise, accurate and raw way that words can’t. I try to tell a story in one frame. That’s part of the reason I’m happy to be working for The Narwhal, which does long-form, investigative work. Images can really help with features like that. People are drawn to visuals.
Q: What hobbies have you picked up since moving to Yukon?
A: All of the outdoor “hobbies” I had when I lived in the South have now become actual ones — fishing, hiking, ice skating on frozen lakes. I want a canoe. Nature is just so accessible here.