Growing up as a quiet kid in a loud family, Stephanie Wood longed for a meaningful way to use her voice. Once she found her footing as a writer, it became clear journalism was a compelling way to elevate not only her own voice but the voices and stories of many others.
Born and raised in Vancouver and a member of the Skwxwú7mesh Nation, Wood will join The Narwhal’s reporting team this February as our newest B.C. reporter.
“It feels like a pivotal time” at The Narwhal, Wood says. “There’s a lot of bad news in journalism and it’s nice to join one of the independent outlets that are full of hope and growth.”
After Wood’s first article appeared in the Georgia Straight at the age of 21, she went on to intern at CBC Yukon, the Tyee and Media Indigena before completing a master’s of journalism degree at UBC.
We put a few questions to Wood about her views on journalism at this moment in Canada and what it’s like to be a young, Indigenous reporter in an era of both polarization and reconciliation. It’s important to note that Wood is The Narwhal’s first Indigenous staff member and, as a growing start-up, we’ve been working hard to act on our commitment to creating a space for more thoughtful, inclusive journalism that reflects the communities we serve. We know media can do better, and that includes us. Read more about that commitment here.
This interview is edited for brevity.
Q: What’s your background and where did you grow up?
A: I’m Steph, I share the name Kwetásel’wet with my mother, Vera Wood. My grandmother is Kwinak’atemat-t, or Lucille Nicholson. I grew up in North Vancouver on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory with my mom, dad, and my older brother and sister. We lived in the Lynn Valley, a suburban neighbourhood, in a house facing a ravine. The house is a short walk from Lynn Creek. My brother, sister and I all grew up into adulthood in that house.
I come from a big and loving family and I love living here — I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q: Is there anything about your childhood and youth you find yourself reflecting on now as a journalist?
A: I think I see more clearly how I got here. As a reporter, you’re always listening for someone’s formative moments. I knew I had an array of significant experiences, but I never tied them together into my own life story until I began practicing narratives as a graduate student. It helped me see my own story. It helped me give context to what I thought were isolated moments.
It also helped me see how much the schooling system failed my generation and all those before by erasing Indigenous history from the curriculum. In school, we weren’t encouraged to engage with the outside world. We were put in a silo.
Q: Why/how did you decide to become a journalist?
A: One of my professors at UBC made a point that we all have self-aggrandizing if slightly vague stories we tell ourselves about why we got into journalism — to defend democracy, to help the world, to make a difference. But we also all have an intensely personal reason, perhaps even a selfish one. He told us all that we have to figure out ours.
I got a diploma in creative writing, with the idea I’d write fiction. There was definitely a self-centred aspect to it — I was a quiet child in a loud family and I felt unheard. It was a way for me to be heard and speak with confidence. I wrote a short story based on my granny and her experience at residential school and life after … I didn’t ask her permission … But she was really happy for me when the story got recognition and she told me how much it meant to her. That real-life impact of telling true stories felt so much more significant than any fiction I could ever write.
As I completed my diploma and did some non-fiction creative writing, I found it the most challenging and fulfilling, and I knew I wanted to share the stories of others. I was especially inspired by my mum and my granny who always encouraged my writing. I gradually saw how much you learn from intense listening. It became the only thing I wanted to do.
From there, it was still a long road. I had a diploma in creative writing and no work experience. I didn’t want to move from home, but there were no undergrad journalism programs in Vancouver. I took a gap year, wrote a Georgia Straight article, and completed a B.A. at UBC. Then I applied to their graduate school of journalism. Then I panicked I wasn’t good enough for the program and that I’d made a terrible decision and took another gap year. So, while it had been on my mind since I was a teen, I was walking into the program turning 25 years old and had only been in school. During this program is when I realized how much work we had to do on the industry. I often feel inadequate, but also a responsibility to stay. I hope to help other young aspiring Indigenous journalists just starting out to achieve their goals — if that’s you and you’re reading this and have any questions at all, hit me up.
I experienced (and continue to experience) white privilege as a white-passing Indigenous person and often encountered misunderstandings from friends and acquaintances, prevalent myths like Indigenous people don’t pay any taxes or blatant racism one white person thought they were telling another.
I heard stories from my family I thought should be more widely known. That became what I wanted to do — combat myths and share truths.
Q: When you reflect on being an Indigenous journalist, what are the challenges and opportunities you find yourself focusing on the most?
A: I may have been naïve not to fully comprehend the challenges of being an Indigenous journalist before joining the industry. Looking back, I had a lot of idealistic thoughts about the journalism world. I never imagined the feeling of trying to argue the importance of a story that carries a lot of weight for Indigenous people to someone who doesn’t see it. I didn’t expect to have people adding in misleading sentences or incorrect information to my stories and cutting essential details. I didn’t foresee there being so few of us.
I didn’t understand that most stories are not written for an Indigenous audience, even if they’re written about Indigenous Peoples. It’s been heartbreaking to see people share stories from outlets that have misrepresented and hurt them.
That all being said, I do think things are moving in a positive direction, and more and more young and exciting storytellers are entering the industry thanks to trailblazers and leaders like Angela Sterritt, Candis Callison, Duncan McCue, Wawmeesh Hamilton, Connie Walker … Media is still too white, and it’s still written through a colonial lens most of the time. But there are so many exciting people doing amazing work and constantly pushing outlets to do better.
You are sending a message to the world if a person looks at your masthead and sees all white faces. I personally am less likely to apply to a place where I can see an all-white staff and list of contributors. It’s up to outlets to seek out the people right for the job. There are so many brilliant Black, Indigenous and People of Colour writers, editors, filmmakers and other creatives who are qualified and looking for fulfilling work.
Many outlets settle for hiring one Indigenous journalist. They may not understand the weight they’re putting on that person. But in one episode of Media Indigena, when Rick Harp asks Candis Callison what her advice is to news outlets, she said to hire at least two Indigenous journalists, ideally three, so that person isn’t going it alone as so many Indigenous journalists have to in their newsrooms. You’ll get richer, deeper stories and it will impact the whole outlet. I hope this is also changing. An outlet may still choose to be all-white — but many people are also going to call you out for being hella white.
Q: What’s one of the most difficult things you’ve ever had to cover?
A: One difficult story was about the stigma HIV-positive women face and how some use art to deal with that. It was difficult because I had to face my own lack of knowledge in this area and my privilege.
Q: What are the last three books you’ve read? And what’s next on your reading list?
A: The last three books have been The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, There, There by Tommy Orange and Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga. I’m in the middle of Releasing Hope: Women’s Stories of Transition from Prison to Community, written by a collective of women. Next on my list is A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliot, which I am very excited to read, and I have waited all too long to begin.
Q: Any notable party tricks or odd/brag-worthy talents?
A: This question makes me feel bad about myself. I’ve been told I can do a good impression or two. My thumb knuckles bend backwards, and I’ve been told I make an excellent cup of coffee.