Nicole McCormick: Changing the story for Indigenous Canada

—For a long time, Nicole McCormick kept quiet when Canadian media ignored important stories about Indigenous Canada. In the last few years she found her voice and won’t be quiet anymore—

One of the goals of media and journalism is to share stories that help make sense of the world around us, providing context for the people and events within it. When done right, media still has enormous power to move society in positive and constructive ways.

But for far too long, the media was not interested in stories about Indigenous people or their lives. And so, as an Indigenous woman working in media, Nicole McCormick spent much of the early part of her career feeling very lonely.

“I’ve always, always, always been the only indigenous person in every newsroom I’ve worked in,” says McCormick, who has spent 20 years in broadcast journalism and is currently senior manager of newsgathering at CityNews in Toronto. It’s tough pitching Indigenous stories when nobody else understands the Indigenous way of life and the importance of the story. “People would ask me, ‘Well, why should I care?’”

She constantly had to explain her ideas and, in a way, who she was. “When you’re the only one, it’s exhausting to have to repeatedly defend yourself and your people,” she says. “It came to a point where part of me started to believe them. That maybe nobody cared. So I just started to be very quiet.”

But that’s no longer the case. McCormick has found her voice in recent years, and is now using it to drive change, both at Rogers as a corporation and  a media outlet producing stories that can help reshape a society that—at long last—is coming to terms with its horrific treatment of Canada’s First Nations.

She has become a tireless advocate and storyteller for Canada’s Indigenous community, standing up for her beliefs, challenging systemic barriers and insisting that their voices be heard so they know they matter, and will not be ignored anymore.

McCormick’s own story, she knows, is not unlike that of many Indigenous Canadians: A difficult beginning, followed by years of healing. She was the child of a very young couple. Her father was Mohawk and left before she was born; her non-Indigenous mother was addicted to drugs.

As a baby, McCormick was put into foster care until she was five and her mother was healthy enough to get her back. By then, she had met a man who would change young Nicole’s life forever, adopting her a couple of years later. When her mother relapsed a few years after that, McCormick was still safe, loved and cared for, though her mother was all but out of her life for good. “My father has been my shining star, my hero in this life,” she says.

Growing up in the ’90s around Hamilton, her father wanted her to learn about her Indigenous roots, but also feared the racism she would face. “Back then Indigenous people were not looked upon as human,” she says. She joined Indigenous youth groups and started to learn about Indigenous traditions and customs, but those years were difficult as she was struggling to understand who she was. “I was really struggling,” she says.

Then next big step in her “healing process” came at Mohawk College, when a professor named John Bradford talked with her about what it could mean to be an Indigenous person in broadcast media.

“He asked me one day ‘How many of you do you see on TV? Do you see your face on TV?”

Duke Redbird was on CityTV and Carla Robinson was on CBC, but that was all McCormick could name. Think of that as an opportunity, Bradford told her. Even if she didn’t want to go in front of the camera—and she didn’t—she could still change the kinds of stories being told. She did not have to separate her personal life as an Indigenous person from her professional life as a journalist.

She started to dig deeper into her own life story, learning more and more about her biological family and Mohawk ancestry.

“I realized that my Indigenous family was the stereotype—some members of my family suffered from addiction, have anxiety, didn’t know how to love, so I had trouble connecting with some of them,” she says.

She started to have a better understanding of who she was, and the struggles of her family and her people. But even as she progressed professionally, she felt she couldn’t share that story. And so she stayed quiet.

The turning point came in 2016, when Rogers created an employee group called the Indigenous People’s Network to help create an inclusive culture for its Indigenous employees.

At the beginning, it was just McCormick and two other employees, only one of whom was Indigenous. She remembers looking at him and saying, “We’re it.” They would be responsible for driving change so that other Indigenous people would be welcome at Rogers and never feel as lonely has they did. Shortly afterwards, she was asked to address 10,000 people at an Indigenous festival sponsored by Rogers.

“I told [Rogers], I’m not going to be edited. You’re going to have to let me speak my truth.” Rogers said that was fine and so she told her whole story.

“For the first time in my corporate existence, people knew me on a level that I had never allowed anybody to see. They knew my mother suffered from addiction. They knew I had been abused as a child. They knew I had spent time in foster care and was neglected in that home. They knew all these things.” She felt incredibly vulnerable, but it changed things. For the first time, people she worked with really understood her story.

“And then I started pushing harder,” she says. “I would say that over the past three years, I have completely changed the way this company views indigenous people.”

At Rogers she grew the Indigenous Peoples Network and drove the establishment of the Downie-Wenjak Legacy Space, a meeting room dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of Indigenous art, history, and culture. The first space (right) opened in Toronto in 2019, followed by another in Kelowna in 2020. There are land acknowledgment plaques going up, and land acknowledgements precede every town hall meeting.

At City News she pushed for more—and more positive—stories. Breakfast Television dedicated an entire show to truth and reconciliation last September, and the Toronto Blue Jays held a ceremony for National Truth and Reconciliation Day. “That was me, I drove that.” She is also a manager of Rogers’ All In Content Advisory Council, which ensures content represents the communities who watch, listen and read Rogers content.

“Nicole is more than an inclusion and diversity leader in our organization—she’s a true champion and tireless advocate who is helping to build a more inclusive country,” says Sharon Hinds, manager of All In, the inclusion and diversity program at Rogers Sports & Media. “Through Nicole’s invaluable work with the Indigenous Peoples Network, as well as the limitless support and allyship that she provides our employee resource groups, Nicole is paving the way for change.”

It is accomplishments like these, and McCormick’s own story, that impressed the Mighty Women jury.

“As an Indigenous woman in media she has leaned into her identity to share Indigenous stories through her work,” says Mighty Women juror Aleena Mazhar, managing director at Fuse Create. “I love that she did the work to make changes in our industry on how we talk about Indigenous communities, reconciliation and the depiction of these communities in the media.

“Coming to terms with her identity, how the media portrays her community, and making real change in our media landscape made her a standout submission for me.”

Beyond her work at Rogers, McCormick also sees improvement starting to happen at other media outlets. “People just don’t want to see Indigenous people reflected negatively. They want to see the good in what we do,” she says. “They want to see the contributions that we are making to society. They want to see the art and the music and understand our connection to the land.”

But she also knows that the tragic stories that have unfolded at former residential schools explains some of the shift. “When those babies’ bodies were found, when the unmarked graves were found, it was like people started to realize everything they had heard an Indigenous person speak about residential schools. It was like ‘They were telling the truth. And now I have to do my part and listen.”

And if people are willing to listen, Nicole McCormick will tell them a story.

David Brown