Black journalist who witnessed N-word used in Fifth Estate meeting calls for broader change at CBC
Former associate producer Dexter Brown says he wasn't satisfied with how complaint last year was handled
When Dexter Brown began working at the CBC four years ago, it felt like home.
"I felt like I was giving back to Canada because it is Canada's public broadcaster," he said in an interview. "It holds a special place in my heart."
Brown lives near the CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters and still walks by sometimes, but he no longer goes inside.
He now works at another network.
Today, Brown is calling for change at the public broadcaster, as he speaks out for the first time about his experience as a Black man hearing two colleagues at The Fifth Estate use the N-word in an editorial discussion in April 2019.
He is coming forward as issues of race have shifted to the forefront of societal debate, with the lack of diversity in the media under the microscope and recent revelations that the N-word was used on two occasions by CBC host Wendy Mesley during editorial meetings at The Weekly.
Brown was working as an associate producer with The Fifth Estate, CBC's flagship investigative program, when the word was repeatedly used in a documentary about racial issues in the American South screened for more than 30 people, including the show's leadership as well as CBC staff not affiliated with the show.
Two longtime Fifth Estate employees then used the word in a staff discussion afterward — either quoting people in the item that had just been shown or when discussing its contents.
"I couldn't have ever imagined that would have happened, where somebody would have thought that it was OK to use that word," Brown said.
"Disappointed with what took place — and a bit embarrassed as well, being the only Black person in the room. It's quite surreal."
According to Brown and multiple accounts from other people who were in the room, no one was admonished for the use of the N-word at the time, and there was no discussion about it being used.
After Brown later raised it with the show's executive producer and a human resources manager, the public broadcaster called in an external law firm to do an investigation that ran for months.
When the investigation was complete, Brown says, he was provided few details of how the matter was resolved.
"It was a bit of a let-down. I was hoping to get a better understanding of what happened, why it happened," he said.
Several senior CBC executives approached for comment declined interview requests, offering instead a written statement through head of public affairs Chuck Thompson, who cited confidentiality agreements.
"While we will not be commenting on details pertaining to this matter, we can confirm there was a comprehensive investigation conducted by a third-party investigator," Thompson wrote in an emailed statement.
"We can also confirm there were findings from the investigation, and corrective actions were taken."
Thompson did not answer specific questions about the cost of the probe, what "corrective actions" were taken and against whom, and how the public broadcaster would handle a similar incident if it happened today.
"We continue to learn as to how we can better engage with our employees when these matters arise," Thompson wrote.
"We have a strong senior leadership team in place, and there is a renewed commitment to ensuring CBC is a safe, inclusive and supportive workplace."
The public broadcaster recently expanded its diversity and inclusion goals, announcing that by fiscal 2021-22, "half of all new hires for executive and senior management positions will be Indigenous people, visible minorities or people with disabilities."
The corporation said retention and promotion rates for people from these three groups will be doubled, and unconscious bias training will be mandatory for leaders.
Screening of documentary
The use of the N-word Brown witnessed took place April 16, 2019, as The Fifth Estate team was preparing for a new season under newly appointed executive producer Catherine Legge. The discussion involved looking at different styles of documentaries.
The editorial team screened one titled Murder in Mississippi that was part of a series called Love and Hate Crime.
It told the story of three white teenagers who killed a Black man in a racially motivated hit-and-run.
Brown says there was no warning to staff before the screening about the racial slur they would hear. The N-word was used a dozen times in the documentary — in 911 calls, in trial testimony and by a white woman who insisted it had no racial connotation.
Near the end of the documentary, the white mother of a young woman convicted of a hate crime met with the Black judge who presided over her daughter's trial. After that conversation, the mother agreed she should no longer use the N-word.
Sources who were present at the screening say two Fifth Estate employees — host Gillian Findlay and editor Loretta Hicks — used the N-word in staff discussions about the documentary immediately following the screening.
Witnesses in the room at the time described Findlay as quoting a person from the documentary that had just been shown to the group.
In an emailed statement, Findlay said she didn't recall saying the N-word but is sorry if she did.
"Over the course of 15 months, I have revisited that day many times," the statement said. "I have never had — and do not now have — a recollection of repeating the documentary's use of the word myself. If, however, my memory is wrong, and I did quote someone from the film using the word, I apologize. It should not have happened.
"I agree with the CBC there is much to learn from how this incident was handled at the time and since. The questions you pose are fair. But like all who were interviewed by the CBC's third-party investigator, I was obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement that continues to prohibit me from discussing this with anyone, including colleagues."
Hicks — who sources say used the N-word in the ensuing discussion — declined comment.
Multiple CBC employees who were in the room at the time described the scene, on the condition they not be identified because they feared reprisal from leadership at the public broadcaster.
They said no concerns were raised about the use of the word.
"I just remember the silence — like, the nothingness that followed," one said.
Another was also surprised at the lack of reaction in the room.
"I have been in these rooms where people have come to the point of cursing, and they have been admonished for it," they said.
"And this was someone using a racial slur, and nobody said anything."
They described it as "shameful" that in a room full of veteran journalists employed by the public broadcaster no one spoke up.
A third person described their difficulty comprehending what had happened.
"I'm looking around for other people's reaction — like, are you as shocked as I am? And it was almost like people felt like they couldn't be shocked."
Brown and the others say the top leaders in the room included Legge and the CBC's senior director of investigative journalism, Marie Caloz.
In a brief telephone conversation a week ago, Legge said she was preparing a statement for this story. But she did not respond to follow-up calls and messages, and no statement was provided prior to this report.
Legge is no longer with The Fifth Estate. She was appointed executive producer of original video with CBC News two months ago, overseeing the creation of current affairs and documentary content.
Caloz declined comment, saying she is "restricted by a non-disclosure agreement" and there is nothing more she can add beyond what CBC has shared.
Then-CBC News editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire confirmed there was a complaint made connected to The Fifth Estate, and it was investigated by an external expert.
"Beyond this, I am not at liberty to discuss further as it pertains to HR files," said McGuire, who left the public broadcaster earlier this year.
Asked why non-disclosure agreements were required for this process — and whether people could be released from their agreements so they could speak freely — CBC head of public affairs Chuck Thompson pointed to the third-party investigator.
"Confidentiality is the underlying principle of any investigation, and while we give third-party investigators high-level guidelines, they operate independently of us and use their own methods of investigation," Thompson wrote in an emailed statement.
"Investigations include non-disclosure agreements, and these agreements ensure integrity of the process and protect all participants. It is not in the purview of the CBC to enable a breach of the confidentiality agreement."
'We know the CBC can do better'
Nadia Stewart, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists, remembers receiving a call from Brown the night of April 16, 2019. They discussed the documentary screening and other concerns Brown had about the workplace environment at The Fifth Estate.
"By the time he got to the end of telling me the story, he was in tears," Stewart said in an interview.
"I've never forgotten the conversation. I think the impact on him was just so evident, and the hurt that he had felt in that moment. You could hear it in his voice."
Stewart says people have to assume a certain level of personal responsibility when engaging in a conversation where words are used that they know are very sensitive for some of the other people in the room.
"If it's used in the documentary, I understand that. But I don't believe that it justifies repeating," she said.
Stewart drew a parallel with conversations about violence. One doesn't need to re-enact a violent act when telling a story about one, she said.
She says companies have a responsibility in such situations to act quickly — not just to take disciplinary action but also to ensure that the person who suffered the pain is handled with care.
"We know the CBC can do better," Stewart said. "And in this instance, definitely should have done better."
WATCH | Nadia Stewart on the impact of hearing the N-word at work:
Brown asked to be transferred
The day after the screening, Brown raised what had transpired with Legge. He received emails from show leadership expressing support, but says he did not get any details about a plan to deal with the situation going forward.
Nearly two weeks later, he wrote a CBC human resources manager, asking to be transferred off the show, citing the screening where the N-word was used and other concerns about the work environment at The Fifth Estate. Brown says he was offered other work by the CBC, but he wasn't satisfied with the options. So he decided to stay.
CBC ultimately tapped an outside labour law firm to launch a probe.
Brown says he was informed of the findings in early October and was told that two people were confirmed to have said the word. But he says he was not given the specifics of any actions that had been taken and was not provided with anything in writing.
"I didn't really want an investigation to begin with, but if you're going to put me through that for so many months, I mean, there should be a payoff, like learn something," Brown said.
"There should be payoff where I know what actions CBC was going to take just to make sure that something like that wouldn't happen again."
In February, his contract with The Fifth Estate expired. He briefly worked elsewhere within the CBC before taking a job as a producer at CTV News, where he remains today.
During his time with The Fifth Estate, email records show that he received positive feedback from supervisors about his work.
WATCH | Former employee describes why he wants change at the CBC:
Meanwhile, the union representing employees of the public broadcaster said it, too, would like to see the investigator's final report, which the CBC has not shared with the union.
"While we cannot speak about individual cases, we have made it clear to CBC that addressing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is a priority," Canadian Media Guild national president Carmel Smyth said in an emailed statement.
"The corporation must act. This is long overdue."
Smyth did not respond to follow-up questions about what steps the union took to support Brown.
Mesley news was 'tipping point'
Brown said it was hearing last month about the use of the N-word at another CBC editorial meeting that prompted him to come forward to tell his story now.
"I think what the tipping point was, was hearing about what happened at The Weekly with Wendy Mesley," he said.
"To know that another journalist of colour had to face something kind of similar to what I faced. That was really tough."
Brown said he hopes going public with his experience will help make things better for others in the future.
"So, to hear that story — to hear about stories in other newsrooms across Canada — I really hope that by talking, there's some positive change. That's really what I want. I just want some positive change," he said.
"And again, it's not just for me. It's not just for, you know, other people of colour who work at CBC and other news organizations. It's for the Canadian public, because I feel like Canadians are really missing out on a lot of stories because they don't have people of colour working in their newsrooms."
He says some Black journalists could get frustrated and simply leave the business entirely.
He would like to see a change in the newsroom culture and a healthier work environment.
"I really want the full picture, a full understanding of the world around us. And I don't think we're getting that if we're losing journalists of colour in newsrooms. Not only that, making them feel uncomfortable, making them feel not welcome, not heard."
WATCH | The National: