Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

Ahead of Checkup hiatus, Duncan McCue reflects on learning Anishinaabemowin

As part of an "exit interview" of sorts, Arjun Ram spoke to Duncan McCue about the Checkup host's plans to study the Anishinaabemowin language for the Massey College William Southam Journalism Fellowship.

McCue host will be on leave this fall as part of Massey College journalism fellowship

Arjun Ram conducts a physically-distant interview with Checkup host Duncan McCue. (Richard Goddard/CBC)

Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue was joined by CBC Kids News contributor Arjun Ram this week to talk about how young Canadians are affected by, and confronting, racism and race relations.

But this week also happens to be McCue's last at the helm of Checkup — for a while, at least.

Following a summer break from the show, McCue is taking an eight-month leave to join four other journalists for Massey College's William Southam Journalism Fellowship. CBC Radio Fresh Air host Nana aba Duncan is also part of this year's cohort.

As part of an "exit interview" of sorts, Ram spoke to McCue about his plans to study the Anishinaabemowin language for the fellowship. Here is part of their conversation.

So first of all, I want to thank you for inviting me here on Cross Country Checkup. It's an honour to be a part of a historic show for CBC. Can you tell me a bit about your career as a radio host?

I've been a TV reporter for most of my career. I started out in television news in the [CBC] Vancouver newsroom, became a current affairs reporter for The National, and that's where I spent most of my career.

But four years ago, I got an opportunity to sit in the chair here at Cross Country Checkup. I decided I'd apply, and here I am.

You know, this show is older than me. And so, it was a real surprise when I when I got the job. And it's just such a real pleasure for me to be talking to Canadians every Sunday.

Did you ever think, when sitting in your first episode of you hosting Cross Country Checkup, that you would ever be a radio host? Like, hosting your own radio show?

There are so many venerable and respected young people who have been on the CBC Radio airwaves over the years. You know, whether it's Peter Gzowski or Barbara Frum, and the list just goes on and on of people that I grew up listening to.

So for me to be on the CBC Radio airwaves, I need to pinch myself every once in a while and remind myself that I get to be part of the national conversation. I just feel very lucky and very privileged to be able to do that.

I understand you'll be leaving Cross Country Checkup — only for [about] a year, don't worry — to go study at Massey College, because you've received the prestigious Massey Fellowship award. So congratulations. That's amazing.

Thank you.

How were you feeling when they announced that you would be receiving this award?

It's not easy to step away from the mic, Arjun. Honestly, I really enjoy my job, and I had to think long and hard about taking eight months off.

But ... I really am looking forward to a chance to take a break and have a think about the things that I really care about. And so what I want to study at U of T is the Anishinaabemowin. It's the Ojibway language.

I am from the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, and my grandparents spoke fluent Anishinaabemowin.

McCue started attending drop-in Anishinaabemowin classes at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto three years ago. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Unfortunately, they didn't pass it on to my dad or my uncles. And so I don't speak my own language.

[For] the past three years, I've been taking night classes to try to start to learn Anishinaabemowin. And it is my happy place, Arjun. It connects me to my ancestors.

How important is it to connect to your roots, whether it be learning your language or exploring the culture?

It really is. You know, when you look at the place where we live Arjun — Spadina Road is an Anishinaabemowin word, Ishpadinaa. Place names [such as] Mississauga, Oshawa — all of those things are Anishinaabemowin.

And so when I start to learn more about our language, I begin to connect to the way that my ancestors saw the world in a way that I don't when I'm speaking English. It helps me connect to our ceremonies. So that's why it makes me so happy to learn the language.

But also, I go to night classes at the Native Canadian Centre [of Toronto] after a day of work. And I'm tired. And I'm a terrible student, frankly. I don't do my homework.

That's why I want to take a little bit of time when I'm on the Massey Fellowship to be able to really focus on my Anishinaabemowin studies. And hopefully I can get to that next level that I haven't been able to achieve yet.

Anishinaabemowin is one of the many languages that are disappearing due to language suppression in Canada. It's a huge problem for many different languages.

What do you think we should do as Canadians to make sure that different communities are being taught the languages that were once spoken by their ancestors?

There are a couple of things, Arjun. In my Anishinaabemowin class, I'd say it's about 50/50.... There are Indigenous people, but there are lots of non-Indigenous people who are wanting to learn the language so that they can be strong allies, and so that they can understand more about their neighbours.

I think when we start to see street signs, for example, or we start to have schools that are renamed to recognize the original language of this land, I think that's really important as well.

The Spadina Road street sign at Davenport Road in Toronto includes the word Ishpadinaa, which means 'going up the hill.' (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

And I also think that some of these attempts to revitalize Indigenous languages, they need to be supported and they need to be financially supported.

People shouldn't have to do them off the side of their desk. They need to have the resources to put out proper textbooks, and to help students like me learn the language.

And so that's a really important part of the Indigenous languages legislation that the federal government has passed. And the people right across this country who are language keepers, they need to be supported financially, as well as politically.

What do you think about the action Canada has taken in the past few years of… talking about the different communities and the different types of people in schools, and educating them on First Nation[s] ... or different cultures that we've never really seen before or heard about before?

I think of the words of Sen. Murray Sinclair when he was doing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

An awful lot of damage occurred with the residential schools over the years. And Sen. Sinclair said it was education that got us into this mess, with regard to the way that the Indigenous peoples have been treated. And it's education that's going to get us out.

So when I see young people who are learning about the history of residential schools or who are learning more about their First Nation neighbours, then it's encouraging to me.

That, to me, suggests we're on the right path.

I want to thank you. How the tables have turned! We were just talking before, but I finally get to interview you. It's truly an honour.

I am going to be gone for eight months. So maybe you want to throw your name in the hat? Maybe you can host Cross Country Checkup while I'm gone.

Yeah, I'd love to! ... Thank you so much.

Thank you, Arjun.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Arjun Ram. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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