Canadaland: The Podcast Holding Power to Account

Jesse Brown’s Canadaland has stepped into the breach left by Canada’s ailing legacy media. The podcast has been a strong shot in the arm for the country’s investigative journalism.

Jesse Brown, the founder and prinicipal host of Canadaland.

Canadaland is one of the most successful, prolific, and high-profile podcast companies in the country. The podcast network and news site has carved out a vital niche in Canada’s news media. With over 9 million downloads of its shows in 2020 and an admirable record of breaking stories of major importance — many of which other news organizations would have been reticent to touch — Canadaland has earned a reputation for fearlessness and tenacity.

In an hour-long interview with Jacobin, the founder of Canadaland, Jesse Brown, discussed what he believes are his company’s unique contributions to Canada’s beleaguered news media landscape.

Canadian News Media Is in Trouble

To understand Canadaland’s success, it is helpful to be familiar with some of the North American nation’s recent history. In 2013, when the podcast launched, the leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, was prime minister. Harper, presaging Donald Trump, disdained journalists and ended the practice of holding regular press conferences at Parliament’s National Press Theatre. On the rare occasion that Harper or his ministers deigned to hold media events, they had journalists cordoned off behind ropes and required that they submit questions in advance. Not surprisingly, this had a detrimental effect on news coverage and was strongly criticized by Reporters Without Borders.

Meanwhile, the news media itself was in a protracted crisis (from which it seems unlikely to fully recover). In January 2017, the Public Policy Forum released one of the best diagnoses of the ailing Canadian media ecosphere. The Shattered Mirror report depicted an industry in rapid decline, unable to adapt to the world of social media and the relentless accusations of “fake news” which its critics made against it.

For a long time, Canada has suffered from the same forces that have squeezed “legacy media” around the world and resulted in the gutting of newsrooms and the disruption of the business models of newspapers. As The Shattered Mirror report shows, in 1950, there were 102 newspapers sold per 100 Canadian households. By 2015, that number had plummeted to 18 and was projected to further decline to only 2 during the 2020s.

By 2015, community and daily newspapers were earning 7 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of all Canadian advertising revenue. These numbers have continued to trend downward, while online platforms have gobbled up 37 percent of media revenues and are on pace to increase their share of advertising income.

Since the election of Justin Trudeau, there have been several attempts to save the news media’s many sinking ships. None of these Liberal Party interventions have made a major difference. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which under Harper suffered relentless cuts, saw its funding restored by Trudeau’s government. Over the course of five years, the Liberals increased the CBC’s budget by a total of $675 million.

In their 2019 budget, the Liberals announced a $595 million news media bailout. These sums also included provisions for media companies to transform themselves, in whole or in part, into charities — in the model of ProPublica in the United States or the Guardian in the United Kingdom.

These measures were, however, not enough to staunch news media’s bleeding. By 2020, the authors of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project observed:

As the crisis of journalism continues to deepen, large newspaper chains such as Postmedia, Torstar and Quebecor have spun off daily and community papers while consolidating their activities on a regional basis. As a result, the top four firms’ share of revenue on a national basis has fallen from 83 percent in 2010 to 62 percent last year. Rather than being a gain for diversity, however, the decline is taking place as even leading newspaper groups struggle to survive.

Brown made it clear he believes the Canadian media could do a whole lot better:

There is a parochial, provincial, and insular mentality. In trying to reach Canadians, we fail — in contrast with, say, the New York Times or American TV. Canada is under-covered. But there are juicy, shocking, jaw-dropping stories, every bit as interesting as American stories.

If there is a bright future for Canadian journalism, it will likely not be forged by Postmedia, Torstar, and Quebecor — or, for that matter, even the CBC. Increasingly, a wave of mostly digital-first media organizations, such as the National Observer, The Narwhal, The Sprawl, Taproot, and Ku’ku’kwes News, are outflanking these big players. In Quebec, the philanthropic sector backstopped a buyout by journalists of six local newspapers, bringing them under the cooperative Groupe Capitales Médias.

Canadaland distinguishes itself from all of these by being national in scope and with a general rather than specific newsbeat.

WTF for Canada

Jesse Brown, who launched Canadaland as his personal podcast, says it was intended to be similar in tone to WTF by the American comedian Marc Maron. It provided a “behind-the-scenes” conversation with insiders about the Canadian media landscape. Brown initially pitched the idea to the CBC, Maclean’s, and others. With no takers in the media establishment, he produced the show himself.

In the debut podcast, he drank bourbon with the legendary journalist Michael Enright. The episode has the feel of a gifted and rebellious student coming back to provoke his former teacher (Enright was previously Brown’s boss at the CBC).

Canadaland has retained the feel of an informal after-hours newsroom chat while becoming an increasingly important newsmaker in its own right. Brown’s first major scoop was about Peter Mansbridge, then Canada’s most famous news anchor. Brown revealed that the trusted face of CBC’s nightly news was taking money from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, exposing a blatant conflict of interest.

“It turned out there were a lot of things going on in Canadian media that needed to be reported on,” he recalls. “Somebody needed to do investigations, but I had no background as an investigative reporter.”

The Canadaland podcast network, founded by Jesse Brown, has earned a reputation for fearless and tenacious investigative journalism. (Canadaland)

In early 2015, Brown helped break a major news story about Jian Ghomeshi, another CBC veteran. Ghomeshi was accused by several women of sexual assault and harassment. Brown teamed up with Kevin Donovan of the Toronto Star to investigate the allegations. As the story gained momentum — the scandal forcing a national conversation on sexual violence and workplace harassment — Canadaland experienced a major spike in traffic nationally.

Since those early days, Brown has slowly built up his credentials as one of the best investigative reporters in the country. He has worked with journalists and other storytellers who, like him, are not afraid to go after some of Canada’s sacred cows. It was Canadaland reporter Jaren Kerr who put in many of the long hours investigating the Kielburgers’ WE charity, which in 1998 had sued the magazine Saturday Night for libel. For a long time, this incident gave the charity a reputation of being too dangerous to touch. One of Kerr’s earliest WE reports was provocatively entitled “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children.”

Ryan McMahon, an established comedian and documentarian in his own right, has also contributed groundbreaking work to the podcast. His series, Thunder Bay, was one of the strangest and most compelling long-form narratives ever produced in Canada’s podcast ecosystem.

Other notable alumni of Canadaland include Vicky Mochama, Katie Jensen, Jane Lytvynenko, Desmond Cole, Andray Domise, and Sean Craig. Most of these contributors left after relatively brief spells with the podcast. At times, because of Canadaland’s high turnover and sometimes careless reporting, it has seemed to be on the verge of crashing. One of its low points was in July 2015, when the podcast reported that women journalists were “fleeing” the Globe and Mail. Some of these women contacted Brown to ask him to correct the record. They hadn’t fled; they’d simply found better jobs elsewhere.

This story and many others were the subject of an article in the Review of Journalism in 2018. The portrait drawn by the article depicted Brown as a journalist so eager for a good story that he sometimes pushes too hard, too early, and gets himself into trouble. At the same time, the article notes, Brown is consistently prepared to admit to and correct his mistakes. Canadaland’s staff, which has hovered around a dozen in recent years, successfully unionized in 2020, a move that Brown says is a sign of the company’s “maturity.”

Canadaland gradually expanded its mandate beyond being a media watchdog, eking out its own unique territory. Over time, it has become easy to gauge the stories that feel like Canadaland stories even though the podcast network does not adhere to any particular ideological position. Discussing the podcast’s investigative method and approach, Brown explains:

It’s dangerous to get too focused on broader societal change. But we do have a sense of what we’re trying to do here? Yes. We have a rubric through which we ask: “Is this a Canadaland story? If we don’t cover this, would somebody else cover it? Is the way that other media are covering it fucked up and missing something? Are we giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice elsewhere? Can we fill in gaps? Can we address the blind spots of the mainstream media?”

White Saviors and Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay and The White Saviors are exemplary Canadaland stories. Before Ryan McMahon’s series debuted, the city of Thunder Bay had received attention from Tanya Talaga, whose book Seven Fallen Feathers documents the disappearances and deaths of seven indigenous high-school students. Robert Jago also covered violence and racism in Thunder Bay for the Walrus.

However, McMahon’s podcast series did something rather different: it started with many of the same questions and then pulled back to examine the macro social forces and multiple demographics that played parts in the town’s dramas and travails — youth, police, city leaders, sex workers, indigenous, white, rich, and poor.

In Episode 1, McMahon called Thunder Bay “probably the most dangerous city for indigenous kids in the country.” The patience and empathy with which McMahon approached his interviews cast new light on the city. Anti-indigenous racism was expressed candidly for the record, as in this revelatory, intentionally anonymous quote, attributed on the show to Unidentified Person #7: “We bring in people, a lot of people, from northern communities who have grown up in very uncivilized areas. And we’re throwing them into civilization. They don’t know how to handle it.”

McMahon exposed human trafficking, extortion, and hate crimes. But the series was not relentlessly gloomy. It was quirky and bizarre, often funny and moving, with narrative momentum. It was a warts-and-all portrait of one of Canada’s least understood urban centers. 

On the pod, McMahon’s gloss on the city is vivid and illuminative:

The highway that takes you coast to coast in Canada passes through it. Thunder Bay is literally unavoidable. People behave differently when they’re passing through than when they’re at home. Thunder Bay was never supposed to be anyone’s permanent home in the first place. It was a trading post, for the fur trade, then a weigh station for lumber and mining — a place to take things from the land and move on.

Thunder Bay is one of Canadaland’s most prized intellectual properties and will be adapted for TV as part of Canadaland’s deal with the Storied Media Group.

The White Saviors, which ran from August 20 to mid-September of this year, is Canadaland’s most recent tour de force. Its subject is the WE charity, an international development organization that has, over the course of twenty-five odd years, successfully embedded itself into many parts of Canadian society, most notably schools. During COVID’s first wave, however, it found itself embroiled in scandal.

Started by Craig Kielburger in the 1990s as Free the Children, with the purpose of ending child labor, WE developed into a complex and international web of for-profit and nonprofit entities. It created ME to WE, a retail and “voluntourism” company; started a publishing and music subsidiary; and hosted some of the most famous people in the world at its annual WE Days. Craig Kielburger was joined by his more introverted yet business savvy Harvard- and Oxford-educated brother, Marc, in building the charity empire.

Craig and Marc Kielburger at We Day Waterloo in 2011. (Siavash Ghazvinian / Wikimedia Commons)

Canadaland’s digging into the WE story caused a huge embarrassment for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He had to explain why his government had chosen the charity to manage a $900 million student grant program, despite Trudeau being friends with its founders and the charity having hired his family members for speaking engagements.

Brown is frank about WE’s pernicious influence and the broader trends of which it is part:

There is a movement to commercialize philanthropy and to encourage corporations to co-opt the language of nonprofits. Marc and Craig Kielburger were selling to corporations the idea that you can get employees to take a massive pay cut if you can convince them that what they’re doing has social value or a purpose. . . . But in a war between charity and commerce, commerce wins. The charity becomes a marketing vehicle.

WE first came to Canadaland’s attention when Brown received a tip that a CBC documentary called Volunteers Unleashed — an exposé on the voluntourism industry — had been pulled from the air. Brown started digging. The documentary had originally featured criticism of WE from the writer Pippa Biddle, who had experience of the organization as a young volunteer. WE leaned on the CBC to remove the offending content. The CBC pulled it, edited out the parts that were critical of WE, and later aired it in its abridged form.

Part of Canadaland’s investigation featured interviews with former volunteers and WE employees. Jaren Kerr and Jesse Brown’s decision to talk directly to WE workers made for a highly unflattering portrait of an organization that many described as cultlike. Throughout the show, the cohost interviewed middle-class American and Canadian children who didn’t even identify as workers, let alone unpaid ones.

In an effort to uncover the parts of the WE scandal that took place in Kenya, Canadaland partnered with Nairobi-based journalist John-Allan Namu, cofounder of Africa Uncensored. The resulting reporting presents a damning portrait of legal violations abroad. A recording of a senior employee speaking to Marc Kielburger revealed bribery and death threats in WE’s Kenyan operations.

When Canadaland first began reporting on WE, the Kielburgers, in their usual fashion, threatened to sue in the province of Manitoba. Fortunately, WE and Canadaland are both headquartered in Ontario, a province which has anti-SLAPP legislation. The goal of this legislation is to “discourage the use of litigation as a means of unduly limiting expression on matters of public interest.” Manitoba has no such legislation in place.

Brown seems unfazed by legal threats. “We have been threatened with lawsuits from the Irving family, other billionaires, and Jian Ghomeshi, but none of them ended up suing us. We have never lost a libel suit.”

Marching Forward

Canadaland has focused extensively on domestic stories and has only rarely shifted its attention overseas. That is about to change, says Brown. His company recently dedicated significant time and energy into an investigation of Canadian mining companies.

This is an underexamined aspect of what Canada is up to around the world — these businesses’ activities contradict the stereotypes of the country’s beneficial global role. The activities of Canada’s mining companies are really troubling.

Brown says Canadaland will also continue and expand its coverage of issues affecting indigenous communities. Brown says his eyes were opened to the mainstream media’s deplorable treatment of indigenous issues by the dismissive approach taken to the critics of John Furlong, president and CEO of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee. The victims of Jian Ghomeshi received considerably more solicitude from Canada’s media than did the indigenous claimants alleging abuse at Furlong’s hands.

Canadaland has shone a bright light on places that businesses, billionaires, and politicians would rather be left in the shadows. Although its existence is not a pat answer to the thorny question posed by the death of legacy media, the podcasts’ plucky investigations are a tonic to the fumbling of Canada’s lumbering corporate media elites.