Bonnie Brown is a news and documentary producer for CBC Radio and Television.
During her twenty-year career in journalism, she has worked at The Sunday Edition, The World at Six, The National, The Magazine, Undercurrents, and Sports Journal. Her most recent documentary was "One Judge Down", which presented the untold story of how former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gerald Le Dain was abruptly removed from the court after suffering from depression. Previously, her documentary for The National, "Truth, Lies and Confessions", investigated how some police interrogation techniques coerce false confessions from innocent people, and led to the exoneration of one of former Ontario pathologist Charles Smith's victims, Brenda Waudby, who was wrongfully convicted in the death of her child. It was awarded the Canadian Bar Association Stephen Hanson Award for Excellence in Journalism. She has covered a wide range of news and current affairs stories, from the 9/11 attacks in New York City, to federal budgets and original investigations, and won numerous national news awards as part of The World at Six production team. Since 2014, she has served on the jury of the Canadian Hillman Prize, an off-shoot of the New York-based Hillman Prize, which honours investigative reporting that advances democracy and social justice. She has an LL.B. from McGill University, and a Bachelor of Arts in French (Gold Medal) from the University of Winnipeg.
Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
I never imagined myself going to law school. I was an average student in school, and didn't have much of a career plan. I did well in undergrad, though, and won the gold medal in French when I graduated. I kicked around working in Winnipeg and travelling for a few years, and decided that I should find out what I was capable of. Law seemed like the most challenging program I could get into, and one that would suit my interests. McGill was the most attractive option because I was keen to put my French to use, and I was curious about what it would be like to live in Montreal. Fortunately, things worked out even better than I expected. It was definitely challenging, always interesting, my French improved, and I loved Montreal!
What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?
It was fast. My articles were what you might call a "bad fit". I signed up with a huge, corporate commercial firm on Bay Street, and soon realized that was not an environment I'd enjoy. I took my name off the re-hire list. I did get called to the bar, but I didn't seriously consider practicing after that. The law firm scene was not for me, and under Ontario's Harris government, the public interest options were slim to none. I had worked at CBC Radio briefly in Winnipeg just before starting law school, and again in the summer between first and second year law school in Quebec City and Montreal, so I managed to work my way into a researcher job in the documentary unit at The Magazine at CBC Television in Toronto. I wanted to do something intellectually engaging, but also creative, and I didn't think I was talented or imaginative enough at law to be creative at it. Broadcast journalism turned out to be a great choice for me.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
McGill Law gave me a profound understanding of the country. As a middle class kid from Winnipeg, I didn't know much about how the country worked or where the big decisions were made. This was illustrated to me when I first got to law school, in a poetic way. I remember walking toward Chancellor Day Hall on a beautiful, sunny day in the fall of 1992, and seeing perfectly-formed red maple leaves scattered on the ground. In the prairies, we have different kinds of maple trees, and I'd never seen the leaf that adorns our flag in real life before. That experience really drove home to me that I was in a city and province that were seminal to the creation of the country. And when I started classes, I was suddenly around some of the smartest people anywhere, at a law school with an outsized influence on the Supreme Court of Canada, and politics, too. Then, three years later, that same province was teetering on the edge of separating from Canada. I'll never forget the jaw-dropping panic I felt watching the results of the 1995 referendum with my friends from law school.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
I’d say I was sometimes frustrated by the decidedly small group of students whose narrow focus in class was merely to find out what would be on the exam. I suppose they had a clearer goal in mind for what they were going to do with their degree, but for me, engaging with the ideas, the students and professors, and debating the pros and cons of the judgments were the best part of law school.
Do you still see law all around you?
I put my legal education to use every day at work. Law and journalism have a lot in common. We hear a story, and have to identify the issues, know the right questions to ask, understand all sides of a conflict or policy debate, and weigh their relative merits based on laws, principles, and societal values. The only real difference comes at the end. For journalists, the goal is to communicate all that to an audience, in a balanced way. It's not advocacy. And of course, I'm still friends with many of my law school colleagues, and a lot of other lawyers in Toronto and elsewhere. We're never short of things to talk about.
You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them?
Treasure this experience. Learn as much as you can. Ponder the big questions. Speak up in class. Make friends. Get involved. Keep going to coffee house! It's such a privilege to go to law school, and you may never meet such a wide variety of smart, engaged people again. Even if you don't end up practicing, the years you spend at McGill Law will influence everything you do afterwards, so make the most of it.
What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!
No two days are alike. I could be interviewing a former Supreme Court of Canada justice in a radio studio one day, and helping a field reporter focus their story from a war zone the next. I do everything from breaking news to investigative documentaries, and at CBC, there's virtually no subject that couldn't come across my desk. I'm learning something new, and using different parts of my skill set, education and experience, every day. That's what I love about it.
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
Ideally, I'd like to bundle those extra hours together and travel more. I've been lucky to have taken a lot of fascinating trips so far, but there are so many places in the world that I still want to see!
Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that)
I wish I'd stayed in Montreal. That's it.