Photo: Andrew Holmes
> First Person
Liberal MP Marci Ien Finds Her Voice
The former broadcast journalist’s memoir Off Script chronicles lessons learned from marriage and motherhood, career highs and lows, and everyday Canadians facing adversity / BY Kim Honey / January 12th, 2021
Marci Ien grew up with a microphone in her hand, but it wasn’t until she was almost 50 that she learned to speak her mind.
When the daily news show she co-hosted on CTV, Canada AM, was cancelled in 2016, the broadcast journalist was devastated, unsure what to do next. On a trip to Jamaica to regroup, she decided her days in breaking news were over and it was time to reclaim her life from the constant pressure of the endless news cycle that demanded almost all of her waking hours. She just didn’t know what that would look like.
But after filling in as a guest host on the CTV talk show The Social, she was asked to permanently join Lainey Lui, Melissa Grelo, Cynthia Loyst and Jess Allen at the table in the studio. The producer wanted to hear about her experiences as a Black woman in Canada; they wanted to know what kept her up at night.
“All of a sudden it wasn’t about the stories of others, it was about mine,” Ien explained in a recent telephone interview from her Toronto home. “It wasn’t about me before, it was about everybody else.”
It inspired the title of her new memoir, Off Script: Living Out Loud, which is anchored by her conviction there is no personal growth if you live in your comfort zone.
“When we’re doing things that we can do with our eyes closed, we’re not learning,” says the mom of two, who has had to adjust to life as a singleton after she and her husband of 17 years, Lloyd Exeter, decided to separate in 2018. “The challenge is pushing towards discomfort and learning, getting the lesson in that.”
That shift from objective reporting to subjective editorializing was scary, but in the end it allowed her the space she needed to process her experiences in a way she never could as a news reporter, anchor or host.
When Ien handed in the book manuscript in March 2020, she could not have foreseen her next chapter would start so soon. On Aug. 17, Bill Morneau resigned as finance minster and Toronto Centre MP; on Sept. 17, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Ien would represent the Liberals in the by-election; and on Oct. 26 – the day after Off Script was published – she was a newly minted Member of Parliament.
“I thought it’s time to serve and in a different way,” Ien said, adding that, at a time when Canadians are confronting racism and learning how to be allies, she felt she had something to contribute to the conversation. “I just thought I can help. It matters. It matters that I do this.”
Now 51, Ien’s career in front of the cameras began 41 years ago when she joined the cast of Circle Square, the children’s show created by the founder of the Christian TV program 100 Huntley Street.
As a TV news reporter, anchor and host, she’s covered the 1998 Swiss Air Flight 111 crash off Peggy’s Cove, N.S., carried the 2010 Olympic torch down a Halifax street, interviewed Gloria Steinem, and sang onstage with Stevie Wonder. She’s posed questions to prime ministers, pop stars and ordinary people. In 2017, Ien started a youth empowerment program with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri for Dene high school students in La Loche, Sask., in the wake of a tragic 2016 school shooting.
Still, it wasn’t until she was sworn in as a Liberal MP on Nov. 25, that she took stock of all she had accomplished.
“It’s really only now that I’ve switched careers that I have been able to sit and look at my career and think, “Hey, I didn’t do too badly.”
The book, told in a series of vignettes, is framed around one her first big revelations, which came from a speech her father – a principal at a Toronto high school – gave to an assembly she attended when she was about 12. In it, he riffed off a poem by Linda Ellis called “The Dash” that is popular with eulogists because it’s about looking back and taking stock of life. In his address, it became a rallying cry for those on the cusp of adulthood, his daughter included.
“The most important part is the smallest part,” she writes, referring to the epitaph on a cardboard cut-out of a tombstone he held in his hands. “The dash. The time you spend on this earth. All the dates that come between these two dates are compressed in that dash. And that has to count. It has to mean something. You have to leave some mark in life.”
Her father made much of his dash from the minute he left Trinidad to study at the University of Toronto, to winning a scholarship to Harvard University, to returning to a Scarborough neighbourhood “to give to the kids here who needed it most the best of what he’d learned,” she writes.
That story had such a profound resonance that Ien named her second child Dash to honour it. “Dad’s message, seeing him up there and the pride I felt, has never left me,” she writes in the book.
Through these short stories, some no more than two pages long, Ien examines the little moments that comprise a life, and the common thread is introspection. Like fables, each has a moral, and the reader is invited to reflect on their own dashes with gratitude for the wisdom they impart – the victories as well as the defeats – and a deep appreciation for the people who made them possible.
“I want people to see themselves in that and allow themselves a particular kind of grace,” she says. “And maybe understand that they’re not alone and that there are other people going through these things.”
Ien grew up in Scarborough – a Toronto neighbourhood that was so diverse she describes it as “a rainbow” – the youngest of two daughters born to Trinidadian-Canadians Joel Ien, a teacher, principal and school superintendent, and Vilna Ien, a retired tax auditor for the Ontario government, who separated when Ien was 13.
She has no recollection of racism before the age of 12, when she got a Circle Square script that cast her as a maid in a white household. Her father snatched it out of her hand and took it to another room to show her mother.
“My daughter will not play a maid,” she heard her mother declare. Her father phoned the show’s producer to explain why it was wrong, and they cast another child in the segment, but that event is seared in Ien’s memory.
In the book, she notes this subconscious racism would be called a micro-aggression today, “even though there’s nothing small about it.” She was proud that her parents stood up for her, even if she didn’t understand all the racist ramifications of the decision to cast the Black girl as a maid. It has even influenced her parenting style with daughter Blaize, 16, and Dash, 9.
“That was just a pivotal, pivotal time, because I remember my parents and how upset they were, exactly what they said. And I thought, wow, look at them, standing up for me. And that taught me a huge, huge lesson.”
When Ien got to the downtown Toronto campus of what is now Ryerson University to study Radio and Television Arts, she was one of a handful of Black students in her class, and shared a locker – and developed a deep friendship with – CBC Toronto news anchor Dwight Drummond. From the very start, they realized they would have to be beyond reproach. “We looked at the faces around us and knew it was going to be harder for us to build a career: the statistics were against us,” Ien writes.
But it was nothing compared to the internal pressure she felt to succeed as a Black female reporter, news anchor and the country’s first Black woman to co-host a national morning show, Canada AM.
“I had to be great,” she writes in her memoir about paving the way for others. “I had to show, every day, that I deserved to be there. That I wasn’t a token minority. That I had earned the opportunities I’d been given.” Along with that heavy mantle, she felt a sense of responsibility to Black youth who would follow in her footsteps, “not just my own but any kids out there watching.”
Although part of the reason she couldn’t go off script and speak her mind was due to the constraints of the job and the impartiality required of journalists, part of it was self-imposed.
When asked what question she would pose to herself if she were asking the questions, Ien – who devotes a chapter to interviewing skills and “deep listening” – said it would be about why it took her so long to use her full voice.
“If you’re a woman and you’re a Black woman, you’re just grateful to be in the space, aren’t you? You don’t want to rock the boat, do you? It was a lot of working really, really hard, keeping my head down, smiling, doing what I had to do and never really speaking up abut a lot of things.”
It wasn’t until she made the switch from news to The Social talk show that she felt free to impart her views. In the memoir, she says she wanted to “pull back the curtain” on her professional life and show readers what was really going on all those nights they saw her in their living rooms, a smile plastered on her face, as she was dealing with a newborn at home, or a miscarriage, or a pregnancy at 41, or the death of her marriage, to name a few stressful examples she details in the book.
After the video of George Floyd’s death during his arrest by Minneapolis police ricocheted around the world in May 2020, it affected Ien so profoundly she started to cry one day and couldn’t stop.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was joining The Social from her laptop set up in the kitchen. Ien planned to talk about how Blaize, then in Grade 10, had a Black teacher for the very first time in her academic career, and how much it meant to “a kid who had grown up mostly in white spaces” to see herself reflected in English class and hear the teacher’s take on the books they were studying.
Ien took a break, had a glass of water, and came back, but she started to weep again.
“We went to air with three hosts that day instead of four, because I couldn’t do the show,” she said. “And what I realized was I had been carrying these layers of trauma that you just don’t realize you’re carrying. And in speaking about these issues day in and day out as the sole Black panellist, it was a lot to carry.”
For the first time in her life, she sought the help of a therapist, began working through her feelings and took a couple of weeks off.
“When you’re handling these kinds of things in a front-facing industry, it’s completely different,” she explains. “And just those days where I had to smile and I really was dying or crying on the inside is a lot. That takes a mental health toll.”
Crossing the Line
Ien relies on a deep well of empathy to connect with her interview subjects, some of whom have been though horrendous personal experiences, such as Holocaust survivor Max Eisen and Canadian freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist insurgents in Somalia in 2008 and is now a personal friend. Then there are the Canadians living with mental illness she interviewed in their homes for her first national television special.
The 2018 Bell Let’s Talk Day show, In Their Own Words, is a highlight of her broadcast journalism career. She was involved in every aspect of the project, from researching to interviewing to writing to editing, and feels it had the most impact of anything she’s ever done, with viewers telling her it made them feel less alone in the world. It says a lot that Ien keeps in touch with many of her subjects long after the cameras stop rolling and the stories have aired. “I couldn’t let them go,” Ien said of three interviewees from In Their Own Words. “I just couldn’t. I said, ‘you know where to find me, keep in touch.’ And so we all drop a line now and again, just saying hi and making sure everybody’s okay.”
It is generally taboo in journalism to get too close to your subjects, for fear your objectivity is compromised and the report is not fair and impartial. But it was news of a devastating school shooting in the remote Dene community of La Loche, Sask., in January 2016 that compelled her to break another commandment sacred to the fifth estate: Thou shalt not become part of the story.
Ien and her Canada AM colleagues provided in-depth coverage of the tragedy, but the story of a 17-year-old youth who shot two brothers in their home at lunch hour, then went to the Dene High School where he killed a teacher and a teacher’s aide and wounded seven others, “stirred her soul.” She saw a news photo of some of the students at a forgiveness circle and noticed one was wearing a Toronto Raptors hat.
So she emailed Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri out of the blue. She knew he ran a basketball camp for underprivileged youth in Africa and figured he might have some ideas on how to help the La Loche students. Six months later, when the school’s principal invited them to visit, Canada AM had been cancelled and Ien was filling in as a guest host on The Social. “I was free to get more involved,” she writes in the memoir. “To advocate. Speak up. Try to help.”
That one-day trip, where Ien and Ujuri saw the bullet holes in the front door of the building, cemented the idea to start an exchange to expose La Loche students to a world outside their village of about 2,800 people a seven-hour drive northwest of Saskatoon. Just weeks before the January 2017 trip, Ien messaged Katie Telford, chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, to request a meeting between the kids and someone in Indigenous Affairs, because she wanted them to feel seen and heard.
She was shocked when the PMO’s director of operations called to say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be in Toronto for a town hall and would meet with the students at the Raptors’ OVO Athletic Centre. After the locker-room meeting, and an inspiring speech by head coach Dwane Casey, they divided the kids up into team Trudeau and Team Casey and played a game of basketball.
The next year, Ien, Ujiri and Dene High School principal Greg Hatch went to Ottawa to speak to the ministers of Indigenous affairs and finance to detail the school and and community improvements needed to help La Loche residents heal.
Ien still doesn’t know whether their entreaties prompted action, but by January 2019, on the eve of the third anniversary of the shooting, the provincial government had just completed a $4.45-million renovation to the school, erasing all physical reminders of the shooting, and Trudeau flew to the community and addressed the psychological and emotional trauma by promising $2.2 million over five years for cultural and language programs, mental health services and on-the-land activities for students.
Every January since 2017, under the aegis of Ujiri’s Giants of Africa program, a group of Dene High students visit the city, where they attend tours and talks at Toronto colleges and universities, go out for dinner and take in the city sights. (The 2021 visit was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
“We wanted to provide a way for the kids to come to Toronto, look at a post-secondary career, look at the possibilities,” Ien explains, “because kids there are told that life is only one way, and we wanted to open that up.”
The Next Chapter
When Telford, her contact for Trudeau’s visit with the La Loche students, called this summer to see if she was interested in running for public office, Ien didn’t say yes, but she couldn’t say no, either.
“That bothered me, because it wasn’t something I was seeking,” she explains. “But I looked at what was happening (with Black Lives Matter and racial inequality) and I thought if not now, then when?”
She talked it over with Blaize, who pointed out that Ien was saying a lot of sentences with “I” in them.
“The decision comes down to either it’s about you, or it’s about all of us,” her daughter said. “That’s what it’s about.”
Ien, who decided to go for it, joins one other Black female parliamentarian, Vancouver Centre’s Hedy Fry, who is the longest-serving female MP. In her maiden speech to the House of Commons on Dec. 7, Ien made it clear she was ready to step outside her comfort zone once again. After using her platform on TV to tell the stories of “young people looking to belong and to find their way; Indigenous people fighting for their rights; women wanting equality; and people of colour fighting to break through systemic barriers,” she was prepared to champion them from the microphone on her desk in the Commons chamber.
“Now I can do more than just listen. I can serve the people of my great constituency,” Ien said. “It is the reason I am here, to be their voice and their advocate.”