The first thing that Omar Sachedina, BA’04, wants to talk about is the news – the news from McGill.
A day before our interview, the University announced that Dalhousie University president Deep Saini would become McGill’s next principal, and Sachedina is quick to ask a few questions about the appointment (for what it’s worth, he thinks Saini sounds like an exciting pick).
Sachedina has built an award-winning career out of asking people questions.
He has been a familiar presence on the country’s TV screens since he first joined CTV National News as a correspondent in 2009. Last September, he took on one of the most prominent jobs in Canadian journalism, as the new chief news anchor and senior editor for CTV National News. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be cause for celebration – but, as you may recall, the circumstances were hardly ordinary.
“Everyone at work loves and respects Omar. This is very [crappy] for him as well,” said an unnamed CTV News producer in an interview with the Toronto Star after Sachedina’s promotion was announced. “A career high, of course, he may have wanted the job, but never like this …”
The “like this”, of course, related to the controversial contract termination of Sachedina’s popular predecessor Lisa LaFlamme, which resulted in several weeks of very uncomfortable press for CTV and plenty of speculation about why the surprising decision was made.
There were accusations that sexism and ageism were factors in LaFlamme’s ouster (senior executives from CTV and its parent company Bell have denied this) and reports that there were tensions within the newsroom and between journalists and executives over budgets and other issues. Dozens of prominent Canadians published an open letter that criticized LaFlamme’s termination.
In the wake of the controversy, CTV News launched an independent workplace review to “address concerns raised regarding the working environment” in its newsroom.
So, yeah, not the easiest moment for Sachedina to take on the job.
“We typically cover the news, but lately we have become the subject of it,” he conceded during his first newscast as the show’s new chief anchor, adding, “It is important for me to acknowledge the inspiration and mentor that Lisa LaFlamme has been to me over the years.
“I know welcoming me into your homes every night is not a right, it’s a privilege,” he said. “I will work with our team to earn and build that trust for that continued privilege.”
“I wrote every word of that [on-air statement] myself and it wasn’t vetted,” says Sachedina. When asked how the CTV National News team has been faring in the weeks after the turmoil, and how he has been adapting to his new leadership role in the newsroom, Sachedina says, “I know that my focus right now is to lead [our team] and to inspire them to do great work.” He quickly adds that that part of his job hasn’t been especially difficult so far.
“I’ve really been impressed with everyone here,” he says of the team that puts together the newscast. “I know there are frustrations [about workplace issues] and we have to make sure that if people do have frustrations that they are heard and that problems are corrected.” That said, the recent controversy at CTV News “hasn’t taken anything away from the fervour with which people come to work and pursue their craft.” And, adds Sachedina, that’s a good thing because the team had to quickly contend with covering several major news stories soon after LaFlamme’s departure, including Queen Elizabeth’s death and the devastation caused by a post-tropical cyclone storm in Atlantic Canada last fall.
Even though people are increasingly consuming their news online, Sachedina believes that national TV newscasts like his continue to play an essential role in the media landscape. He describes CTV National News as “a one-stop shop” for catching up on the day’s most important stories.
“It’s the final stamp on a day,” says Sachedina. “I believe there is a lot of value in having a team of experienced journalists [review] all the stories of the day, determining the veracity of the facts, and providing some context for the things that happened. We have the entire day to go through all the stories of that day before [selecting] what goes on air. I do think there is an advantage to that. I think it’s our strength.”
Before taking on his current role, the multilingual Sachedina (he also speaks French, Gujarati, and Kutchi) spent several years in Ottawa at CTV’s Parliamentary Bureau. More recently, he has been CTV’s national news correspondent, travelling around the world to cover major stories like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the war in Ukraine.
Sachedina says he has had to make some adjustments in making the shift from reporter to anchor.
“When you’re reporting a story, your singular focus is that story, whether you are in Ukraine or in Haiti. You know the ins and outs and all the particular angles of that one story. When you are part of a team that is shaping a newscast, you have to be conscious of the fact that there are multiple stories.
“I would say the challenge is you’re almost planning an entire meal, not just one dish,” he continues. “It’s about balance, it’s about equilibrium, it’s about pacing, it’s about cadence, it’s about rhythm. It’s about making sure that you are coming up with a show that informs, inspires, and leaves people with a greater understanding of the world for that day, gives them some context, but then, hopefully, also leaves them at the end of the show with something to smile about.”
Sachedina is the first Muslim Canadian to be the chief anchor for a national newscast and one of the first people of colour to serve in that role.
“I think representation absolutely matters,” says Sachedina, adding that it is a broad objective – the person sitting in the anchor’s chair is just one element. “You want the [newscast] to be more diverse and more varied and more representative, because I think that’s the only way we’ll get stronger.” Still, the person sitting in the anchor’s chair does have an impact.
“When I was growing up, seeing [the CBC’s] Ian Hanomansing on TV, seeing other journalists of colour, that showed me that this might be something that I could do.”
Sachedina grew up in Vancouver. His parents enrolled him in French immersion from kindergarten until grade 12. “The opportunity to be in a French city was one of the things that drew me to McGill,” he says. He majored in political science as a McGill undergraduate.
“One thing that stood out for me was how international [the University] was. It brought people together who had very different perspectives. They say that travel broadens your mind. Being in a room with people from so many different countries, that also broadens your mind. It helped shape me for what I’m doing now.”
A bit more than a year ago, The Suburban’s Mike Cohen interviewed Sachedina and asked him about some of the most memorable stories he had reported on. For some journalists, a question like that would be an invitation to brag a bit about some of the big-time news events they’ve covered or some of the VIPs they’ve had access to.
In his response, Sachedina (who, remember, has covered some big-time events) talked about some of the remarkable people he has encountered in his job, mentioning a woman who, losing her eyesight, arranged to have one last good look at Niagara Falls, and a man in Indonesia, who, after experiencing the horrific loss of his own children, took part in rescue efforts after a devastating tsunami to help other parents find their kids.
“The grace and compassion of that man in Indonesia … I have no words for that,” says Sachedina. “Life is never a straight line. Everyone is going to experience trials. The capacity to show bravery, the determination and tenacity that allows people to get back up [after experiencing hardship], those are the traits that I admire the most in people. This job has taken me to many places and, no matter where I am, I have seen many examples of that.”
One of those examples was in his own home – his parents were forced to abruptly leave Uganda and build new lives for themselves in Canada 50 years ago when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin announced that all Ugandans of South Asian descent had to leave the country within a 90-day period. That story was the subject of Sachedina’s CTV documentary Expelled: My Roots in Uganda which aired last fall.
In 2016, Sachedina was part of the CTV team sent to Brazil to cover the Rio Summer Olympics. While most reporters were focused on the athletes and sporting events, Sachedina tracked down a Canadian musician who was living in the city and giving music lessons to children in one of Rio’s poorest slums. The resulting story won the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward R. Murrow Award (Sachedina has also been part of CTV teams that won RTDNA awards for stories about Governor General Mary Simon and Canada’s opiate crisis).
“We did a piece yesterday about a teen with Down syndrome who is determined to be a model,” says Sachedina. “She is such a charming character. She has the courage and confidence to challenge stereotypes and walk down a runway.” A good newscast doesn’t just focus on famous people, Sachedina believes. “Some of the best stories are about everyday people.”