Heather Conway is fairly certain nobody wants to stab her in the back just yet.
“I gotta believe I’m so beloved that just none of that is going to happen,” she says with a wry smile, taking a seat with her back to the dining room of Luma, an upscale redoubt in TIFF’s Bell Lightbox headquarters.
Give it some time. It has been less than seven months since Conway became the executive vice-president of CBC’s English services, giving her responsibility for CBC-TV, CBC News Network, the documentary channel, Radio One and 2, cbc.ca, other digital operations, and more than $750-million in annual spending. Even at the best of times, the position is one of the most scrutinized in the Canadian cultural industrial complex.
And in case you haven’t been paying attention, these are not the best of times for CBC.
Potential critics have been warming up in the wings. Within days of her appointment last fall, some began grousing that Conway – a former marketing executive with no direct programming experience – was a dismaying choice for one of the most powerful broadcasting jobs.
Then last month, while staff were still trying to digest a cut of 657 jobs announced in April, they responded icily as Conway helped unveil an overhaul of the public broadcaster that will axe about another 20 per cent of their colleagues, or 1,500 positions across English and French services, over the next five years. During a tense town hall where the strategy was launched, she was accused of being gleeful about the cuts.
One staffer, echoing a popular conspiracy theory, noted darkly that Conway and her boss, CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix, had each previously been associated with the Conservative Party of Canada, the CBC’s perceived Enemy No.1.
In person, at least one accusation immediately seems off-base. “I’m the anti-glee,” Conway notes here at Luma. She speaks in a low register, with muted expressiveness. “On my happiest day, glee is probably not an emotion that pops to the surface.” Over a two-hour lunch, there are only three moments that approach delight: while showing a video of her nearly four-year-old daughter Olivia, whose birth mother is her ex-partner Camilla Gibb; recalling the “brain-on-fire” experience of working on the introduction of the GST in the late-1980s with then-finance minister Michael Wilson and future Bank of Canada governor David Dodge; and talking about the Green Bay Packers.
Perhaps, then, she is not such an odd choice for a time of existential uncertainty at the CBC. The daughter of Scottish Catholic immigrants, Conway is focused on the practical. She has an undergraduate degree in economics, a master’s degree in industrial relations, and a wonk’s passion for public policy.
“It might be my economics background, but I tend to look at problems and challenges and say: ‘What is fixed, and what is variable?’ ” she says. “To put your calories against the stuff you can actually have an impact on, the variables, is so much better use of your time, your energy, your intellect, your creativity, than to spend all of your time focusing on what’s fixed.”
Is she referring, perhaps, to the CBC staffers and others who rail fruitlessly against the federal government’s funding cuts? “I’d put that in the category,” she says with a nod. “I think there’s a – ‘If wishes were, you know, butterflies,’ or whatever – I don’t even know what the expression is, but it’s a desire, and I understand it completely, and I can sympathize with it. I could join in, but it doesn’t really get me anywhere.”
Conway grew up watching and listening to the CBC in a household with deep respect for public service and its unique responsibilities. Her father was in the military, and then a public servant; her mother was a teacher. “My very first memory of a news event was the [April 1968] Liberal convention, and my parents yelling at the TV: ‘Tru-deau! Tru-deau!’” She was six years-old.