Stories that matter: Anna Maria Tremonti

June 4, 2018
Anna Maria Tremonti

Some guests stay with Anna Maria Tremonti long after she turns off the microphone. Ing Wong-Ward is one of them.

Tremonti’s interview with the disability rights activist diagnosed with colon cancer left an emotional residue that was hard to shake, says the veteran journalist and host of CBC Radio’s popular national program, The Current.

In a recent interview, Wong-Ward, who is receiving palliative care and has spoken out against medically assisted dying, tells Tremonti that a compromised life is no less dignified, no less meaningful.

“That stuff hangs with me,” Tremonti says. “That’s a lot that somebody gives me—that they will give me their time and their emotion and take me through their story. People are really generous.”

Over her more than 30-year career, Tremonti’s work has taken her across Canada and the world. She has reported from Bosnia, Berlin, London, Jerusalem and the former Soviet Union. She has covered conflict and unrest in more than 30 countries and is known for her ability to seek out stories that matter—stories that tell us something about how we live as human beings.

“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve learned more, but the thread for me is the human condition,” she says.

She has broadcast countless remarkable interviews including with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian whose detention as a political prisoner in Syria resulted in a public inquiry into Canada’s role in his deportation.

Over the years, her persistent curiosity and desire to uncover stories from behind the headlines has kept her going.

“Every story has a back story,” Tremonti says. She’s always looking for new ways of understanding through humanizing wider political decisions.

“The war in Syria: it’s about frontlines, strategy and all of that stuff. It’s also about a family and the kids who can’t sleep at night,” she says. “It’s how it affects individuals and it’s finding those individuals and their stories to illustrate the importance of the wider story, or the problem with the wider story.”

But the veteran reporter concedes she doesn’t always get it right.

In 2008, she interviewed American Sgt. Layne Morris about his account of a firefight that resulted in the death of Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer. Morris maintained that then 15-year-old Canadian Omar Khadr was responsible for Speer’s death. Khadr was detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for 10 years. He received an apology and $10.5-million settlement from the Canadian government in 2017.

“It was the simplest question of all that I did not ask that was a problem,” Tremonti says.

At the time, she didn’t know Morris had also been injured in the firefight and was rescued before the incident was over.

“I didn’t say, ‘Were you there for the whole fire fight?’ I didn’t ask ‘Did you see that happen?’ So it was a second-hand account.”

In journalism, that distinction is essential, particularly when interviewing a source making such a serious allegation, Tremonti says.

It’s a lesson about the importance of asking the most basic of questions and one she carries with her.

“What keeps me going is I have a job to do, and I’m not perfect so I can always learn. I don’t believe that I’m the definitive word on things. I believe that I have to know enough to ask critical questions so that we can all learn.”

And as she continues to learn about the human condition through her work, so too do listeners.

Amid stories of horrific atrocities under ISIS rule in Mosul, Iraq, Tremonti spoke with Omar Mohammed, a university teacher who operated as an anonymous citizen journalist called Mosul Eye.

When ISIS occupied the city, Mohammed went undercover to document what was happening. ISIS threatened to kill him “thousands of times.”

“So what compels a 31-year-old man to risk his life to tell the world—that kind of courage? I am really struck and humbled by people like that,” she says.

“I think it’s really important to bring those stories forward and I think that’s the kind of thing that moves me and drives me.”

In recognition for her commitment to public dialogue and social transformation through storytelling, Royal Roads University will present Tremonti with an honorary doctorate at the Spring 2018 Convocation Ceremony June 12.