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Changing channels from career in medicine to TV news anchor

Concordia journalism grad Debra Arbec has been captivated by good stories and loves to tell them
August 9, 2019
By Maeve Haldane

Barbara Layne and Debra Arbec Debra Arbec (right) with Concordia Professor Emeritus, Studio Arts, Barbara Layne at the 2016 Chancellor's Builders Dinner.

Montrealers welcome Debra Arbec, BA (journalism) 89, into their homes regularly, often for supper, by turning on CBC News: Montreal at 6. The award-winning television news anchor authoritatively and calmly lets us know what’s happening and who’s at play in our city and area — in a straight and smart manner.

Arbec has been with the CBC since 2011. She started her news career in radio, then was hired by CTV Montreal News (formally called Pulse News) in December 1997 as a weekend anchor and news reporter, just in time for the Ice Storm. She took on co-anchoring the late-night newscast in 2003, and when CBC had a suppertime newscast anchor role open up, she made the switch.

Arbec comes from a family of news followers, but her original career direction was medicine. She is compassionate, which is obvious when she talks about her aging rescue dogs, and grew up around nurses and doctors during her childhood in Rawdon, Quebec, where her father ran a nursing home. (He also opened a country club in an old mansion, which hosted the Russian tennis team during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.)

But her experience as a teen working in the nursing home was what probably led her to journalism. “I used to sit and chat and hear the stories of these incredible lives,” Arbec says. She wasn’t a creative kid, never wrote for fun, and didn’t join the high school newspaper. But she loved a good tale.

During her last semester of science studies at Vanier CEGEP, Arbec took an elective course on documentary film. “It just clicked,” she recalls, and she fell for the craft of telling peoples’ stories in a visual manner.

More than two decades later, Arbec still loves her work, and always feels enriched after interviewing people. She relishes investigative journalism, and appreciates how the CBC allows her the time for painstaking research. Arbec recently broke a story about how the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization covered up major incidents of cyber hacking in 2016. Months of work went into finding sources and obtaining documentation.

Though she enjoys sinking her teeth into a story with international heft, Arbec believes the mandate for local news is to represent the community. During her work, she’s met an inspiring cross-section of humanity. When pressed for favourite stories, she recalls a woman who opened a community kitchen for the Afghan diaspora. “What better than to bring women together to cook? And it opens people’s minds, opens them to conversation. It was brilliant,” Arbec says. She returned over the years to cover this evolving community gathering, “and every time I came away feeling optimistic about the future.”

The only thing she dislikes about her work is having to cake on make up. And she’s wary of the pressure of resources being tighter than ever and journalists being required to do more with less. Arbec deals with the stress by running and spinning. Four years ago, she took up yoga despite being, she says, “terrible at it.”

She used to travel to run marathons, but now she takes on even more challenging trips. Last November, after covering the provincial election, she flew to Nepal to do the Mount Everest Base Camp trek, which she’d dreamed of since her 20s. “The physicality of it was tough, but I did it,” she says. “I’ve never unplugged like that in my life.” And, of course, she heard stories. “We met so many interesting people in Nepal, resilient, generous people, who’ve been through the worst, from earthquakes to losing family members.” She’ll reunite with four of her co-trekkers in Patagonia this fall.

The first time Arbec applied to Concordia’s journalism program, she didn’t get in. Then-director and program co-founder Lindsay Crysler recommended she take creative writing and literature courses to develop her writing skills. Arbec also took political science, deepening her understanding of democracy and political systems, and successfully applied the next year.

"Concordia provided me with the foundation for this career that I still love after 21 years of doing it," says Arbec. "I have such fond memories, and I really feel loyal to my alma mater." Arbec is very much part of Concordia's community, and returns frequently to moderate or host events, and keep up her connections.

"Concordia’s not this monolith, it's very accessible," she says. "It's still part of my life."

Arbec is concerned that with the increasingly fast pace of news delivery, in-depth journalism will be hard to maintain. “Let’s face it, a lot of local papers [and newsrooms] are having a tough time,” she says, and wonders if homes will even still have televisions in 10 years. She believes there will always be space for visual story telling, and remains optimistic despite recent cuts at CTV and the Globe and Mail. “We’ve seen some news outlets actually boost their investigative units, like the Washington Post, the New York Times,” she says. “There are great journalists out there who just keep working.”

Though the transition to digital platforms is taking longer than she expected, it is happening, such as with La Presse now being digital only. “It’s not the traditional media we grew up with, but it’s still there. It’s just shifting,” Arbec says.


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