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Ginella Massa to make history with CBC news show 'Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa'

Toronto journalist Ginella Massa's career has involved many firsts. In 2015, she was believed to be the first TV news reporter in North America to wear a hijab on-air as a video journalist for CTV News in Kitchener, Ont.

Toronto journalist Ginella Massa's career has involved many firsts.

In 2015, she was believed to be the first TV news reporter in North America to wear a hijab on-air as a video journalist for CTV News in Kitchener, Ont.

The next year at CityNews Toronto, she became the first Muslim woman in hijab to ever anchor a major newscast in Canada.

And on Monday, the CBC says it's believed she'll become the first hijab-wearing national TV news host in Canada, with the debut of her prime-time news show "Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa."

"It's a dream come true to be part of Canada's national public broadcaster and to have a national platform," the Canadian Screen Award winner said in an interview.

"I see news as a public good. And that's what's great about being with the public broadcaster, is that it's less about dollars and cents as it is with a private news network. I'm very aware of the fact that we are publicly funded, so I see it as a responsibility."

Airing live at 8 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, "Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa" aims to cover current affairs from a variety of perspectives across the country.

"'Canada Tonight' is basically a conversation with Canadians," said Massa, 33. "We want to go beyond the headlines, talk about some of the stories that don't often get a lot of coverage, hear from people that we don't often hear from. We want to talk to the people at the heart of the story, the people who are really impacted by these issues."

Massa wants guests on the show to reflect the diversity of our country. And she hopes her role is just one part of a wider racial reckoning in Canadian journalism.

"We need to diversify our newsrooms, both in front of the camera and behind it," Massa said.

"I was shocked when I walked into my first internship in one of the largest local newsrooms in the country, in the most diverse city in the world, Toronto, and to see how little diversity that there was. It did not reflect the Toronto that I grew up in." 

The Afro-Latina reporter was born in Panama to Spanish-speaking parents and came to Canada from Panama when she was one, with her mother and older sister.

She was "a precocious kid, inquisitive, talkative," and involved in school plays and speech competitions, Massa said. 

Her mother encouraged her to get into the field of broadcast television, and Massa graduated with an honours bachelor of arts in communication studies at York University, and got a diploma in broadcast journalism from Seneca College. 

She'd never seen someone who looked like her doing TV news, so she figured she'd work in radio, but her mother steered her in a different direction.

"She said to me, 'Don't change your dreams just because no one else has done it,'" Massa said.

"She was referring to the fact that there was no one who wore a hijab in television news. She said, 'Work hard and go after it. Don't change your dreams for anyone else or because you think that it's not possible. You could be the first to do it.'"

Massa has worked at other outlets including Newstalk1010 and Rogers TV.  She's also been published in the Globe and Mail and National Post. 

She often felt like she had to work twice as hard to get half the recognition, she said.

She realized the impact she had on viewers when she saw a picture of her sister's friend's daughter dressed as her for Halloween.

"It was so amazing, because this is what I've been working so hard for," Massa said. "Nine-year-old Ginella didn't have a role model to look up to, to say, 'That's what I want to be. She did it and I want to do it.' 

"I had to forge that path on my own and silence those voices in my head that told me that I couldn't do it." 

Massa said she got "Canada Tonight" after applying for a job posting and going through "a long and rigorous process." 

Creating a show from scratch during a pandemic has its challenges, Massa said, and she hasn't met most of the show's team in person. But her collaborators are "really talented and intelligent," which has alleviated her nerves.

Her mother was taken aback when she realized her daughter's name is in the title.

"She was like, 'Wait a second, you're hosting your own show? I didn't realize that,'" Massa said. "So even for her, someone who had been championing me for so long, I don't think she even imagined the possibilities that were out there for me. I don't think she even thought that this was something that I could achieve."

Massa will also be part of CBC News specials and contribute feature stories as a special correspondent for "The National." 

"Sometimes, there is so much focus on being the first hijab-wearing journalist on TV that I don't get a chance to just be a journalist," Massa said. "And I don't want people to think that I'm a one-trick pony, or I'm only interested in one kind of topic. 

"At the end of the day, I'm a storyteller. I'm interested in stories that have impact, I'm interested in hearing the issues of Canadians and helping them understand this very confusing world, and that's what I'm trying to achieve with 'Canada Tonight.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press