Erin Perkins sitting at a table, reading old articles that she worked on during her career.

Erin Perkins looking through old articles that she worked on during her career / Image via Erin Perkins

The start of the 2022 school year has me thinking of beginnings but also traditions.

I’m the brand-new Arts Editor for The Navigator. How will I differ from all the past writers who made The Nav what it is today?

To answer this question, I needed to speak to a Navigator alum.

I met Erin Perkins in my hometown of Grand Forks, BC—a population of just over 4,000. To me, she was a parent to the kids I was teaching swimming lessons to. Little did I know, she was a Navigator veteran. I knew she was the person to talk to.

Perkins started as a Photo Editor for The Nav in 1996 and worked her way up into the Editor-in-Chief position in the final year of her degree.

“What makes a journalist is curiosity,” Perkins said. “You need to be curious about the world, and everything else will fall into place.”

Perkins grew up in Ontario, and her family moved to the Comox Valley when she was 13. Her teacher would lend her books to read because she saw the potential of her writing.

Perkins initially avoided this passion and after high school enrolled in the Business program at VIU, then called Malaspina University-College.

Writing would soon catch up with her. “I felt as though I was missing something important,” she said.

Perkins turned to The Nav. She applied for the Associate Editor position but was hired on as the Photo Editor because of her experience with photography in high school. Using her old Ricoh film camera, she took hundreds of photos and spent hours developing them for The Nav’s articles.

It was the perfect time to work for the student paper, Perkins reflected, because the university was committed to change. This included the construction of the Students’ Union building—the current home of the newspaper’s office.

Perkins is one of the few Nav staff who experienced the move from the old offices below the VIU Gymnasium to where they’ve now been for over 25 years.

Perkins is deeply attached to VIU, not just because it’s the place that helped her start her career but also because it’s where she met her husband, Dan Perkins.

Dan also had a major role in The Navigator, including working at the rival paper, The Navigator at Night. Erin said that considering how The Navigator is still running, she won that fight.

I asked Dan what Perkins was like back when they first met.

“Erin was very ambitious and wanted to make a difference at the school,” he told me. “She was big on promoting what was happening at the campus to a broader audience, and there was this excitement in that. She was very driven in her work at The Nav.”

Perkins has always believed in the necessity of The Nav, as she sees it as the perfect foundation for a career in journalism for future students. She explained how important the experience of working at a student newspaper is, especially now.

“It is an honour to be on the student paper because, unlike traditional media, you are likely not to be censored,” she said. “It is your one time to actually have freedom of the press and the true sense of what that word means.”

The Nav was the soil Perkins needed to grow as a journalist, and when she graduated in 2000, she took what she had learned to Canada’s Arctic Region, working for Black Press Media. As Bureau Chief, she reported on eight different communities working 70-hour weeks for underwhelming pay.

She was required to fly a lot for her job, but without much of a travel budget, Perkins would get herself on scheduled flights by begging the airlines to get her on for free.

Perkins wasn’t the only thing smuggled on the aircraft used in the region. A few of the planes she found herself on were used for drug-running in South America; they were so old they still had bullet holes. Pilots and passengers had to prove they carried gear with them so that if the plane crashed, they had a chance to survive.

“We would have to land in some pretty sketchy conditions,” Perkins said. “But it was fun.”

Harrowing flights weren’t her only challenge as a new journalist.

Being a woman in the industry wasn’t very common at the time. When Perkins worked at The Nav, only two women were part of the staff, including herself. Although her Editor-in-Chief Ian Robbins was highly supportive, it was hard to find the same understanding in other newspaper presses.

It has gotten significantly better over the years, but when Perkins was a freshly graduated journalist, she often had to deal with sexist stereotypes.

When she was first hired at Black Press, a female publisher sat her down and told her: “You’re lucky you have this job because, at your age, no one would hire you.”

She meant that Perkins, who was only twenty-five, was expected to get married and have children. Perkins told me that comments like this were common in her career and that she had to fight for people to take her seriously.

There are strengths to being a female journalist, and finding out what is being said without words is one of the greatest weapons that Perkins has used in her career.

“We [as women] constantly read people,” Perkins said. “The majority of what we say is not said at all. You are getting information from me by the way I’m moving my face, my mouth and my body language. As a journalist, you are trying to decipher whether the person is telling the truth if what they’re saying has validity.”

And as journalists search for validity, Perkins emphasizes they must recognize the person they’re interviewing is human.

“A woman’s compassion is strength in journalism. I‘ve had to do some tricky things and have some hard interviews. I’ve had to follow up on people whose child has passed and write a story about it. And you have to have that empathy and understanding to do that,” Perkins adds.

Perkins now leads the high school journalism club in Grand Forks. She plans to return to school this fall through UBC and take the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program. Perkins wants to incorporate media studies into her classes so students have the opportunity to understand its importance.

She is beyond excited to mentor future writers.

“I believe in learning to question,” she said. “We have so much information thrown at us, and it is intoxicating. You need to swim through it and understand what is right and wrong. More than ever, media studies need to be understood.”

Perkins still gives back to the university that holds a special place in her heart. She is an active board member of The Nav and wants to let young editors know she is always around to give advice and guidance.

She is passionate about VIU and The Nav and is excited to see how the editors will shape the future of both the magazine and the school.

I asked her for some words of wisdom, and she recalled a moment when she stood up for what she believed in.

“I once worked on a story as an intern where I was to write about a man named Jeff. He was killed on the highway just above Parksville. I refused to use my camera and go to his funeral to take pictures. I felt like we were capitalizing on the grief of others. The editor at the time was quite upset with me. But I learned to stand up for myself, and I won. You need to understand where morally you would go and stand up for that.”

Being a journalist is more than just covering a story and posting it; journalists are responsible to their community for finding the truth and sharing it with the world.

As Perkins put it, “Journalism is about building relationships and being true to the people you write about. We are historians responsible for recording a community’s history and the stories of the people who lived during that time. What an honour that is.”

I might not know how I’ll be different from the past writers who have worked on our school paper, but if I’m anything like Erin Perkins, I know there’s a good chance I could become a Navigator legend.

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