Trailblazing Ottawa journalist Catherine Cano carves out newsworthy career

CPAC general manager thrives on challenge of keeping cable channel relevant in the digital age
Catherine Cano
CPAC president and general manager Catherine Cano has worked as a journalist, producer, news analyst and media consultant. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

“I love this job; I really do,” Catherine Cano says passionately from her downtown corner office, with its imposing view of nearby Parliament Hill.

Cano, 55, is the president and general manager of CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel), a privately owned, not-for-profit television service that provides Canadians a window on the workings of Parliament.

It’s the perfect fit, the right role with the right team at precisely the right time. What sets Cano apart as a senior executive is that she has a proven track record of guiding news organizations in their transition to the digital world and helping them adapt to the changing media industry.

“I deal with a budget that’s decreasing – that’s the reality for everybody in our business,” says Cano. “You have to be creative and nimble and think of how you’re going to survive in today’s environment.

“I deal with a budget that’s decreasing – that’s the reality for everybody in our business. You have to be creative and nimble and think of how you’re going to survive in today’s environment.”

“But I’m somebody who likes challenges.”

She’s also helping to further position CPAC into a Canadian leader in democratic literacy.

Cano has been the driving force behind Route 338, a multimedia project that CPAC launched last year with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It features a giant, interactive floor map for students to learn about our country’s 338 federal ridings.

She’s an unabashed champion of innovative ways of piquing young Canadians’ interest in democratic institutions – a theme she tackled last week during her presentation at TEDxKanata.

“Democracy is so fragile,” Cano says. “We cannot take it for granted.”

One of six children born to Antoine Cano and Mona Gauthier, Cano originally hails from Chicoutimi, about two hours north of Quebec City. Her father, a French national, saved up enough money to cross the Atlantic by boat in 1952. He hitchhiked from Halifax to Chicoutimi, where he met and fell for Gauthier.

Cano’s father followed in the footsteps of the early French fur traders by running his own business selling furs. Her mom went back to school at age 46 to get a university degree, followed by her master’s and then her PhD in psychoanalysis. At age 82, she’s just published her fourth book. It’s semi-autobiographical.

Lifelong ambition

Cano remembers always wanting to be a journalist. As a child, she was allowed to stay up late to watch the nightly news.

She first came to Ottawa through the Forum for Young Canadians and was selected the following year to be part of the page program in the House of Commons.

“I had MPs asking me things in English and I had no idea what they were talking about,” she says.

The 19-year-old also enrolled in political science and communications at the University of Ottawa. But it’s what she decided to do next that most people would find terrifying; she took all her courses in English when she could speak only French.

“I didn’t think I was going to get through the first year,” she says.

She completed her studies at the University of Ottawa while also teaching French and working as a DJ at a French-language radio station. That Cano was able to master a new language and graduate while also holding down three part-time jobs speaks volumes about her determination and ability to take on new challenges.

At age 24, Cano began a three-year stint as press secretary for former prime minister John Turner, who was leader of the Opposition at the time.

She took a gamble by leaving for Washington, where her boyfriend, a news bureau chief, was being posted. She hoped the move would allow her to segue into journalism. Her instincts proved correct; she quickly got a low-level production job with Radio-Canada, was promoted to associate producer of TV news and has never looked back.

Cano has worked as a journalist, producer, news analyst and media consultant. She’s travelled the world and covered elections, international economic summits and the Olympic Games. She’s been a deputy news director in Qatar.

At age 42, she became the first female news director in Quebec at Radio-Canada. When she left the public broadcaster in 2016 to join CPAC, she was executive director of news programs. She also oversaw the integration of all CBC/Radio-Canada news operations, on all platforms, in Ottawa.

As well, she crossed over to the “dark side” for several years by working in the private sector as managing partner of the Toronto office of NATIONAL Public Relations. If it wasn’t for that job and all it taught her about business, she doesn’t believe she’d be running CPAC today.

Last year, WXN – a networking and mentoring organization for women executives – put her on its list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 for the second time, and fellow networking group Women in Communications and Technology named her its Innovator of the Year. The female trailblazer has also taken home a pair of Geminis and the Michener Fellowship.

In May, Cano will receive the Meritas Tabaret Award for Alumni, the highest honour handed out to a former graduate of the University of Ottawa.

Created in 1992, CPAC is owned by six cable companies – Rogers, Shaw, Videotron, Cogeco, Access and Eastlink – who have invested more than $50 million to provide the service.

It provides free coverage of House of Commons proceedings, Parliamentary committees, Royal Commissions, inquiries and Supreme Court hearings. It also produces up to 30 hours a week of original content.

Five things to know about Catherine Cano

  1. She loves music. She learned the pipe organ as a child and still cherishes the sound of the instrument. “When I travel, I always go see the churches for the organs.”
  2. Cano lost both her sisters. Her younger sister died in infancy while her older sister died of cancer at 38. Cano remains close to her three brothers and is godmother to her sister’s daughter.
  3. She walks eight kilometres every day, loves ice skating and skiing, and takes dance lessons.
  4. Among the boards she sits on are Journalists for Human Rights, the Michener Foundation, Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom and Centre d’études surlesmedias.
  5. She’s also a role model and mentor for aspiring female leaders, as evidenced by her involvement in the International Women’s Forum and Women in Communications and Technology.