Sorry About the Kid podcast Alex McKinnnon

The podcast Sorry About the Kid captures a tragic piece of Montreal history

We spoke with Alex McKinnon about his acclaimed documentary on his brother’s death, his loss of memories about his sibling and gathering intimate eye-witness accounts of the 1990 event.

Expansions over the years notwithstanding, Concordia University’s west-end Loyola Campus never really changes. 

The quiet, west-end corner that Loyola has inhabited since the late 19th century is home to the university’s Communications and Journalism departments and is of historic significance to the NDG district and to the institution alike. While not quite frozen in time, Loyola Campus invites a familiar sense of stability to students, graduates and residents of its surrounding streets. 

On Thursday, Oct. 25, 1990, that familiarity was shattered by the tragic death of 14-year-old Paul McKinnon. The Loyola High School student was killed by a speeding police cruiser at the crosswalk between the entrance to the university’s parking lot and the sports installations on the south side of the street. At the time, the high school occupied what is now home to Concordia’s psychology department on the campus grounds. 

In the days, months and years that followed, McKinnon’s family and the Loyola and NDG community rallied for justice, prevention and for each other. 

Paul’s younger brother Alex was only 10 years old. He came home from school that day, saw his family gathered and asked where his brother was. His mother gave him the news. From that moment, the younger McKinnon says he began losing all personal recollection of his big brother, his memories hijacked by the trauma around him and the ensuing legal battles, media coverage and the spotlight surrounding his brother’s death. 

In early 2022, his four-part CBC podcast series, Sorry About the Kid, was released to widespread critical acclaim, becoming one of the most popular new Canadian series of the year. 

McKinnon intended the podcast to be a journey of personal reconciliation, to take his memories back and honour Paul as the person he had been and not the collection of stories he had become in his younger brother’s imagination. 

“My family remembers him a lot. I don’t. Or I didn’t before this process,” McKinnon said. 

“I’ve always been grieving the loss, not who I lost, and how I saw it affecting my parents, my sister and the community. It felt like a void, or something missing. I couldn’t focus on, ‘Oh, I’m so upset that we’re never gonna go camping again,’ because of a good camping trip that I remember, or stuff like that. Stuff I could miss. I started losing that before-and-after aspect.

“And for a long, long time after, I wasn’t grieving Paul’s death. I was grieving what it cost.”

Sorry About the Kid podcast Alex McKinnon
Alex McKinnon (Sorry About the Kid)

McKinnon, himself a Loyola High School grad and a Concordia journalism alum who has worked extensively in film and television production, was planning a return move to his hometown with his wife and firstborn child when he began experiencing unsettling feelings about the prospect of coming back to Montreal full-time after eight years in L.A. 

“I was driving a U-Haul back from L.A. to drop off some of our stuff in Montreal, and I remember driving through New York when it really started to hit me,” McKinnon recalled.

“It was the fall, in early October. And for me, the fall in northeastern cities — and especially Montreal — just brings back all of that stuff. The sound of dried leaves on the ground reminds me of the row of kids in Loyola and Royal West attire shuffling their feet to the funeral. The smells. Everything reminds me so much of that time.

“When I went away to L.A., I didn’t feel that. I felt lighter and freer and my relationship with Paul and his death changed a lot.

“That drive back, not wanting to come back to Montreal and not knowing why I didn’t want to come back… I couldn’t vocalize it. Seeing the leaves changing colours in New York and into Vermont, it just all came back to me. I remember the moment. And there and then, I thought, I’ve gotta do something. I’ve got to change this relationship I have with Paul, with his death and with the city.” 

Initially conceived as a TV series, when McKinnon began conducting candid one-on-one interviews with family members, his brother’s friends and witnesses from that day, he realized that Sorry About the Kid was better suited to be a podcast. 

The raw intimacy people displayed off-camera, so many years after the tragedy, was what McKinnon chose instead to share with the world. And his instinct was confirmed.

“The reaction when the podcast was released had a ripple effect. The first people that reached out to me were family and friends. And then it expanded. And eventually, it got to this cohort of people that I might not know really well, who were like, ‘I was on the bus, and I saw it happen.’ Or, ‘I was in the street, and I saw it happen,’” he said. 

“That really hit me. Because they were basically saying they had never felt they had the licence to grieve, because it wasn’t their brother or their family or best friend. Like, can you fuckin’ imagine? I can’t imagine. Seeing it happen — what that does to you emotionally as a kid, to be so confronted with death, so young, in a different way than I was. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see him die. None of my family saw Paul die.”

The results of this exercise in memory retrieval are still hard for McKinnon to truly assess. 

But his proximity to the story, coupled with a journalistic intention to tell it without any sugar coating, gave him a new appreciation for the impact his brother’s death has had on the people who were a part of Paul’s young life, and their relationships with grief and trauma. 

In that sense, Sorry About the Kid is not only a brave accomplishment in riveting audio storytelling but also a therapeutic advancement for McKinnon’s own sense of place in a story that, until now, had felt to him almost as if it belonged to everyone but him.

“My memories have always really started from (the day Paul died) and that first thing my mom said to me. And then the funeral, and the eulogies, and the tributes. You start to kind of deify a person and that’s suddenly what you remember.

“I was very conscious while making the podcast that this is gonna be canon. This is gonna be what my grandkids and their grandkids hear. So I wanted to get it straight. I wanted to talk about Paul almost having sex and smoking. Because it’s important. It makes someone a fuller person.”

Since the podcast was released, McKinnon has heard from people around the world who share the same experience of grief-related memory loss. He cites these interactions as hugely therapeutic learning experiences in their own right.

“Everyone grieves their own way. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s a survival instinct. And if it’s to not talk about (loss), then that’s okay. And that might change later on, and it’s fine if it does change.

“There’s this idea of a set way to grieve — you ‘move past it.’ But you don’t move past it. And you can’t judge someone for the way they grieve.” ■

Sorry About the Kid is available here and on all major streaming platforms and podcast apps.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

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