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Midnight Sweatlodge

A growing orange fire raged outside a humble sweatlodge. A tall, lanky young man in a heavy dark work coat and jeans stood beside the fire holding a pitchfork and keeping a watchful eye. His much shorter cousin in a similar getup was there to hold the flap open to the lodge’s doorway. It was midnight and glowing embers carried high through the midwinter air as the fire crackled. There were five young men and three young women — ranging in age from late teens to late twenties — standing in a line waiting to get in; towels wrapped around their shivering naked bodies. They wore boots to protect their already trembling and frigid feet from the snowy ground, a thick crust that was broken with each step to reveal a fine white powder underneath. Each held a shaker to keep rhythm with the songs they’d sing inside. The women standing at the front of the line all wore their hair down and so did the young men who had long hair. The blistering orange glow seemed to illuminate their various natural tans — from beige to bronze to almond brown — and the fire danced in their slanted brown eyes. They slowly made their way towards the small dome, about four feet high and twice as long in diameter. An elder sat inside, awaiting them.

I’m pleased to announce that in May Theytus Books will release my fiction debut called Midnight Sweatlodge. It’s about the modern-day Aboriginal experience through the eyes of a group of very different young people that share similar hardships. They take turns telling their stories in a midnight sweatlodge ceremony in the depths of the bush on their reserve, far from their struggles in the contemporary outside world. From depression to drug abuse to identity confusion, each has a battle to overcome, and for most it’s a matter of survival. They wrestle with their own desire to understand their traditional past and reconcile it with their seemingly bleak future. Few realize the first step in that healing is sharing and letting go. For some, it’s already too late.

This project essentially began as a short story collection. Since high school, I’ve enjoyed writing short fiction in my spare time – primarily based on my experiences and those of my friends and relatives growing up on the reserve. There were a few I was particularly proud of, and I decided to pursue getting them published. In 2004, I pitched a collection idea to the Canada Council for the Arts, who generously bestowed a writing grant upon me to develop and refine it. From there, the stories eventually became part of one narrative. After sitting on it for a few years, a few friends implored me to submit it to publishers. In early 2009 I mailed a handful of manuscripts across the country, and Theytus was kind enough to take it on. They paired me with one of my literary idols – the illustrious and immensely talented Jordan Wheeler – to edit and further polish it.

This has been one of my life’s goals and I’m extremely happy that it’s finally coming to fruition. I hope you’ll check it out when it’s in print. Stay tuned for more details. Miigwetch.

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“Wow Capital City – the Windy Apple!”


It’s been two months since I moved to Ottawa and I wanted to let the experience of living in Capital City saturate a bit before making a new post illustrating my initial thoughts on life here. Well I’ve always thought if you’ve lived two months anywhere you may as well have lived there a lifetime, so here it goes!

(That post title is a Simpsons reference. I’m not sure anyone here even calls it Capital City)

Cleanliness. Ottawa is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever lived in. Of course it helps that the city and the National Capital Commission spend a lot of cash making it look that way. Even though you see lots of people smoking outside downtown government buildings, you barely see vagrant butts blowing around the sidewalk. It seems there’s always someone there to sweep up the trash, and it also looks like there are multiple infrastructure jobs going on at once to make sure city streets are presentable.

Downtown Ghost Town. But if people inhabit downtown streets only half the time, is it worth keeping them so presentable? On any given weekday between 7AM-6PM there’s a vibrant buzz in Centretown because of the thousands of people who work there. But once quittin’ time rolls around, it’s dead. I see it every day because I live just a couple blocks from the heart of it. It gets really lonely and dark, and it’s hard to believe this is the core of a metro area of more than a million people.

Nightlife. If you end up feeling lonely on a dark downtown street, all it takes is a ten minute walk to lots of great restaurants, bars, and theatres. Bank Street is great. So’s Elgin. And the Market has lots going on pretty much any night of the week. A lot of people who are originally from here tend to apologize to me for the “lack of action” on evenings and weekends here in Ottawa. First off, there’s lots to do. I’ve seen great bands every weekend I’ve been here. And secondly, I’m 31 now dude – a little old to be needing that kind of “action” that regularly!

Arts and History. This is the national hub for museums, and I feel truly fortunate that I live within walking distance of some of the best in the world – namely the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Status Aboriginal people can get into the latter for free – rightfully so, probably because of all the traditional belongings housed there. I haven’t had a chance to branch out to some of the smaller galleries, but they’re on my list.

Pro Sports Teams. I grew up a diehard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I think that’s all I gotta say. The local guys are growing on me though.

The Nod. I’ve explained what “the nod” is a few times in past posts, but it basically speaks to the Aboriginal presence in an urban setting. When spotting a fellow First Nations person on a city street is rare, you nod at each other to acknowledge your shared background and plight as an “Indian in the City”. When there are lots of others, you don’t necessarily need to. Although it isn’t as strong as in western cities like Winnipeg or Regina, there’s a visible Aboriginal presence on the streets of Ottawa that reflects the strong sense of community here. Sometimes you nod at others, sometimes you don’t have to. There are great resources like the Wabano Centre and the Odawa Centre for everyone to rely on. Although I enjoy seeing all walks of life on city streets, it’s comforting to see a strong Aboriginal community in the Capital.

There are many other things I really enjoy about living here, like my job, having lots of family in the same town, and the proximity to where I grew up. I miss lots about Winnipeg and Toronto, but this is home for now and I’m gonna make the most of it. Thanks to everyone who’s been so accommodating, and if we’ve never met, keep an eye out for me!

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Why I became a TV reporter

At home it was one of our weekly rituals. As it got dark outside, mom would light candles and dad would start pumping the few kerosene lanterns that hung throughout the house. When lit, these tender and harsh degrees of light seemed to fight each other to illuminate our young brown Ojibway faces. Mom would then keep us busy with a book or a song while dad prepared our entertainment for the evening.

He would pull a car battery and a small black and white television with rabbit ears out of the closet. He then somehow wired the TV to the battery and turned the knob. The screen would sputter like a lawnmower motor with dots and diagonal white bars dancing up and down before coming to life. The static would then fill the screen, and with a few tweaks of the antennae, we’d have a picture. This is how we watched TV back then.

We lived in a humble home with no power or running water in a deep corner of the reserve. Every week, our parents would cobble together that makeshift TV set so we kids could watch “The Nature of Things” on CBC. It was our favourite show and they made sure we never missed it. After David Suzuki’s informative lesson about the natural world around us, they kept the TV on to watch “The National” with Knowlton Nash. Then it was time to unhook the TV from the battery, blow out the candles, turn down the lanterns, and go to bed.

Even as an eight-year-old, it was a bit late in the day for me to be watching national news. But this was my exposure to a world that was so far from me. That’s not to say we didn’t know “white” Canada – our mom is white and the reserve we grew up in is only a ten minute drive from a town. But when you’re huddled with your family around a tiny, fuzzy and flickering pale blue screen in a powerless and waterless house enveloped by darkness in the middle of the bush, it’s like peering into an entirely different universe.

When I watched the news I saw a world on that little screen that I didn’t know. The stories I heard and the places I saw were things I had no idea I could ever be part of. I thought Knowlton Nash was some kind of supreme being, because it sounded like what was on the TV was named after him (Nash-ional). Never once did I see people that looked like us in that little box, so I never imagined we had any kind of role in that far-off place.

Little did I know back in the 1980s that there were already lots of Aboriginal people breaking ground in Canadian broadcasting. But those moments just never hit the rabbit ears or the AM dials of some of the people on reserves who were able to tune in, no matter how close they were to transmission towers. I grew up not knowing I could be telling stories on TV too.

As I went through school I loved writing and I loved telling stories. I loved hearing the lessons my grandparents and aunties and uncles told through these ancient tales. I had a wild imagination so I started writing down some of the stories I came up with. I didn’t know that what we saw on our rudimentary TV back then were stories like the ones I heard and still carry with me today.

Then when I was 17 I travelled to Germany as an exchange student for a year. A newspaper in Ontario asked me to write stories about that experience and send them back. That was my first experience with journalism, and I quickly realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. When I returned I applied to university to study that. Originally I thought I’d become a worldly correspondent, writing about more wild experiences for newspapers and magazines around the globe. But then I got a taste of what it takes to put stories on TV – matching resounding words with unforgettable images – and I fell in love with a whole new way of sharing peoples’ experiences with countless others in remote corners of the country. So at Ryerson I started to focus on broadcasting – more so to produce these stories than to actually be on TV to tell them.

In school I got in front of the camera from time to time just to have fun. When we got back to the edit suite, it was even more challenging and exciting to make an actual story of the images and interviews we shot. I thought if I ever did get a job in the field, I’d fill in as a reporter once in a while, but that was it. As that four-year journey wrapped up, I had a couple of internships with two very different Canadian broadcasters – the Weather Network and CBC. After graduating, the former gave me my first job in the business, and after being a writer for them for a couple of years, they put me on TV as their reporter for southern Ontario.

I reported on all kinds of crazy weather stuff in Ontario and across the country. Then I got a job with CBC in Winnipeg. I spent four great years with Canada’s national broadcaster in that gorgeous Prairie city before returning to Toronto this past summer to do fill-in work. Now I’ve settled with them in Ottawa. I’ve been an on-camera reporter for about six years now and more than 1,000 stories later, it’s been a wildly fulfilling ride. There have been some ups and downs but it’s mostly been a hugely rewarding and remarkable experience.

TV stories are short and often very forgettable. But when you create them, you can take someone by the hand and show them what they need to see, and explain to them what they need to know. Throughout life, most of us have indelible memories of people guiding us through confusing new experiences and making us understand. That’s how many reporters approach our assignments. On TV it’s primeval storytelling in the most modern medium. If you do it effectively, people will never forget the story and as a result, they’ll never forget you.

But I’ve never been in it for that kind of recognition. Too many people in this business get caught up in the plight for exposure and glamour. People who know me know I’m the opposite of glamourous. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I just want to tell a good story and do it honestly. I’m hugely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I just hope I do everyone that I encounter on this journey justice. I am a conduit for your stories and my primary passion is to do them well.

That being said, I don’t judge success by how far I’ve come since those days of rabbit ears and car batteries on the reserve. Today, I watch the news in HD in 5.1 sound. I’m fortunate enough to be telling the stories that I love a lot of the time. And today, I report for the National from time to time – the first news show I ever saw that exposed me to life beyond the rez. I will be successful if at least one other kid on a reserve far away sees me on the news and is perhaps inspired to follow a similar path. Media is growing, and so are we. There’s an immensely powerful growing knowledge in our communities that our stories will never die, and we are in a position to make sure they resonate even louder for thousands of years.

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