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Smoke Signals

This past weekend my home community of Wasauksing First Nation voted in a new Chief and Council. Members elected a new leader and a very different supporting council. I’m not going to comment on the results of this campaign in order to be fair and respectful (it’s a small rez where everyone knows everyone), but I’d like to point out the relative success of the process, particularly mail-in balloting for off-reserve members. I don’t know what percentage of the votes were mailed in and I’m not sure if those figures will be public, but the fact that members who live in urban and distant settings are continually engaged in the process is an ongoing victory.

I was fortunate to be raised in my community surrounded by family, friends, and an emerging Anishinaabe cultural renaissance. I left the rez to pursue post-secondary education and a career, as did many of my relatives and peers. I haven’t been able to return to live there (yet) because my career path isn’t conducive to that (at the moment). But I go home regularly to visit and I still feel part of it. Wasauksing has made me who I am today and I love it with all my heart. But at the end of the day I am an “Urban Indian” and there’s no denying that.

The fact is, more than half of the people who have membership in the Wasauksing band are Urban Indians. When I last checked, the stats weren’t available, but Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s community profiles used to say that Wasauksing had a total band membership of about 1000, with 400 living on the reserve. That was years ago and the numbers have certainly grown. But prior to 1999, those living off-reserve couldn’t vote in band elections. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Corbiere Ruling changed that, and the band election process continues to evolve with each subsequent election.

Fortunately, I didn’t really know off-reserve voting life prior to Corbiere. I was 20 when that ruling came down, and have been able to vote in every election since. I’ve mailed in ballots from Toronto, Akron Ohio, Winnipeg, and now Ottawa. It’s a right I’m glad I’m entitled to so far from my community, and it makes me feel proud and connected every time I drop that envelope in the mailbox. Many of us who exercise this right still care deeply about our home communities and have close ties to it. We deserve our say and we’re happy to voice it.

Wasauksing’s elections are every two years. Over the past two campaigns I’ve noticed candidates appealing directly to off-reserve voters for support via Facebook and email lists. Some of these modern smoke signals have swayed my decisions in the past on who to vote for. Modern plumes of ambition coming our way from home, hoping to draw an even bigger one back. As Canada’s Aboriginal people continue to carve out their identity across this country, this process will keep modernizing, engaging all band members living afar to strengthen our collective voice and move forward.

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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