Weweni sago


Weweni sago. It’s a phrase in Anishinaabemowin that can mean “take care.”

A few weeks before his first birthday, I bounced my son in my arms, trying hard to savour the moment while chasing harsh memories from my mind. A family celebration was looming and that should have been my focus, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he and his mother almost died the day he was born.

They both fully recovered and now thrive in the most beautiful ways. But for some reason, I kept replaying that traumatic moment and those precarious first days. I didn’t know why I thought that way and it really troubled me. I cradled him close with determined care in my arms and immense love in my heart, while fear and anxiety lingered in my head.

There was no reason to be afraid or anxious. We were blessed with happiness and health as a new family. And while his birth was physically devastating for both him and his mother, I felt like it was “only” emotionally traumatic for me, and that I should have gotten over it by then. Their strength and resilience inspired me every day. Why couldn’t I embrace the wonder, beauty and power of this life and stop the trembling in my fingers?

This internal tension peaked when I couldn’t really bring myself to speak during those bizarre new episodes. I found myself unable to express exactly what I was feeling, which was something I had never experienced. My wife Sarah – ever kind, supportive and loving – noticed, and we tried to talk some of it out.

Together we identified a persistent grief from those moments in the hospital that I had never really addressed. I kept thinking about what my life would be like without them, even though they were tangible, real, beacons of love and might right in front of me. All this time later with no real reason to worry, I knew those were irrational thoughts.

Then she reminded me about what else happened in the last year. My grandmother – one of my life’s pillars – had died in the spring. So did my uncle, the man who made me a rock n’ roll fan. There was great loss in her family too. Her great-grandmother and family matriarch also died in the spring. It was a heavy year of loss. And another person very close to me also experienced serious trauma, but I won’t explain out of respect for their privacy.

While those tragedies had compounded in a short time, I realized there were even more in my past that I still hadn’t emotionally resolved. A few years ago, two cousins of mine died in the same week – one of an overdose, and the other of suicide.

My aunt, who was a storytelling and traditional mentor to me, died suddenly a year before that. There were many more deaths and victims of violence close to me. A lot of my serious grief goes back to the loss of one of my best friends in a car accident when I was 16.

I hadn’t even considered how that grief could accumulate, like stubborn black soot in a stovepipe. Up until then, I thought I had grieved enough at each funeral. The ceremonies around death in our culture make time and space for this very important process.

A fire burns for four days of mourning to make way for a relieving celebration at the end when the spirit leaves this realm to find their way to the spirit world. It’s a beautiful practice that helps the family and community heal from the loss. But when so many of them happen in a relatively short time, maybe it’s harder to fully expunge that sadness.

It’s no secret now that tragedies strike First Nations much more frequently than other communities. A long list of human calamities plague reserves: disease, suicide, violence, abuse, and so on. These are well documented, and the immense weight of these ongoing losses is devastating. A friend recently wrote that being Indigenous in Canada is to be in a perpetual state of grief.

And with all kinds of media constantly feeding reminders of these disproportionate tragedies to First Nations, it’s almost like they become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It’s easy to convince yourself that grief and suffering are ingrained in Indigenous identity, and that sadness is permanently fused to our DNA.

All these troublesome thoughts and feelings swamped my mind as soon as it idled. It felt like gravity quadrupled as soon as my focus shifted from my family, my job, or other activities that kept me occupied. Grief was dragging me down, and although it hadn’t taken a major toll on my professional life or my home life yet, it was only a matter of time before it became truly burdensome and I wouldn’t be able to function or focus on work or the happiness that flourished in my home.

Thankfully, my wife saw this become more serious as I became a little withdrawn. My silent sorrow hinted at inner emotional turmoil she’d never seen in me up to that point. She suggested I seek out and speak with a grief counsellor. She helped me find one here in Sudbury who was Anishinaabe and could help me look at my situation through a cultural lens and get me back on a positive path.

I was open and willing to receive this help. Throughout my life, I’ve always considered myself the one others go to when they’re grieving or down. I’ve always believed that I’m emotionally and spiritually strong. I grew up going to ceremonies, which built a strong cultural foundation that created a powerful link to my family, community, and Anishinaabe identity.

But I wasn’t strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was too apprehensive to discuss it with family and friends. I didn’t believe my personal issues were as serious as what other people were living through. I needed an outside perspective to ground me once again.

So I went to the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre for help. Without going into the details of the discussion, the person I sat with was able to bring me back to centre. She helped lift a massive weight off me. I understood what had happened to me. And I realized that unresolved grief can have serious consequences. I’m very thankful for this person’s guidance, and to my life partner for leading me to her.

I’ve never suffered seriously from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, although I do my best to advocate for people who do. Through this all, I’ve learned that grief isn’t fleeting. It doesn’t disappear when the fire goes out at the end of a funeral ceremony. Sometimes it tucks itself away, hiding behind those fulfilling moments of relief and celebration when family and friends come together in death. It’s an infectious mould that propagates as the years go on and the death toll rises. It has to be acknowledged and confronted, or it never goes away.

I share this for the sake of transparency and to encourage discussion. As a journalist, I write regularly about the grief and loss of others. As an author, I often adorn my own emotional hardships with the mask of fiction. But I believe it’s important for someone like me to be candid about these very real difficulties. It’s helping me, and hopefully writing this will support others in getting help as well.

Weweni sago.


Why Rage Against the Machine was my favourite band

The presidential election campaign in the United States is chugging along at an obnoxious pace. Now that Republican candidate Mitt Romney has chosen U.S. congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, media spotlights are predictably overexposing the potential vice president. In a recent sweeping profile, the conservative candidate cited Rage Against the Machine – the notorious left-leaning rap-metal quartet that rose to prominence in the 1990s – as one of his favourite bands.

On the surface it’s an oddly amusing dichotomy. But RATM guitarist Tom Morello was offended enough by the notion of having a fan in Ryan to write a distancing op-ed. In it, Morello briefly outlines the basic social and political ideological differences between the candidate and the band, and points out that Ryan “likes the [band’s] sound and not the lyrics.” This brief and superficial confrontation in the media lends itself to the typical over-simplified conservative/liberal American political discourse. It overshadows the cultural influence of political art and the innovative vehicles that can carry it. In the early 1990s, Rage Against the Machine used popular culture to speak to marginalized peoples with politics and music. As an Anishinaabe youth on the reserve, they became my favourite band.

I was 13 years old when their self-titled debut came out in the fall of 1992. My family lived in a small corner of our community with no access to popular radio or cable television. By that point I had become obsessed with music of all genres thanks to the influence of my parents and friends. But I had no easy pipeline to new music, and could only read about bands that sounded exciting in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. I first read about RATM in those magazines, and the “political rap-rock” descriptors I had seen over and over in print intrigued me. Eventually, I convinced myself I had to hear it somehow.

Back then, the Toronto Star had a service called “Starphone”. I read about it in the entertainment section. It was a toll-free number readers could call for various information, including new music previews. Although it was a free call, I wasn’t sure what my parents would think of me listening to music over the phone, so one day I ripped the number out of the paper and went up to the band office to give it a shot on the pay phone there. After punching through the various options on the key pad, I was thrilled to discover Starphone had in fact clips of the first three songs from Rage Against the Machine. All I needed to hear was the first minute of “Bombtrack” and I was sold. It was a riff stronger than anything I’d heard on my mom and dad’s Zeppelin tapes under a mesmerizing and electrifying rap vocal track. Even over the phone, it was the most unique music I had ever heard, so the next time we went to the mall in town I used my allowance to buy the CD.

In the following months I listened to the album almost daily. It was loud, aggressive, and innovative. I never knew that basic guitar, bass, and drums could make riffs, rhythms, and noises that compelling. But at the core, the instruments became just the powerful foundation for influential lyrics that were emblematic of my own experience.

At the time Indigenous peoples in Canada were becoming a more formidable political force than ever. The Oka resistance of 1990 created a broad ripple effect of pride and cultural revival in the years that followed. The original people of the land were fighting for their spot in the political mainstream, all the while turning to the old ways for strength and support. As a young teen, I enthusiastically embraced this renewed spirit that I saw blossoming all around me. And I also saw this movement reflected in the lyrics of RATM frontman Zack de la Rocha. Verses like these became intensely profound:

Holes in our spirit causin’ tears and fears
One-sided stories for years and years and years
I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?
Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back

On top of that, de la Rocha himself has Indigenous roots in Mexico, and up until that point I had never seen anyone Native in a big mainstream rock band. He spoke to me.

Then, the following summer I finally saw their video for “Freedom” at my cousin’s in Barrie (as mentioned, we didn’t have cable TV and Muchmusic on the rez). The clip pays tribute to jailed Lakota/Anishinaabe activist Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement who many believe was wrongly convicted of killing two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in 1975. I had only heard stories of Peltier through my father and other activists. Now I was seeing his story broadcast to millions via a pop culture channel. It was surreal, but it solidified RATM as my favourite band in the world.

That admiration continued throughout my teen years. I made my friends turn down the music at a party so we could watch them premiere “Bulls on Parade” on Saturday Night Live prior to the release of Evil Empire. I saw them live for the first time when I was 18, on student exchange in northern Germany at the Go Bang Festival. I got to see them a few more times in the years that followed, notably in front a tumultuous crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills north of Detroit in the fall of 1999, introduced on-stage by filmmaker Michael Moore. To me, they’re all fun and proud memories that still make my hair stand on end. But most importantly, they taught me to embrace who I was and to be critical of the evolving world around me.

At the same time, the irony of a band making a fortune off of its music and continuing to point fingers at the rich was never lost on me. And when art becomes politicized, it tends to date itself and thus threatens to dilute its own message as the years go on. RATM broke up in 2000, but has since played numerous reunion shows in recent years. When bands go that nostalgic route, I’ve always perceived it as a money-making scheme and have a hard time taking it seriously. I haven’t seen them live since they got back together.

Still, band members have chosen contemporary battles to fight, and as petty as this Ryan/Morello discord is, it’s proven that political art can always be relevant. The music, lyrics, and causes that Rage Against the Machine immortalized back in the 1990s are still easily accessible and just as pertinent today. There are marginalized youth in countries around the world; especially on reserves here in Canada. And if a song like “Township Rebellion” starts the same fire in a kid today as it did in me 20 years ago, the awareness and unity these artistic movements can foster will never die.


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.