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Pioneers in Northern Broadcasting

March/April 2011 | by Whit Fraser

The regulatory approvals and other news surrounding the latest Mackenzie Valley Pipeline proposal brings back fond memories of the best broadcasters I have ever worked with and they are not names like Mansbridge, Duffy or Halton, all excellent broadcasters and former colleagues.

Certainly their names, Okpik, Tobie, Sittichinli and Blondin, will not ring any bells with national media watchers, and no doubt their memory is now growing faint across the northern Territories where they pioneered aboriginal radio and television Journalism or “reporting” as we called it then. They made a valued contribution to broadcasting and aboriginal languages and its time to put some of their story and memory on record.

In 1974 the late Andrew Cowan, then CBC Director of Northern Service, asked me to develop a plan for CBC`s coverage of the now historical Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Justice Thomas Berger had just been appointed by the Government of Canada to head a Royal Commission into “the social economic and environmental impact of a pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley”.

At the time, northern broadcasting was at its best, a barebones-make it up as you go — undertaking. I was the senior reporter in a two-person newsroom in Yellowknife, responsible for covering Canada’s vast Northwest Territories. Most communities were just beginning to receive radio or television signals and basic telephone service, from the newly launched Anik satellite system.

The proposal I gave to Cowan was equally basic. The Berger Inquiry and massive oil and gas exploration and development it would examine, was unprecedented in the North and Canada.

Our coverage should match the magnitude of undertaking and it must be done in the languages of the people who would be most impacted by the pipeline.

Cowan agreed and he put his neck and reputation on the line to get the money needed to provide that coverage.

Committing to cover the hearings every day in seven aboriginal languages: Chipewyan, Dogrib, North and South Slavey, Gwich’in, and both the western and eastern Inuktitut dialects plus English was one thing, finding the people to do it, and to get them ready in a few short weeks, was something else.

Occasionally a remote location works in your favour. We were able to fly under the radar of human resource managers and unions to recruit the people we needed. Essentially, five broadcasters committed to provide daily coverage in eight languages.

It was only possible because Louie Blondin (north and south Slavey), Joe Tobie, (Dogrib and Chipewyan) and Abe Okpik (eastern and western Inuktitut) would each cover two languages. Jim Sittichinli came to us as a retired Gwich’in Anglican Minister from Aklavik.

In addition to producing and co-coordinating the daily broadcasts, I would provide the English coverage.

Among the four northern recruits, only Joe Tobie had radio experience, working part-time as a translator and disc jockey playing country music on Saturday afternoons.

None had ever been on television, and part of our mandate was to provide northerners with coverage on TV as well as radio. Make no mistake; our TV reporting was even more basic than radio. We called it “brown bag television” because each day one reporter would package a five-minute report, put it in a bag and ship it by air to Vancouver where it would be edited and broadcast back to the North during the Vancouver CBC evening news program. It would still be another decade before production facilities and programming were first established in Yellowknife.

On March 3, 1975, when Justice Berger launched his examination “into the future consideration of a great river Valley and its people,” four new recruits now turned reporters were about to make their mark on Northern Broadcasting.

Recognizing the magnitude of the event, the CBC sent “The National“ to Yellowknife for live opening day coverage led by its anchorman Lloyd Robertson, who had not yet moved to CTV. Unlike today, in 1975, “going live” meant recording content earlier and rolling the tape “live” via a cumbersome, often unreliable satellite connection.

Seeing the opportunity to get all of our TV feeds to Vancouver in one shot, we made arrangements to record our first five-minute TV reports, and feed them via satellite to Vancouver.

For most of that morning, the crew were recording various takes from Lloyd and others for the packaged newscast. When our turn came it was 11:30, (a half hour before the union enforced lunch break), when the producer informed the camera and recoding technicians they weren’t quite finished. The response and outcry was memorable, “are you guys crazy?” meaning that recording four different “on camera hits” in a half an hour was totally unrealistic.

The producer put his foot down, “we are going do this,” then looking to me he asked, “Are your guys ready?”

First up, Joe Tobie — Hollywood handsome — streaks of silver in jet-black hair, dark eyes and a soft, rich voice was surely made for television. Joe looked into the camera and began in Dogrib. He spoke for exactly five minutes. He didn’t pause, stammer or waiver one iota.

He quietly passed the microphone to Abe Okpik, who had been the first Inuk Member of the old NWT Council before it was known as the Legislative Assembly. He had also been a government administrator, trapper, trader, and only three years earlier undertaken Project Surname. The project interviewed every Inuk family in the NWT, in order to replace the reviled E-disk number, with a family surname.

With his chest huge and a voice that came across Winston Churchill-like, he explained the purpose of the Inquiry, what to expect and the key issues for Inuit. Like Joe, he was five minutes on the button, no flaws, no retakes.

Our Slavey Broadcaster, as it turned out, wasn’t even supposed to be there. Louie Blondin was barely twenty. A dogsledding misfortune several years earlier led to severe arthritis leaving him almost paralysed from the waist down and unable to walk without crutches.

I had recruited his father John Blondin of Fort Norman for the position. After agreeing, he decided to send “the boy” instead. A few days before the inquiry began, here was this young guy in front of me on crutches saying, “My dad sent me. He thinks I can do the job better than he can.”

I asked ‘can you do it?’

“Yes!”

‘Are you sure?’

“Yes!” he said. And somehow I knew he could.

Now Louie was propping himself up on a table, setting his crutches aside. He had never even been on radio until this week, or spoken publicly. The camera rolled, I pointed my finger and he lit up. His voice was clear, exact. His body may have been half paralysed, but his face, eyes and hands were animated television magic and he delivered exactly five minutes.

One to go: The elder, The Reverend Jim Edwards Sittichinli of Aklavik.

Thirty years at the pulpit as a Minister with the Anglican Church in northern Yukon and the Mackenzie Delta makes for a skilled communicator. His delivery and voice were captivating.

Just when I was about to flash him a promised ten seconds to go signal, he broke into English. ”I just want to say good night to my grandchildren, but I have to do it in English because they don’t speak our language. That is a shame, but it is also in part what this inquiry is about. This is Jim Edward Sittichinli reporting.” Thirty-five years later, I still remember that broadcast.

Four “novice” broadcasters had just delivered perfect performances that most seasoned broadcasters could never equal, and in every corner of the conference room turned studio, people were applauding approval, including CBC National anchor Lloyd Robertson.

For the next two years, we travelled up and down the Mackenzie Valley and Western Arctic, through the Yukon, and across Canada. Sixteen-hour days were common. No one quit and no one complained and nobody missed a deadline.

Some were forced to take breaks for health, or family, or in the case of Abe, to go to Ottawa to receive his richly deserved Order of Canada for Project Surname.

What I believe stood them apart from other broadcasters was their superior knowledge of their own language, and the land and environment that was central to the key technical issues the inquiry confronted.

Above all, it was their understanding of their primary audience and the ability to impart evidence presented to the inquiry back to their communities in a manner that people there could relate to.

Some days, our reports could be strikingly similar. More often than not, there could be four accounts of the day’s proceedings, depending what was relevant to each region.

At the beginning a lot people had cautioned me with, “Whit, you’re going to kill these guys with all this technical jargon”. Immediately, we discovered that rather than becoming confused or intimidated by technical and environmental evidence, all looked forward to comparing notes and experiences with dozens of the noted scientists.

Those friendly discussions brought immediate and enormous respect from the dozens of PhD’s who appeared as witnesses to the extent that early morning greetings were often in the vein of “Good Morning Dr. Okpik” or “How are you today, Dr. Tobie?”

The matter of burying a pipeline under Shallow Bay at the mouth of the Mackenzie River was a particularly touchy environmental issue. Nobody knew the possible adverse impacts on the Beluga that migrate to the area each summer to calve. Moreover, no one seemed to know when, or where, the calves were born. There were tense moments, and questions had been going back and forth for some time with the company, Canadian Arctic Gas, saying it spent several summers and a million dollars researching, and would continue to do so until it found the answers.

Justice Berger called a break. Jim looked at me, smiled and said, “I know where and when the calves are born” and he motioned to the head of the research team.

I can still see their heads together over the coffee cups and a map. Fifteen minutes later when the inquiry resumed, to his everlasting credit, Dr. Richard Webb said, “Mr. Commissioner, during the break. Mr. Sittichinli of the CBC was good enough to share his knowledge on this, and tells me the calves are born in this particular bay, pointing to a map and usually on the second of July”. He went on to say the construction would be scheduled accordingly.

That evidence went into the record and, to my recollection, was the only “scientific fact” that was not challenged by one or all of the other participants.”

As a testament to the quality of the work of the northern broadcasters, Berger himself often said the success of his inquiry was in part because people in the northern communities, especially the aboriginal population, understood the issues.

Only a few years after the Inquiry concluded, Louie, still employed with CBC, tragically slipped on ice with his crutches and died within hours from head injuries. Joe worked only a few years more, retired and died suddenly of a heart attack.

Abe relocated back to Iqaluit where he succumbed to a lengthy illness in 1997 at the age of 68. Only Jim made it to old age before he passed away in Aklavik in the mid 1980s.

Sadly, none were alive to see, participate, or comment on the current Mackenzie Valley Pipeline debate or decisions. I won’t speculate on what they may have said but I believe their contribution, made during Berger’s Inquiry in ’76, continued to inform many of the people (then and still) living in the communities along the proposed route and beyond.

Whit Fraser is a longtime northern journalist and freelance writer now living in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. You can email Whit at: whitfraser@yahoo.ca.