In the 1970s and ’80s, my former colleague, the broadcaster Bruce Steele, made a number of week-long trips to stations operated by CBC Radio’s Northern Service (Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Inuvik, Frobisher Bay – now called Iqaluit), and to smaller communities where there were snow-goose transmitters rebroadcasting network feeds and doing some local volunteer programming (Tuktoyaktuk, Coppermine – now Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, etc.).
Bruce was sent north as a radio trainer and “station doctor,” and for a few months acted as interim station manager in Inuvik (pictured above). He sent me this memoir.
Whatever knowledge and support I was able to offer was more than offset by what I saw and leaned when I was there. While the total term of my northern experience added up to less than a year scattered over many visits, I was also able to see a lot of the north beyond the places I mentioned above – to visit the isolated community of Old Crow in the Richardson mountains, to land on an oil rig in the Beaufort Sea as it was circled by ice breakers in preparation for being towed to port, to arrive in Resolute, the northern most town in Canada, in the dead of an Arctic winter.
I met artists, politicians, oil riggers, military personal and peoples of many First Nations from around the Arctic region. Above all, I learned to respect the place as a part of Canada quite distinct from the land of either of our “two founding nations.” And that helped me understand Canada as a confederation of peoples from many, many distinctive regions, geographies and climates.
When I was working in the north, the “language hosts” of programs there showed me – in very broad strokes – the differences between how stories are told in the way of First Nations peoples and how they are told in “the white way.” Their way takes longer. It assumes little, builds context. It often includes allegory. Our way assumes much, avoids context, pretends to neutrality.
I once watched a blind announcer named Donald Kaglik sit at a tiny table in the coffee closet in Inuvik with a cassette recorder, listening, decoding and memorizing the stories from the seven o’clock World Report by playing them over and over until he “found a way” to tell them in Inuvialuktun. A 40-second report could take him up to 10 minutes to impart. He explained to me that he translated the meaning of worlds like “demilitarized zone” and “unoccupied territories,” International Monetary Fund and OPEC into lengthy phrases that broke the meaning down into concepts Inuit living in tiny, isolated communities in the very far north could understand.
How well did he understand them? He was a former reindeer herder. I often wondered what exactly he made of these stories, and what he was actually telling his listeners.