A lull in Wawatay

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The Wawatay News newspaper seems to have disappeared. Like the old quote by TS Eliot, the publication went out “not with a bang but a whimper.”

I left Canada in December to head out on a two-and-half-month-long voyage to the Far East. I did my best to keep up with the news from home but often that was difficult. When I finally flew back to Canada I was shocked to hear that the Wawatay Communications Society had stopped services in November. They have since restored some of their services but at the moment, the newspaper has not recovered and its staff has not gone back to work.

I grew up reading the Wawatay newspaper and listening to Wawatay Radio. The Cree and Ojibwe word wawatay means “northern lights.” To us on the James Bay coast, it was symbolic as we expected to have our Wawatay newspaper around forever.

Founded in 1974, the publication was one of the oldest and most respected Aboriginal newspapers in Canada. I have come to know many of the editors and writers over the years as the paper featured my column “Under The Northern Sky”. I recall being very proud and excited in the fall of 1998 when then-editor Jody Porter agreed to run my column. Back in those days, I was faxing my weekly columns to her as email and the internet was still in its early stages.

Wawatay News was actually launched because of the wishes of the Elders in the northern First Nations. I know that people up the James Bay coast depended on the paper and Wawatay Radio to bring them news with a First Nation perspective. It was also very important to us because Wawatay was First Nation media that actually gave us some representation.

It was great to be able to read stories from other First Nations and that drew us closer together. Wawatay gave us many voices and faces. Our Native politicians, leaders, administrators, Elders and First Nation people in general were featured on the pages of Wawatay. I know that many found it very exciting to see pictures of family and friends featured on the pages of Wawatay News.

Wawatay also served to provide us with an historic record in terms of archives. Much of the time First Nation stories in mainstream media have to do with negative realities. Wawatay actually produced positive stories about my people and the accomplishments of so many First Nation people.

When Wawatay first started, there were very few First Nation writers involved, however that changed over the years. People like Joyce Hunter and Lenny Carpenter started their writing careers at Wawatay News. It felt good to know that my own people had a hand in producing this First Nation publication and that served to encourage more Native people to consider journalism as a career. It also gave us all great pride as First Nation people to see stories written in syllabics in the Ojibwe and Cree languages.

I found it strange that nobody contacted me from Wawatay to let me know that the newspaper service of Wawatay Communications was being shut down. I had no idea and I had been sending my column regularly to the paper. I had to learn of this news on the CBC website.

I want to thank all of those First Nations board of directors, Elders and leaders that have helped to keep Wawatay alive for so many years. Chi-Meegwetch to all those hard-working editors and writers (Native and non-Native) who told our stories over the years.

It is my hope that the board of directors and our First Nation leadership can find some way to keep Wawatay News alive. These are dark times and we need the light that good journalism as a service to the public can provide.

My people have lost a lot in the past and it saddens me to know that such a powerful voice for all of us has been silenced. Let us hope that it is just a lull in the wawatay.

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