Leonard Linklater: Voicing the North

When Leonard Linklater was growing up in Inuvik, NWT, there was one radio station on the dial. The CBC. Through the airwaves, Indigenous voices carried messages and music.

“Louis Goose, Les Carpentier, they were all on the air! I was used to hearing Indigenous voices. Not a lot of them – the main broadcasters were non-Indigenous,” Linklater recalls.

“It was interesting. It really tied people together. [There were] a lot of stories from across the Delta Region. Every day at noon, they would have the announcements and messages. People didn’t have phones in every home, so the radio was the way to get messages out. When we were at fish camp, every hour we’d run back into the house to listen to the announcements and messages.”

Storytelling is an art deeply ingrained in Indigenous culture. It is how the past is kept, and how you know where you are from. It is also practical.

“When we went to fish camp when we were kids, my uncles would tell these bushman stories,” Linklater says. “They would scare the bejeezus out you because there’s bushmen all around and they would grab you and take you away. Then they would all go to work, and we’d all hang around [and not leave camp.]

“It didn’t dawn on me until later in life, that ‘Hey! Wait a minute! They did that to keep us there.’ They had to have practical ways to keep you around while they did the work. If you spent most of your time chasing your kids through the bush trying to get them back home, you wouldn’t get the fish in for the winter. That’s just practical.”

Radio broadcast fits naturally with this cultural tradition.

“Radio’s a very intimate medium. It’s your friend. It’s always on in the background.” Linklater says of his calling.

It is also a free and convenient access to information. It became evident that this tool needed to be harnessed to share stories and information relevant to a First Nations audience.

“It’s similar to how the CBC came about,” Linkater says of the beginning of Indigenous broadcasting in the North. “The CBC was established because most of Canada’s population lives around the southern border with the United States. The U.S. had these major broadcasters, their signals were beaming across the border and we were being inundated with American culture. So the Canadian Broadcast Act was passed and created the CBC to protect Canadian culture, so that we have our own Canadian programming, our own Canadian music being highlighted. Canadian stories told. It was the same thing with Northern Native Broadcasting and Aboriginal broadcasters. They wanted their own voice.”

In 1985, Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon became that voice when they began broadcasting at 98.1 FM. Their mandate, to reaffirm and maintain First Nation Culture, spiritual beliefs, language, traditional values, land and animals.

That is where Linklater began his broadcasting career, at the new Indigenous radio station CHON FM.

“Before that I was at Yukon Indian News, where I did on the job training. NNBY was training broadcasters just down the hall from us, in what used to be Yukon Hall. That was in the Council of Yukon Indians administration building.”

It was an exciting time in Yukon Indigenous politics, and the young journalist was in the middle of it all.

“When [land claim] negotiations were going on, a lot of it was going on in that building. There was one wing with the communications society. There would be a lot of late nights in the office, and the reporters from town would be hanging around our office. That’s where I met Vic Istchenko. He was the news director at Northern Native Broadcasting. Vic was the only person in the CHON FM Newsroom. He was in our office waiting out the negotiations.”

Linklater describes his first big break in radio. “He was talking to me about maybe trying out broadcasting, and I said, sure, I can do that. I applied and he gave me a job.”

The importance of representation in media is not lost on Indigenous people. In a society where they are still not accurately portrayed in mainstream movies and television, Indigenous audiences do not see themselves in the stories streamed into their homes.

The stories being told are not their stories.

Yet stories do not rest until they are told. When Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released the Calls to Action in 2015, media and reconciliation is among the 94 recommendations. Currently, there is a national inquiry being held into the urgent and devastating issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This is not new information to Indigenous people, but it is information that has been in the public consciousness in recent years. Mainstream media was not covering it.

“I remember when Phil Fontaine came out and disclosed that he had suffered abuse in [residential] school. The National played film [of the statement]. They didn’t ask permission,” Linklater recalls.

“That’s the power of having your own voice and your own ability to tell your own stories. [We were] talking about this stuff for years before mainstream picked up on it. And once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

If mainstream media is not telling the story, is it because they can’t?

“I don’t know if they can tell the story fully, because they haven’t lived it. We’ve all lived it.” Linklater explains. “Even if we didn’t go to residential school. I didn’t go. But my Mom did. She went and as a result, we don’t speak our language. We are affected by that experience.”

Linklater tells of a common experience of Indigenous people in response to colonization: the loss of language, culture, land, family and belonging.

“It’s not good because when you draw your identity, you draw it from language and culture and we didn’t have that so it left us incomplete. We lived the experience, so who better to tell the experience than Indigenous people?”

Being the voice of a small community is a unique experience, and different from the larger markets in the South.

“It brings its own challenges,” Linklater says. “To be fair and to tell a good story you also have to be somewhat removed from it. That’s the difficult part. Because you know what stories need to be told, but you have to remove yourself to be able to tell it with some authority and with some weight.

“To do that, you have to find other people with similar stories.”

When you are covering stories that possibly involve your family members, or people you grew up with, the expectations of detached and unbiased journalism might bring with it a bit more weight.

“That’s the beauty of being from a mainstream society,” says Linklater. “They go to journalism school and get the training, and then they get sent out to some location far away from their family and friends and whatnot, and start reporting on the community. Most of the non-Indigenous reporters in town are from elsewhere. They’ve got that distance, whereas most of the Indigenous reporters in town are from this town. So they’ve got a lot of… baggage, I guess.”

Linklater is thoughtful as he describes the balancing act. “You take that with you and you’ve got to make sure that doesn’t get in the way. You want to be fair to the story. It’s an extra burden you carry with you. It’s a key to a door, but it brings with it a lot of other stuff.”

Telling the stories and history of a people that doesn’t always make the masses comfortable can be challenging and frustrating. Listeners are asked to suspend long-held biases and question what they have always known.

“The biggest thing that surprises me is the unwillingness of people to hear.” Linklater says as he reconciles the difficulties with the profession that draws him. “You can talk until you are blue in the face about the history and the stories of this land, and the people who lived here, and they don’t know a damn thing. It’s all there, but people still think the gold rush is this amazing thing that happened,” says Linklater. “You try to tell the other side of the story, people don’t want to hear it. Maybe it was great, but what was here before then? Maybe it was greater? You won’t know until you start exploring those stories.

“It can be a great tool for reconciliation, but people need to be willing to listen. Have to have that open mind.”

Some of the stories Linklater has to tell go beyond the boundaries of the airwaves.

“There are tons of stories of amazing First Nations people that need to be told. That’s why I’m in theatre, as well. Because you can tell these stories with a little more time and imagination.”

“I met [my partner] Patti. We were both reporters at the time, and she had joined the 24 Hour Playwriting Contest by Nakai Theatre. I had nothing to do that weekend, so I joined, ” he laughs.

He describes the play, 60 Below, as a reaction to what was going on in the world around him. “At the time, there was a lot of talk about culture and jail, and people rediscovering themselves through Native spirituality. So we decided to write a play based on what we were reporting on. That became 60 Below, which was a very successful play. It’s all about people getting out of jail. Through [cultural programming] in jail, they learn about Native spirituality and walking the red road. Then they get out into the community. They find out that nothing has changed there. What little they’ve learned in jail doesn’t sustain them in the old world. It deals with residential school and Christianity and suicide, violence. All the things that people are talking about today.

“It’s a great medium where we can create these worlds and explore these issues and possible solutions and hopefully get people talking, who come to see the productions.”

Through the stage or through the airwaves, it is clear that Linklater is a storyteller, committed to telling the stories of Indigenous people of this land.

Linklater has been with CBC Yukon since 2000, as host of The Midday Café. It is a community program, staying true to the radio roots that informed youthful days in fish camp.

“We have a story telling tradition,” says Linklater. “That’s what we do.”

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