North

'Keep a language alive': CBC Cree unit celebrates milestone anniversaries

"It was a mission ... after experiencing Indian residential school and being prevented from speaking my language," said Dianne Ottereyes Reid, who first worked with CBC transcribing Cree-language segments into English in the mid-70s.

Cree radio and television have been around for 50 and 40 years, respectively. Celebration happens Thursday

Inuk broadcaster, the late Elijah Menarik, is believed to be the first person to use the Cree-language on the airwaves of CBC North in the early 1970s. He learned his Cree on Fort George Island, Que., after running away from a residential school there and living with a Cree family for two years. (submitted by Robert Menarik)

Some early members of the CBC North Cree unit — both radio and television — remember very clearly why they wanted to work there. 

People like Emma Saganash and Dianne Ottereyes Reid and the late Elijah Menarik. 

"It was a mission I felt I needed to do after experiencing Indian residential school and being prevented from speaking my language," said Reid, who first worked transcribing Cree-language segments into English in the mid-70s, while studying linguistics at McGill.

"By the time I came out of [residential] school, I swore that nobody was going to prevent me from speaking my language ever again," Reid said. 

Dianne Ottereyes Reid started at CBC North in the mid-70s, doing transcriptions while studying at McGill. (submitted by Dianne Ottereyes Reid)

On Thursday, the CBC North Cree unit is celebrating milestone anniversaries, with an event at the new Maison de Radio-Canada in Montreal. 

CBC North Cree radio began broadcasting 50 years ago this November, with short Cree-language segments during its Inuktitut programming beginning in 1972. 

By 1975, an hour-long, Cree-language noon-hour show called Najawew Dipajimoon was added, quickly undergoing a name change in 1979, to Eyou Dipajimoon, meaning Cree stories. In 1980, the Cree radio service added a morning show, Winschgaoug, meaning "wake-up." 

The Cree-language television show, Maamuitaau, launched in 1982, 40 years ago this November. 

"[The service] is very pertinent to keep our language and culture alive," said Sophie-Claude Miller, the current manager of CBC North Cree unit.

"Storytelling is a very important part of our traditions and embracing the new technologies gets community members, youth, elders and everyone in between, making sure our voices will stay alive for years to come."

Management of the CBC North Cree unit went back and forth over the years between Radio-Canada and CBC. It also developed a French-language show, Soirée boréale and in 2013, added an English web service.

Key service at a critical time for Cree

The CBC North Cree-language programming started broadcasting during a time when the Cree nation was organizing in opposition to hydroelectric development begun by the province of Quebec. That opposition eventually led to a legal battle the Cree would ultimately win, leading to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975.

Radio, and then television, were important ways to share information and organize, according to Emma Saganash, who first started at CBC radio in 1977, but was a listener beforehand. 

She went on to help develop and then host Maamuitaau for 10 years, before moving into management until her retirement from CBC in 2018

Emma Saganash started working at CBC North in 1977. She went on to have a career in radio, television and management. (Maamuitaau/ CBC North)

"I think [the CBC North Cree unit] was very, very important … throughout all those years. I think [the Cree] needed that kind of programming and we provided that service to them," said Saganash.

She added the service helped the Cree nation effectively stand up to Quebec, while also asking difficult questions to Cree leaders and holding them to account.

Campaign to save service

In the mid-1990s, during a wave of cutbacks to CBC English services, Cree leaders and listeners sent letters and signed petitions sharing how important both radio and television services were. 

"Radio and television in Cree are essential services that are easily understandable for communities that are otherwise isolated. They serve a fundamental need," said former Cree grand chief Matthew Coon Come in a letter sent to CBC president Perrin Beatty in 1997.

In October 1996, the band council of Eastmain adopted a resolution in defense of the service, and Chief Kenneth Gilpin also sent a letter to Beatty, calling CBC North services "a matter of survival for our language, our culture and ultimately our Nation." 

The letter went on to say that hydro-electric development meant Cree communities were forced to deal with 100 years of change in 20 years, posing a direct threat to the survival of Cree culture and Cree language. 

A petition signed in the mid-1990s by more than 100 residents of the Cree community of Waskaganish, during a wave of CBC cutbacks to English services. (CBC North)

"The [younger] generation … are presently caught in an identity gap," wrote Gilpin. "Everything leads them towards the outside world, with computers, networks, television, etc … The only assurance they can still feel a part of our society is through the language." 

Several Cree citizens also signed a petition — some of them in Cree syllabics — that was delivered to the then head of CBC North's services Marie Wilson. Wilson went on to work as a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

First Cree-language broadcasting 

The very first Cree-language words broadcast on CBC North in 1972 came from the late Elijah Menarik, an Inuk broadcaster and station manager, who had worked for many years at CBC's station in Inuvik, CHAK, before coming to Montreal. 

Menarik learned his Cree after running away from a residential school located on Fort George Island, near present-day Cree community of Chisasibi, according to his son Robert Menarik. Elijah lived with a Cree family for two years after running away. 

Elijah Menarik was the first host of Taqravut, CBC North's first Inuktitut television program. Menarik lobbied for the creation of a Cree-language television show similar to Taqravut.

"What he liked most about the work was bringing messages … news from people here in Montreal to their families up North," said Robert, who lives west of Montreal. 

Elijah also lobbied hard for the creation of Maamuitaau, the Cree-language television program, according to Saganash and others. He also worked on Taqravut, CBC North's first Inuktitut television program.

Robert said his father also loved to entertain and to be in touch with people, particularly sharing messages at Christmas time.

For her part, Dianne Ottereyes Reid, switched after only a year in linguistics to a communications degree. After graduating, she came back to CBC and supported efforts to create Indigenous-language community radio stations throughout Quebec and went on to work for the Cree Nation Government and then went on to help found the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute.

"I knew we needed this medium … whether it's television or radio … Having studied communications, we know that this is the base for a language to stay alive; this is how to keep that language alive," said Reid. 


A special event, including a live to tape recording of Eyou Dipajimoon with a musical performance by Cree artist Siibii, is planned Thursday between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the lobby of Maison de Radio Canada.


Diane Icebound was a key member of the Maamuitaau team over many decades, working in production. (Maamuitaau/ CBC North)

(With files from Dorothy Stewart, Marjorie Kitty, Betsy Longchap, Celina Wapachee, Stephane Gunner, Susan Bell, Jaime Little, Lachlan Madill, Sophie-Claude Miller)

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