North·Profile

Believing in the impossible: Marie Wilson on receiving highest honours in Canada, N.W.T.

On Wednesday, Marie Wilson she was one of four recipients of the Order of the N.W.T. The day after, she was among the 113 people appointed to the Order of Canada.

Former CBC broadcaster and Truth and Reconciliation commissioner reflects on 'an extraordinary time'

Marie Wilson, a former CBC broadcaster and commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was appointed into the Order of the Northwest Territories on Wednesday and the Order of Canada on Thursday.

Marie Wilson calls her recent awards "unforgettable."

On Wednesday, she was one of four recipients of the Order of the Northwest Territories, the highest honour for a civilian, recognizing outstanding achievement and dedication to the community.

But Wilson's achievements don't stop with the territory.

The day after receiving the territorial honour, Wilson was one of 113 appointed to the Order of Canada.

She's recognized for her work with the CBC, making daily television a reality in the North, as well as for her work as a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

"I can't tell you what a nice sequence it is, and what a wonderful, unforgettable two days" it has been, Wilson said over the phone on Thursday.

"I really see it as a way of honouring all of those people in the community who have participated in this work."

Changing TV news in the North

Originally from Petrolia, Ont., Wilson's long legacy in the North began in the early 1980s.

She was hired for CBC's weekly TV news show at the time called Focus North. She was the one and only host, reporter, researcher and writer for all three territories as well as northern Quebec.

She was a new mother at the time and recalls what it was like to juggle that and the demands of her show.

"There are legend stories of me having my babies in bassinets overnight" in the edit suites, Wilson said. 

"We always had deadlines, which were airplanes" that flew the taped and edited TV show to Vancouver every week, which programmers put in the system so it could be broadcast back in the North.

"It was an extraordinary time."

But Wilson wanted more.

A group shot of the staff in Yellowknife on Nov. 14, 1995, the day Northbeat and Igalaaq first aired. (submitted by Jim MacVicor)

She was determined to bring daily television to the North, something her predecessors told her was not possible.

When Wilson became the regional director of CBC North, she gained the leverage she needed to create two new broadcast programmes: CBC Northbeat in English and CBC Igalaaq in Inuktitut.

"I can still see them [CBC programme managers] standing in our edit suite with their jaws dropped open because they couldn't believe we were doing simultaneous Inuktitut translating while the English program was going to air," Wilson said.

Since then, many things have changed about the CBC and CBC North, but 20 years later, Northbeat and Igalaaq are still on the air.

"I'm so proud of that. It was an amazing thing we did."

The Anniversary of 'The Berger Report'

After Nunavut separated from the N.W.T. and became a territory in 1999, Wilson felt the N.W.T. had been left behind, and people forgot what that territory still offered. 

"I thought, there's so much that could be held up and honoured in this territory, so I made that my little mission."

No longer working for the CBC, Wilson created an event called "Back to the Future." It was an anniversary celebration of The Berger Report, the final report of an inquiry that looked into building a pipeline along the Mackenzie Valley. The inquiry was led by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger in the late 1970s.

Every premier of the N.W.T. since 1967 was invited to the Back to the Future event held in Yellowknife. The governor general was there too, along with Thomas Berger himself.

'This is a survivors' commission'

Years later when Wilson heard about the positions available with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, she knew she wanted to continue to help the territory and the country in any way she could.

"I felt I had things to offer and contribute," Wilson said.

Out of 450 applicants, Wilson was selected as one of the three commissioners for the TRC.

Marie Wilson was one of three commissioners for the TRC. The other two were Chief Wilton Littlechild (middle) and Justice Murray Sinclair (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The commissioners spoke to survivors of the residential school system, where, for more than a century, there was an attempt to strip Aboriginal children of their culture. For years after, many survivors of the so-called "cultural genocide" had unimaginable difficulty letting go of what happened to them.

That's where Wilson and the TRC came in.

"It is a very big deal to need to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission," she said. "It means something has gone terribly wrong. I think that was a really important aspect of defining my work."

Wilson said she is "certain" her Order of the Northwest Territories and Order of Canada are tied to her work with the TRC "because that is increasingly on the national consciousness."

She said she always asked herself, "Who are we serving?"

"It was to really start with the basis of saying: this is a survivors' commission... really, the heroes of the story."

with files from Peter Skinner

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