Secret Life of Canada

Meet Bernelda Wheeler — the First Lady of Indigenous Broadcasting

Bernelda Wheeler was one of the hosts of Our Native Land, a CBC Radio program by and for Indigenous people that ran from 1965 to 1985.
Bernelda Wheeler was a broadcaster, journalist, actor and social activist. (CBC Archives)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on.

When Bernelda Wheeler took the microphone, she was instantly a revolutionary voice on the radio.

Wheeler was one of the hosts of Our Native Land, a CBC Radio program by and for Indigenous people that ran from 1965 to 1985. At a time when Indigenous voices were sorely missing on the airwaves, Wheeler would start on the path to become "the First Lady of Indigenous Broadcasting". 

Here are five things we learned about the broadcaster, journalist, actor and social activist. 

1) She was the first person in her family to attend university

Bernelda is seen laughing with Albert Angus in an archival brochure about Our Native Land. (CBC Archives)

Wheeler was born in Muscowpetung First Nation on April 8, 1937.

She was one of six children and along with her parents was a member of the George Gordon First Nation.

In the 1940s, her family moved to Churchill, Manitoba and Wheeler had to attend residential school. There she was subjected to the physical and emotional abuse that so many Indigenous children endured during this time.

She survived and would be the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend university. 

2) She had many passions but fell in love with radio

In 1954, at 17 years old, Wheeler became a disc jockey for CFHC, CBC Northern Service in Churchill —but Wheeler was multi-talented. Over the next six years she took up writing, became a practical nurse and also worked in journalism.

Still, there was something about radio that got her hooked and she eventually returned to the microphone.

This 1981 Boxing Day program looks at the stories and legends of native people across Canada.

In 1972, she returned to the studio as one of the hosts of CBC Radio's Our Native Land. She would stay with the program for 1982, wearing various hats as a producer, investigative journalist and writer. 

The show itself was an important presence on the radio. Johnny Yesno, another host on the show, noted that it emerged at a time when programs about Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples were often produced from an outsider's perspective. In those other shows, he felt Indigenous people were "being used, studied, analyzed and classified like rare butterflies."

3) She also acted and wrote children's books

In 1982, she received a special award as "the First Lady of Native Broadcasting in Canada" and a decade later was nominated to the Order of Canada for her work in Indigenous and Canadian media.

She was also an actor and appeared in countless TV shows, movies and plays while always still writing. She authored short stories, poetry and several books for children including Where Did You Get Your Moccasins and I Can't Have Bannock but the Beaver Has a Dam.

4) She was a 'Grandmother for Justice'

Wheeler was also an activist and advocate. She told her story of surviving residential school across the country to educate students and organizations on the lasting impacts of the government-mandated school.

She was an active member of Grandmothers for Justice, as well as a founding member of the National Association of Friendship Centres, a service organization that provides many services including culturally enhanced programs to urban Indigenous residents. 

Throughout her life, Wheeler would receive several awards including the 2002 Citizen of the Year award at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Circle of Honor and the 2005 Rebel With a Cause Award from The Elizabeth Fry Society, which heralds a women who advocates on behalf of women who are incarcerated.

5) Her granddaughter continues to share her story

Wheeler died of cancer in 2005, leaving behind a huge legacy and a lasting impact on future Indigenous writers, journalists and her own descendants. 

It was her granddaughter, Theresa Stevenson, who told us about her, in response to our International Women's Day shout out to grandmas. She ended her message with "My kokum was awesome." 

We'd also like to acknowledge that Wheeler laid the groundwork for a podcast like ours, hosted by the same broadcaster decades after Our Native Land.

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