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30 years of The Eastern Door

For the 30th anniversary of The Eastern Door, founder Kenneth Deer and current editor/publisher Steve Bonspiel look back on how far the newspaper has come, and how much it has achieved.

Where have the years gone? It doesn’t seem like 30 years, but again it seems like a lifetime ago for me.

As I write this article, I reminisce about why I started The Eastern Door and how so many things came together to get the paper published.

In the years following the Oka Crisis, our community was suffering through some tough times. There were divisions in our community; our economy was in shambles, there was tension and racism in the communities around us.

Kahnawake was suffering through a period of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And the community was getting its news from the mainstream newspapers, radio and TV stations from Montreal. The news about us in the media was not always accurate and often slanted.

We didn’t know what to believe.

So, Kahnawake needed its own newspaper. A source of information that the community could depend on.

Our radio station, K103.7, known as CKRK back in the 1990s, did a great job during the Crisis and deserves all the accolades they received. But in the aftermath, our community needed more information and news than the radio station could deliver.

There was talk in town by some people who wanted to start a newspaper soon after the Crisis ended, but nothing came of those discussions. I was willing to help any such project but not to take the lead. I had other problems at the time.

But as 1991 started to go by, no newspaper appeared. Towards the end of that year, I decided maybe I could start a newspaper. After all, how hard could it be?

Of course, I knew nothing about running a newspaper. I had no training nor journalistic experience.

But, I thought, running a newspaper should be easy. After all, all you had to do was print the truth. It seemed to me that all it took was common sense.

And that’s how I approached it: a common sense newspaper.

So, I gathered some friends and acquaintances, and we had a meeting at the old Silver Ball Restaurant on Highway 138. I can’t remember everyone who was there, but some of the people were Johnny Beauvais, who owned the restaurant, Brian Deer, his brother Phillip Deering, Martin Loft, and a few others.

We all agreed that Kahnawake needed a newspaper and would help to get one started. I said that we can do this in one of two ways. The first way was to start a non-profit newspaper which meant that we would need to set up a board of directors and get a charter in order to operate. And that would take months.

The other was to start a for-profit enterprise. But if we went in that direction, if I was to take all the risk, then I said I would run the newspaper, and it would be mine. Everybody agreed to go in that direction, and they would help.

Johnny Beauvais loaned me an Apple II computer; Martin Loft gave me some publishing software for the computer; others said they would write stories and do whatever else was needed to publish a newspaper.

That was November 30th, 1991. By January 31st, 1992, in just two months, we published that first issue of The Eastern Door.

It was absolutely amazing.

From the archives

We had a group of people with a common goal, with no money, no experience. Starting a newspaper, volunteering their time to produce a community newspaper because they believed this is what Kahnawake needed.

It was not about making money. It was not about power. It was about the common good.

Of course, a lot of work went into the two months before the first issue. I had to find out fast how a newspaper worked. And I give great credit to the late Cindy Torrance of The People’s Voice newspaper in Akwesasne.

She was unselfish in giving me advice on what to do: find a printer for the newspaper, get the cost of a print run, find advertisers and sell ads to cover the cost of the printing. Then get people to write stories, columns, artwork, editorials to fill the paper. And then layout all that material in a form that the printer can print.

No problem.

If I didn’t have any white hair by then, it started growing shortly after. I can’t go into all the details or in what order I did them. Thirty years can dim a person’s memory. But I started to sell advertising to people I knew and who were willing to take a risk on my project. In no particular order: Village Variety, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the Cultural Center, the Kahnawake Education Center, the Mohawk Nation Bookstore, Otiohkwa Video, Frosty’s and a few others.

I sold enough advertising for five issues. Once I had that, I knew we could make a go of it.

Conway Jocks designed the flag or masthead of The Eastern Door, and he later became an award-winning political cartoonist.

I took a three-day computer layout course at a small school in Montreal, paid for by Phillip Deering. My teacher said that I was not ready to layout a newspaper after three days, so he offered to layout the paper for the first few issues until I could do it myself.

My writers began bringing in stories and articles, and I had to write the front-page announcement with the headline “First Edition.”

I brought the final layout to the printer on Thursday evening, January 30.

I didn’t sleep very well that night. I kept thinking that I forgot something. I wondered what the paper would look like. Would the purple colour of the masthead look good? Would people buy the paper?

At 6:30 a.m., I picked up about 2,000 copies of the newspaper, and it looked great. I delivered it to a bunch of stores in town and hoped for the best.

The rest is history.

From the archives

Not everybody bought the paper. After all, this was post-1990. Some people were skeptical and thought that I would produce a political rag. A paper that would take a political side in the community and bash the other side or sides. And there was some pressure to be a political newspaper. Or it should be like the Akwesasne Notes, a groundbreaking journal of Indigenous thought.

But that was not my goal. I wanted a real community newspaper with news and information that the community could trust and depend on. I kept true to that objective and thereby gained the trust of the community over time and sold more newspapers than there were homes in Kahnawake.

While The Eastern Door was made for the community, it had an impact on the outside as well. Not that it was always easy. There were businesses in the surrounding communities that would not buy advertising or sell the paper in their stores. They were still bitter over the Crisis.

I have to say, though, that some businesses that refused to buy advertising don’t exist anymore. They didn’t realize how much money we spent in Chateauguay.

But on the positive side, The Eastern Door educated our neighbours about who we are. By reading our paper, they saw that we were not the savages that they thought we were.

And the Canadian government read our paper. On more than one occasion, when attending meetings at the United Nations in Geneva, the Canadian government delegates would complement the paper on a story or editorial. Apparently, some bureaucrat in Ottawa would read the paper and decide to include our stuff in the weekly media summary to the Canadian government. That’s a good reach for a small paper.

In conclusion of my ramblings, I think that The Eastern Door achieved its purpose, presenting news and information that the community needed. And it’s not because I said so.

Over the years, many people, both local and non-local, have dropped by to say that The Eastern Door had an impact on Kahnawake. They say the paper helped to calm down the community. It gave people a platform for their grievances and ideas. The editorial and columns gave people food for thought and, at times, changed people’s minds and attitudes.

My personal response is that I couldn’t be more proud of The Eastern Door for the positive contribution that it has made to this community. It was always my intent, and for those who have worked for the paper, to make Kahnawake a better place.

I want to thank all the people who have worked at The Eastern Door and all the people who advertised in or bought The Eastern Door for their support.

Happy 30th anniversary.

-Kenneth Deer

When The Eastern Door was purchased from Kenneth Deer on July 1, 2008, there was so much I just didn’t know as a journalist.

I was five and a half years into my career, which started at The Nation magazine, serving the Crees of northern Quebec, and I was just a 32-year-old pup, really.

I was full of spunk, fight, and certainly ready for the momentous occasion of taking over the reins, the monumental task of running a community newspaper in one of the most vibrant – and toughest – Indigenous communities on Turtle Island, but then again, I wasn’t.

Because you can never be fully prepared for that.

Once I took the reins as editor/publisher, the learning curve was very steep. My partner and I at the time were running blind into a tunnel full of pickers, and we had no clothes on.

At least it felt that way at times.

So much has happened in 13 and a half years, it really is incredible!

I covered some of it in this week’s editorial, but the human impact, the personal feelings and emotions – those things are impossible to convey on paper.

We grabbed the wheel of a speeding car that was on fire, heading towards a lake, just as the driver jumped out.

We had to gain control, put on the brakes, put out the fire, or jump out, yet somehow survived. Phew! What a ride thus far!

Through this learning curve, this ascension to the top of the journalism ladder, we made it! We have been and continue to be recognized with accolades and awards far beyond the borders of Kahnawake and Kanesatake, which is something I’m very proud of.

Kenneth Deer started this thing called journalism in Kahnawake, and now I’m continuing it – and taking it to new heights.

From the threats to burn my house down, to the threats to beat us up, or various threats on our lives, just to stop us from doing our jobs, we never relented.

And we never will.

Why? Because we know what we are doing is right. Every town needs a solid, socially-conscious press to do the hard work, not one that’s afraid to piss people off.

We work for the people, with the people, because we are the people.

Not everyone likes us and that’s okay, but we lost count how many times someone would call us down on social media and then, somewhere along that circle of life, come in asking for our help to tell their story.

And we welcome them in because it’s our job. Even if we don’t like their politics or actions, we always rise above that and are there for everybody.

We have broken far too many stories to count, we have held leaders accountable and we have dug deep into financial crimes, land claims, educational issues, health and tax exemption rights, human rights issues and so many more.

From the archives

We have also held up our children for all to see, celebrated their accomplishments, feted many an elder, supported our language, shared our culture, and kept right on pushing for all of us – ourselves included – to be better Onkwehón:we.

For this job to be done right it takes a ton of sacrifice – of money, of personal time, of mental health, of physical well-being – of all of the things we try to help you be, but often get so caught up in helping, we fall behind in our own personal health.

I have personally moved on from writing quite a number of articles per year when I first bought TED to editor/publisher mainly, to overseeing sales (and selling ads), to dealing with HR issues, to delivering the paper, to fundraising, to admin work, to accounting and payroll, to shoveling the stairs and maintaining the building, and so many more things I can’t list them all here.

There is no salary that can properly take into consideration all of those jobs within the community newspaper milieu, so I do them mostly out of love for the paper and our communities, out of determination to make change, with of a strong will to make The Eastern Door the best paper we can be.

I now teach Indigenous Journalism at Concordia University, and as I write this I’m 25 minutes out of my third class in my fourth year of teaching.

I started out as Journalist-in-Residence and ended up writing the curriculum for this class, which has been holding steady for three years now.

Not bad for some kid from the rez who has a Kahnawake Survival School diploma as my only “education” to show the world, huh?

My story is one of resilience and one of teaching others to do the same.

Want to be successful? Work your ass off. That’s the only secret.

Be respectful, patient, and honest.

Oh, and don’t take no for an answer, especially if someone said “that can’t be done.”

I am also married to my amazing wife Onawa and have an incredible boy named Rahontsanorónhkhwa who turns three in May.

To say I found my calling, my soulmate, my perfect little family, is an understatement. So what more do I need?

Well, there’s a whole hell of a lot of journalism to uncover, and with things like the housing scandal, outstanding land claims, rights abuses, Indigenous and inherent rights, economic growth, sexual abusers and so many other issues – well, we will never run out of news.

Besides, I want to produce more homegrown journalists: to foster them, encourage them, to be there when they need advice from a nearly 46-year-old man who knows a thing or two.

That’s my lot in life now. To boost up the younger generations so one day we flood the market with Kanien’kehá:ka journalists telling our stories, forcing our brand of journalism to become the norm, instead of something people just don’t understand.

From the archives

Someone will have to take this paper over one day, when I finally decide to hang things up. January 2023 marks 20 years for me in the business. It goes fast. I won’t be here forever.

Before I go, however, I also want Kanesatake to have its own newspaper. They deserve it and there is, for an even smaller Kanien’kehá:ka community, tons of news there to tell as well.

If we can create something similar to The Eastern Door over there, the birthplace of the Crisis, I will have created my own Kenneth Deer moment and place in time.

Kanesatake is a community that is much older than Kahnawake (we didn’t just migrate there from Kahnawake as some simply believe, there were already people living there – my ancestors).

So without a free press, things go unnoticed, unpunished, untold in the right ways.

The pandemic slowed those plans down, but we’re hoping things change soon enough, which will enable us to pick the torch back up soon, and launch a newspaper in The Pines.

I want to thank all of the people who were associated with TED over the years from founder Kenneth Deer and all of his hard-working volunteers, to anyone who worked for us, bought the paper, advertised, the ones who shared their story and who allowed us to celebrate along with them.

We even say niá:wen to the ones who don’t like us, because you taught us the importance of pushing forward no matter what, even in the face of anger from intergenerational trauma and lateral violence.

Without the good and the bad, we wouldn’t have the well-balanced, award-winning newspaper everyone has come to expect from us.

Niawenhkó:wa sewakwé:kon! We have only just begun!

-Steve Bonspiel

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Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.

Kenneth Deer
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