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Survival students share local stories on radio

Kahnawake Survival School student Rorihwatoken Cross, journalist Kristy Snell, KSS teacher Sarah Phillips, Concordia student Esme Bale, and KSS student Wyatt Harper working together at the journalism department this past semester. Courtesy Robin Della Corte

It’s not every day that high schoolers get the chance to have their own news stories broadcast on countrywide airwaves. But that’s exactly what happened this Thanksgiving weekend for a group of recent graduates from Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) who heard their stories aired on CBC radio.

The hour-long program broadcast at noon on Monday came together following a year-long collaboration between the high school and Concordia University’s Journalism department. It’s all part of an initiative to get youth in the community interested in the field.

“I’m Indigenous and I would absolutely love to see more Indigenous journalism students and more Indigenous journalists. Our young people, they really have things to say,” said Kristy Snell, a CBC journalist who’s taken a leave from the job to step in as Concordia’s journalist-in-residence.

“When you’re in high school, that’s kind of the time when you’re developing skills that you might use as a journalist. And it’s a time when you’re thinking about what you might like to do when you’re finished high school,” said Snell, who’s from Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan. “This is to show them this is something you can do, and they did a great job.”

The stories were all written by seniors in last winter’s film and media class. They worked alongside journalism students in the department, who mentored them along the way, helping them produce reports about local ironworkers, firefighters, Kanien’kéha instructors and even the tradition of spirit stories. 

The stories originally aired during an interview segment that played this April on CBC Montreal’s afternoon program Let’s Go. Producers at the CBC wanted more and asked Snell to come back with a longer one-hour special so that listeners could learn more about the year-long project. 

The university students came down to Kahnawake several times over the winter semester, which culminated in a field trip for KSS students to the radio studio at the journalism department at Concordia’s Loyola Campus in the west end of Montreal. During the fall semester the same class also got to learn how to write a news article. Three students saw their articles published on the website of the national broadcaster. 

Zye Mayo McComber was among them, publishing a profile this June about Tewenhni’tátshon Louis Delisle, a longstanding Kanien’kéha instructor at KSS. 

“I compared how the language was when he first started teaching it, and how it is now that he’s near the end of his career basically – and how there’s so many people now who are willing to learn and teach it,” said McComber, a recent KSS graduate who’s now at Dawson College.

He also said he was impressed at just how hard Snell and the journalism department worked to keep them motivated and engaged.

“We weren’t always very interested, but they kept pushing us, and after a while, we became interested and started actually doing everything on our own without needing assistance,” McComber said. “After that we became really successful.”

He’ll be spending the next year in Dawson’s one-year transition program for Indigenous students before deciding his next steps. 

“Journalism is really interesting,” McComber said. “You do whatever you’re interested in. As long as there’s an audience there that’ll read it, you can write about anything.” 

For Anthony Issa, one of the students in the journalism department, it provided an opportunity to reflect on how mainstream media outlets have failed Indigenous communities in the past – and how journalists can move forward in a spirit of reconciliation.

“I’ve always known about colonialism in Canada and its history, but I feel like Kristy really sat us down and really broke it down in a way that was easy to digest,” said Issa, a fourth-year student who has published in The Eastern Door since then.

“She always reiterated that as reporters, especially when we’re talking about Indigenous issues, we have to be storytellers not storytakers. We can’t just extract,” he said.  

This article was originally published in print on Friday, October 13, in issue 32.41 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.