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Footsteps through story and culture

An Indigenous storyteller and broadcaster speaking truths of Northern Ontario.

Waubgeshig Rice is excited about the rest of his life in Northern Ontario. As the previous host of Up North on CBC, Rice has experienced Canada in a way that has brought enlightenment and education into his, and his audience’s, life.

He is a writer, published author, journalist and broadcaster from Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario.

Rice began his journalism career while studying abroad in Germany in high school. From 1996 – 1997, Rice spent a year abroad and discovered the enthusiasm from his peers about his culture and background.

While there, he wrote monthly articles for the Anishinabek News about being Anishnaabe in Northern Germany. He says this was his stumble into journalism; the beginning of a career that has spanned years, cultures and cities.

This time in Germany opened his eyes to the differences, but also similarities, between Canada and Germany and their histories of oppression; how they treated marginalized people.

“In Germany [there was] the Nazi regime and everyone in the country is aware of that, the whole world is aware of that, and there’s a collective shame attached to that. But in Canada, nobody really knew, outside of Indigenous communities, about things like residential schools [and assimilation policies].”

He also experienced enthusiasm from his peers about his culture and background. An enthusiasm that excited him but one that he didn’t feel in Canada. “It was really weird that my peers back in Canada didn’t share that enthusiasm. [In Germany] I was really proud to explain these things to them.”

Advancing forward

After returning to Ontario from Germany, Rice attended Ryerson University in Toronto and studied their journalism program.

When he graduated in 2002, Rice began freelancing in Toronto and then spent time at the Weather Network as a TV reporter. He has worked for CBC in Winnipeg and Ottawa prior to his time hosting Up North.

He says the newsroom in Winnipeg was committed to telling Indigenous stories. Due to the size, Toronto and Ottawa were much tougher and the awareness of Indigenous issues was missing. Fortunately, Rice was supported with stories he pitched.

In 2018, Rice took the position of host for Up North, a CBC radio show that connects the people and community of Northern Ontario through stories and music.

Culturally relevant coverage

When asked about Canada’s media coverage of Indigenous issues and culture, Rice believes there is still a sense of it being overlooked.

“There’s still that general lack of awareness…it’s not supportive of Indigenous stories and issues if you took the whole of Canadian media and put it all together coast to coast to coast.”

Simply put, white people don’t quite get the importance of Indigenous news and, as harsh as it sounds, racism still thrives in this country; a truth hard to swallow but blatantly real.

Prior to Up North, when Rice was doing news reports, he says he was basically skimming the surface. Hosting Up North, Rice had the opportunity to learn and discuss the contextual elements of who a person is and the issue they’re discussing.

By having the opportunity to dig deeper and discuss topics more thoroughly, he has brought stories with relevant nuances and culturally significant topics to our ears.

Moving North

When he moved to Northern Ontario, Rice discovered the extraordinary community this region holds, regardless of the work that’s still needed to progress.

“It’s very vast and very diverse in terms of its culture and communities [but] there is a serious racism issue here.”

He says there are a lot of stereotypes and myths attached to the Indigenous communities. These myths are deep seated and non-Indigenous people haven’t learned the truth of these communities that make up Northern Ontario.

“Thunder Bay is often in the spotlight as, unfortunately, the poster city for racism in our region, but at the same time, those conversations are happening and there are people doing things to confront racism.”

He doesn’t think these conversations are as widespread and explicit in other communities. Conversations that need to happen.

Identifying the unfamiliarity

Hosting Up North gave Rice an insight and the opportunity for eye-opening discussions lacking in generalized society. Throughout daily conversation, what the Indigenous community does for society is usually disregarded, being pigeon-holed into these stereotypes Rice mentions.

“Working on Up North really gave me a first had glimpse at what some of those dynamics and challenges are…it was the best job I’ve had.”

Rice goes into detail saying people don’t consider how economic developments and other sorts of financial advancements happen within the Indigenous community and how the people in these communities spend that money elsewhere, off reserves. It’s an economic benefit to the city and region as a whole.

“It’s important for non-Indigenous people in northern Ontario to really consider that everybody is playing a part in helping this region thrive.”

When he discusses Up North, he emphasizes how he wanted to enhance Indigenous representation. “Every day was a really good process in ensuring we were able to explore a lot more on our own.”

Rice notes his growth of knowledge about the economy of Northern Ontario and our reliance on resource extraction, such as mining and forestry, to keep the region thriving.

He also notes the politics; how alienated the Northern Ontario region can feel when the politics for the province happens in a more vast, southern region, so far from our reality.

“What enriched me as a person was being able to connect with, not just Indigenous communities, but the smaller communities in our region.”

An aware and educated future

As his accomplishments lay proudly within him, and his future before him, Rice is committed to his writing and creative process. He’s taken opportunity and has used it to step headfirst onto a platform to presents issues and ideas we need to talk about. A voice that shares language and depth about the land and community.

“At the core of identity is language [and] Canada has a responsibility to give all Indigenous people the opportunity to further understand their language.” Rice believes language is what’s most important to a people and their legacy. This is what keeps a people and their ancestors alive.

As for the future of the place we call home, he hopes for a more educated country with more awareness and hopes this will lead to more empathy and understanding of his culture. Something he deems most important as a father to two boys.

“There’s this illusion that Canada is this benevolent and tolerant place but,” Rice says, “most of us, from marginalized communities, know that’s not true and we’re seeing that more and more every day from stories of racism.” He says these stories aren’t new to him or his community.

Rice has given the language of the ancestral world a voice and has presented these stories and history to the world through broadcasting and literature. Through this, Rice believes, and he says this with deep conviction in his voice, white people are finally opening their eyes.

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