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Exeko: Uniting Kanesatake through Radio

How a Mohawk village's radio station, silent since Oka, roared back to life.

By Nicolas Renaud 26 Mar 2014 |

Nicolas Renaud is an award-winning Montreal filmmaker.

[Editor's note: This is part of a series of reports on successful youth-focused projects resulting from collaboration between Indigenous communities and philanthropic organizations. Leading Together is itself a collaboration of Journalists for Human Rights, Tyee Solutions Society, Wawatay Native Communications Society, and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation which commissioned this journalism. In the coming weeks look for more Leading Together stories from across Canada running Tuesdays and Wednesdays in The Tyee.]

Kanesatake is a Mohawk village about an hour's drive from Montreal, on the Quebec shore of the Ottawa River. In early summer 2013, Montreal-based non-profit organization Exeko approached the Kanesatake band council to propose their idAction program launch in a First Nation community for the first time.

A program that looks to stimulate self-realization and social change, idAction's core principle is to nurture projects that come from participants' own ideas and initiative.

No one at Exeko, nor amongst the group of youth who soon enrolled in the program, imagined they would spend the next few months working together on a challenging and thrilling project: reopening the local radio station, silent for years.

Founded in 2006 by Nadia Duguay and François-Xavier Michaux, Exeko grew from an idea to a staff of nearly 30 people. Its mission statement is "to foster, through innovation in education and culture, the empowerment and social inclusion of most marginalized populations." To date, this mandate has covered programs for people with disabilities, the homeless, prison detainees and Indigenous youth, both in the city and in Indigenous communities. The idAction program in particular is geared towards teenagers and young adults. It consists of workshops that promote free thought and engagement in social action within a collaborative and inclusive framework.

Exeko often seeks out partnerships with other organizations so its educational and cultural services can complement resources already in place. This helps them reach the group of people for whom a program is conceived in a structure where those people are already mobilized by the partner organization. These partnerships also involve the use of available locations and infrastructures for hosting Exeko's activities.

The Kanesatake project is a classic example. When Duguay and project coordinator Alexandra Pronovost first went to Kanesatake, they received a positive response from the council and were put in contact with Gabrielle Lamouche, manager of the local Pikwadin project ‑‑ a training and employment initiative from the First Nations Human Resource and Development Commission of Quebec. idAction was integrated into Pikwadin.

The young men and women aged 20 to 36 who took part in Pikwadin were given Friday afternoons off throughout July so they could attend the idAction workshops. Exeko's team featured mediators Daniel Blémur and Maxime Langlois-Goulet and coordinator Pronovost. They used the closed youth center as a meeting space.

Lamouche took the lead in coordinating the group, which eventually solidified around five people all determined to undertake a meaningful project for the community and for themselves. They are Mike Dubois, Shawna Étienne, Tahkwa Nelson, Andrew Gabriel and James Nelson.

The idea to revive the community radio came up early. This is where the idAction approach proved especially fertile. It does not try to commit people to a pre-defined project, but rather lets the project emerge in the process.

"What is fundamental here is that they came up with the idea to restart the radio station. We don't come with preconceived ideas about the problems and a set of solutions. We only asked a few questions and it all started from there", said Blémur.

Added Pronovost: "As we talked about what they would wish to change in their community, the main points were the lack of unity ‑‑ in several regards: the youth not having a voice, the missing connection with the Elders and not speaking their language enough."

"All these things can be addressed through the power of the radio," she continued. "Then, some in the group being musicians and DJs, the idea of music as a simple way to unite people came up."

When being 'naïve' is an advantage

Langlois-Goulet insists that alternative means of pedagogy are central to the success of the project. Instead of a "vertical transmission of knowledge", idAction starts from what people know and encourages communication on a peer-to-peer basis, in a more circular manner. He also points to their outsiders' view: "Being naïve actually helps us. We don't know about past failed attempts or local obstacles, nor do we know everything that is involved in setting up a radio station, but we're able to take distance and motivate people by saying: Yes, it is possible to do this."

The station's small blue building and antenna still stood by a field on a road, abandoned and in bad shape. Birds had made nests in walls, mice had moved in, light fixtures were hanging from the ceiling and layers of dust covered the soundboard. But the old recording and broadcasting equipment ‑‑ as well as stacks of tapes, CDs and vinyl records ‑‑ was still there. So first the group went in and cleaned up the studio.

Through the weekly meetings, they tackled every issue they had to face to finish the project and keep it going afterwards. They addressed technical needs, drafted programming and a schedule, familiarized themselves with CRTC regulations and created a Facebook page.

Funding was another big question. Exeko helped by inquiring into potential institutional sources while the participants planned local fundraising, like the sale of raffle tickets at a lacrosse tournament and bringing bingo back on the air. Popular in the past, bingo has proved an important source of funding since the station launched in September.

First they consulted with Elders who were very supportive of the project ‑‑ "Otherwise we wouldn't have gone ahead," says Shawna Étienne. They also recorded a vox pop across the village and found out that everyone would welcome the rebirth of the radio station. Comparing Kanesatake with other nearby Mohawk communities also served as motivation ‑‑ "Kahnawake has a radio station, Akwesasne has one... Why don't we have one?" said Nelson.

They focused in particular on the ethical framework in which this broadcasting tool in their community would have to operate. How would politics and religion be handled? How would they screen proposals for talk shows? These concerns intersect with sensitive issues in the community. Political divides, slander and family conflicts had all contributed to the shutdown of the radio station before. The hope that the station will foster unity is reflected in the very name they chose for the new CKHQ, United Voices Radio.

Nelson was upfront about the matter: "From the start, some of us here are part of families that don't like one another. Now we're talking to each other and working together," he said. "Maybe not all the rest of those families will follow, but it's at least a start for uniting everybody again." It will also mean giving a voice to the youth and to Elders. Dubois, who took on the responsibility of drafting programs to appeal to everyone, also intends to support emerging local talent by inviting bands, DJs and other musicians to perform in studio.

Echoes of Oka

Finally, they cannot help considering the place of their project in Kanesatake's recent history. Some of them were kids in 1990 and fully remember the Oka Crisis. Not only did those tragic events isolate the community from Quebec and Canada's mainstream media and politics, it also fuelled internal conflicts and left the community divided.

At the time, CKHQ radio played an important role. While the army moved in, it kept playing music, informed people about the situation and maintained an independent voice on the air. Nelson stayed at the station for days with his mother during the crisis, so it is a significant part of the personal meaning he now finds in this project.

As of September last year, technical repairs and upgrades were done, and the station is now on-air part-time, with music programming and radio bingo. Exeko's team went back on Sept. 20 to help put the finishing touches on the reopening of the station.

At the last meeting, everyone was in near disbelief about what they'd accomplished in a mere three months. The idAction program provided the initial spark for local youth to commit to such a project, but in return, one could say it helped Exeko by confirming the legitimacy and considerable potential of the program. Shawna cleverly pointed to that circular nature of their exchange: "So, did we help you help us?"  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous Affairs

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