Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An evening with Elizabeth Hay

The NorthWords Writers Festival and CBC Mackenzie hosted an interesting trip down memory lane last night, in honour of visiting author Elizabeth Hay. Just in case you’ve been living off the grid for the last few months, Ms. Hay won the 2007 Giller Prize for her novel Late Nights on Air, which follows a group of people working for CBC Radio in Yellowknife in the 1970s.

Late Nights includes reference to a couple of iconic northern stories: the Berger Inquiry of the 1970s, and the death of English explorer John Hornby on the Thelon in 1927. In keeping with these themes, the evening opened with Yellowknife author Patrick Scott reading from his recently released book, Stories Told: Stories and Images of the Berger Inquiry. Bruce Valpy, a local journalist and playwright, read from his celebrated play Hornby. I’ve heard a lot about Hornby, which was staged in Yellowknife before I arrived in 1986, so it was good to hear some of the script.

After Ms. Hay read from Late Nights, we heard clips from Focus North, the radio show she hosted while living in Yellowknife. CBC’s current morning show host Randy Henderson then led a panel discussion about what it was like to work at CBC Radio in Yellowknife back in the ’70s. Panelists included technician Bob Carr; Patrick Scott, who worked as a camera operator during the Berger inquiry; the ever-hilarious George Tucarro; and Elizabeth Hay. One of the important themes of the evening was the role of CBC in building a sense of community throughout the NWT. And that’s true – I know from my work as a government communications officer that if you want to get information out to the communities, you need to find a way to get it aired on CBC Radio because everyone listens to CBC.

My own history is wound up with CBC in Yellowknife. Pépé moved north to work for CBC as a camera operator. A lot of our friends are CBC folk. And I’ve spent many hours running around trying to find information for CBC reporters during my career. It’s not hard for me to imagine the world of Late Nights on Radio.

The evening’s discussion did, indeed, make me nostalgic for Yellowknife of the olden days, when the town was still very small and friendly. When I moved here in the mid-80s, there were only 11,000 people and one set of traffic lights downtown. Crossing the main drag was no problem for pedestrians, because motorists would screech to a halt if someone on the sidewalk vaguely looked like they were thinking about crossing at some point (maybe, possibly, perhaps) in the next ten minutes or so.

Having said that, the discussion reminded me that many things remain the same in Yellowknife. People are still friendly (even if the motorists are considerably ruder). People – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – still live close to the land. CBC Radio continues to build a sense of community. And the place retains its anything-is-possible vibe. Maybe you can no longer walk into CBC and get a radio job without any training. (As apparently you could in the ’70s. I couldn’t get a job there in the ’80s and I had training.) But Yellowknifers are busy pursuing their dreams without a lot of hang-ups. The place is crawling with artists – writers, musicians, visual artists, dancers – who routinely put themselves out there. And the community is unfailingly supportive. A holdover from the days before satellite TV when we had to invent our own amusement? Perhaps, but I think it’s just the nature of our little town.

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