Rudy Kelly                          Aboriginal writer         

About writing and stories of Aboriginal people on the North Coast of British Columbia

Welcome to Rudy Kelly, Aboriginal Writer, my home for my blog and my projects, including my first novel, ALL NATIVE. To start, I will present excerpts of my novel and write about the process of writing it and, of writing, in general. I'm quite opinionated, so, occasionally, there will be an opinion piece! I hope you enjoy it.

It was a cold, clear, February day in Calgary as we waited for the final torch runner to enter the plaza outside the stadium.

The plaza was packed with people standing behind a long line of barricades that created a running lane. There were also dozens of protesters there to show their support for the Lubicon band’s fight against oil exploration in their territory in the northern area of the province. Some of them wore Brian Mulroney masks, with exaggerated chins.

Even though the sun was out, it was bitterly cold. Across from me, on the other side of the path the last public member of the run would go through, were two young girls, bundled up to the max. One of them had tears frozen to her cheeks.

It was to cheers of joy and great relief that the final running torchbearer, Calgary’s own Deborah Hilderman, came into view and jogged through the cheering crowd. Further on down, she would hand the torch off to Olympic legends Ken Read and Cathy Priesner, who would usher it into the stadium and pass it to the flame lighter, 12-year-old figure skater, Robyn Perry.

The weather was odd during the two weeks of the Games, as the phenomenon known as a chinook wind occasionally warmed things up to a point where people removed layers only to have to put them on again a short time later. It also rained, forcing the use of artificial snow at times for the first time in Olympic history.

I was doing double duty, working for Kainai News and the Calgary Herald, as part of an agreement between the school journalism program and media. This arrangement and my Kainai pass allowed me considerable access to events, including hockey, bobsled, luge, and ski jumping. Watching luge for the first time is one of my most vivid memories.

We were bussed to Olympic Park at 7 am and were able to pick from various points to view it. I chose the first Kriesel turn, which is the section of the track where the riders go up along a curved wall above the track. I’m not sure what the temperature was but it was as cold as I have ever been. We all clenched our hot chocolates and coffees and smiled that why-are-we-doing-this smile at each other and made small talk as we waited for the first rider to come down.

Then it happened.

We heard a loud buzzer, and I assumed that was the “ready” signal. We looked at each other, nodding, okay, guess it’s happening. Then there was a rumbling, like a small avalanche was occurring, and it was getting closer. We looked at each other, confused, and then – zing! – the rider flew by in a flash!

There was a collective gasp and a momentary silence, before we all burst out laughing, that delirious kind of laugh people do when they’ve had a close call, although there was no real sense of danger. It was just, well, crazy. We had no chance to watch it, it happened so fast.

A short time later, the buzzer sounded again and we all steeled ourselves, staring at the wall of ice, like living cameras except that we would not blink like a camera shutter. Our eyes would stay wide open and glued to that wall of ice. And then – zing! – he flew by and, yes, this time, we caught a glimpse of a body and a face hurtling by and – just like that – gone. More laughter. Wow.

I pulled out my little point-n-shoot camera and sighed. How was I going to get a good shot of this? I came up with a plan, the only one, really. I would watch a few more and, once I heard the rumbling, I would count the seconds until the rider hit the high point of the turn – and I would click the shot a second earlier. Keep in mind that this was when film was used so there was no way for me to know if I got a good one or not until I got it developed.

So, away I shot, as rider after rider whizzed by, hoping that at least one of the shots would be half-decent, all the while believing that half would be just shots of the wall and the rest might be blurs. I glanced sheepishly at the pro beside me, with his military grade camera, and he smiled, “you never know. I bet you get something you can use.” I nodded. Turned out, he was right.

My favorite event on the hill was ski-jumping. It seemed impossible how high up they were and how far they flew and yet were able to land without injury. If you’re ever in Calgary and have never checked out the ski jump, go to the top and look down. No way, you’ll think.

At the ski jump final, there were two large stands on either side of the jumpers’ landing area, filled to capacity. It was a raucous crowd that, prior to the competition’s start, engaged in a competition of who could yell the loudest “tastes great!” or “less filling!” that was popular in Bud light commercials. I was in the left stand, which started with “tastes great!” Honestly, I don’t know who was louder but it kept us amused and made us forget how cold it was.

The event itself was dominated by legendary Finnish jumper, Matti Nykanen, who won three gold medals in Calgary and five world championships in his career. The way he was able to soar, to glide for so long, was mesmerizing – even though he took a back seat in popularity to Englishman, Eddie the Eagle, with his Coke bottle glasses and everyman charm. Eddie plopped off the end of the jump more than he soared, but he still got a big cheer!

At the end of one night at Olympic Park, I went to the party tent, where beer and hot dogs were aplenty. And this is where one of the greatest competitions would take place: the (unofficial) world beer can stacking championship!

It was a large tent and there were at least eight countries involved and, at the end, it came down to two: Canada vs Germany. I had contributed early, on the lower levels but, being quite drunk, I left the upper levels to the more sober, more capable stacking athletes.

It was a classic matchup between a Winter Olympics power and the host and up-and-comer. A huge cheer went up every time a can was successfully placed, as well as oohs and gasps as it got more difficult. But then, a German stacker, who had probably had a few too many, fumbled to place his can evenly and knocked the can below askew, setting off the chain reaction, and a huge Canadian cheer as the pile tumbled down! Hugs and many more beers followed the win, and we sang O’Canada repeatedly, including later on the buses back to the city.

As I rode back to the city and the stop nearest to where I lived, I couldn’t help but think how our victory that night in that tent might have paved the way for future Olympians and their dreams to one day be, like that last beer can, at the top of the world!

Yeah. Yeah.

NEXT: Scraping by in the program and getting a job back home!

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The mid-80s were volatile times for Indigenous people in Alberta, so there was never a dull moment at Kainai News, which I continued to write for as a freelancer while I went to school. Not only was it a good learning experience that provided me with extra cash, it also opened free passage to exciting events and access to great stories.

Land claims were a major issue across the province (and the country), particularly in places where oil exploration was planned. Encroachment on traditional territories was having an adverse effect on local economies and suicide, particular in youth, was alarmingly prevalent.

The Hobbema reserve, in Northern Alberta, had the highest youth suicide rate on the continent at the time as, in between 1985-87, the suicide rate along young men was over 80 times the national average and there was a violent death almost every week. I recall a striking photo in one of the major Calgary dailies, of nooses on a tree in Hobbema; one of those soul-shattering shots that hit you right in the gut.

Interviewing people about dead or missing children is the hardest thing I ever had to do as a reporter. The only thing that comes close is speaking to people about the abuses they endured in residential school.

But there was another big story, an ongoing story that wouldn’t go away, much to the chagrin of the Getty provincial government. The Lubicon Lake band was the centre of a David vs Goliath battle, trying to stop oil exploration that they claimed was threatening their traditional lifestyle and economy (a claim supported by a drastic drop in sustenance hunting numbers). It was a huge international story, attracting music and movie stars, including Buffy St. Marie.

Buffy’s sold-out Lubicon benefit concert was raucous, buoyed by a just cause and the electric presence of an indigenous legend. I got some good photos as I roamed the front of the stage as the then 47-year-old star delivered a magnificent performance. After the show, I met her backstage for an interview, in which she pledged her support for the Lubicon.

I then hustled out to the lobby, where Lubicon band Chief, Bernard Ominiyak, was speaking to the press. It was a striking scene: a modest looking man, with a red plaid shirt and wearing a Lubicon Band baseball cap over his long, braided hair, surrounded by dozens of reporters from across the globe. He was a rock star, with huge international support that forced the Alberta government to, ultimately, make a deal.

Unfortunately, the Lubicon deal with the province was tenuous and once the Olympics passed and negotiations dragged on, the Lubicon lost much of their audience and support. Remarkably, the battle continues to this day and, even more remarkably, Ominiyak is still the leader – sort of. He leads one of two factions that say they are the proper leaders of the Lubicon. The feds recognize the other group, which Ominiyak says is more amenable to the government’s wishes. Complicating things further are accusations that Ominiyak and his family secretly pocketed millions from the band, a charge he claims was started by the federal government.

Another event that my Kainai News press badge got me into was the Calgary Stampede. It was my first rodeo, literally and figuratively as I had never rubbed elbows with so many professional photographers than I did in “the pit,” a dugout that put us at ground level (guarded by railings) in the arena. It was cool but, then, disheartening as when I got down amongst the professional photographers, I noticed the big difference in our hardware.

Every photographer had a big bag and two or three cameras slung around their necks with large lenses. I reached into my jacket pocket and rubbed by point-and-shoot for a few seconds before deciding to leave it there because, well, I didn’t belong. Feeling small, I walked back up the little hill and out of the pit.

I spent the rest of my time at the Stampede finding other spots, different vantage points, to take photos from. One of the most interesting spots was the stalls that they release the bulls and horses from … and the bison. That’s right, the bison.

There was a special rodeo event at the Stampede just for Aboriginal youth. It was a bucking event but, instead of horses or bulls, it involved bison – or Buffalos as they are commonly called. Was I the only one who thought this was incredibly bizarre??

As one of the Aboriginal youths, wearing just buckskin shorts and regalia attempted to mount the Bison, it became agitated, swinging its massive head from side to side, pounding the walls of the pen, denting them. The youth hesitated, waiting for the bison to be calmed down by the handlers. He looked scared, but there was a small amount of prize money and a trophy to be won. I also got the feeling that he some of the others were put up to it rather than being enthusiastic entrants.

After I took a few pics, I scanned the arena and noticed that there were other kids mounting bison in other stalls. As the announcer was nearly at the crescendo of his pitch, I realized that the kids would not be going out on their bucking bisons one at a time, as it’s usually done with horses and bulls but, rather, they would be released at the same time.

Bam! All pen doors flew open, and six bison, with Aboriginal youth on their backs, came bursting into the arena. I couldn’t believe it. The kids looked terrified as they held on for dear life, their hands grasping the hair on the bison’s shoulders. They had no safety equipment.

A couple of kids were barely out of the pen before they were tossed. It didn’t take long for the others to be thrown off either as they were sent flying in the air and a couple landed hard; one, in particular, dragged himself off, a hand on his back. He was hurt but, thankfully, well enough to get out of the way.

At the end, the kids got trophies and a small cash prize and returned to the Indian village to show their wares. The village, now known as the Elbow River Camp, showcases Aboriginal culture, with several teepees erected, singing and dancing, and traditional foods being served. I loved the Bannock!

The foods were great at the Stampede and the event was simultaneously entertaining and disturbing. But it was all just an appetizer. The main course was coming in February, 1988, when one of the world’s greatest sporting events would roll into town.

NEXT: A party of Olympic proportions!

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My first year of college went well. The fish out of water fit into the Journalism program just fine despite not being as well equipped as many of the others. It was great to be immediately thrust into reporting by having to contribute to the weekly college paper, The Journal 3009 (named after the room our main classes were held).

My stories were well-received as, besides a strong vocabulary and writing skills, I already had a good idea of what made a good news story – things like attribution, multiple sources, and short, snappy lead paragraphs (the” lede”) just made sense even before I was told. The reporting end of things was not going to be a problem. Editing and layout, on the other hand …

Editing and Layout class was where the herd would be thinned. “Wait. Math? We’re going to do math?! I thought journalism was about writing!” was the common refrain. It didn’t help that the instructor was a hard ass, the bad cop to the likeable reporting instructor.

Oh, there was so much more to journalism than writing, it turned out. Editing and Layout was a headache, involving making stories and photos fit on a page in a way that was both attractive and readable. It was kind of like Tetris and involved word counts and column inches and reducing or enlarging photos, and dog ears, cutlines – and don’t forget the ¼ page ad!

Photography was also challenging, what with the F-stop and aperture settings but I have a good eye for framing and managed to consistently take good shots, even with the dinky point-and-shoot camera my brother had given me as a Grad gift. We lost about a quarter of the students in that first term, the just-wanted-to-be-writers, which was sad as I had befriended a few of them.

After that first year, I pondered going back home to work in the cannery for the summer but an opportunity came up at a southern Alberta indigenous weekly called Kainai News and I jumped at it. The office was located was in a tall building not far from downtown and it had just two other employees. Rudy Mann was the head reporter and the ads/sales guy was Scotty Many Guns. The editor was Mary Weasel Fat (gotta love those local indigenous names!), who put together the paper at head office on the Blood reserve, about two hours south of Calgary.

Scotty Many Guns is one of the most amazing people I’ve met because of his ability to thrive in two worlds, the white and the indigenous. He was a very good ads salesman; a sharp dresser and seemed to always be able to talk customers into buying just a little more than they originally asked for. On some weekends, though, he discarded the suit and tie in favor of Indigenous attire. He was a fancy dancer.

A fancy dancer wears face paint, colorful regalia, including feather bustles and beaded bodices, knee high moccasins and the good ones compete at large, annual Powwows. Scotty was one of the best in the province and often returned to the office on Monday with a victorious smile.

Rudy Mann was a slick-talking editor who seemed to have been around the block a few times, although he appeared to ju be in his late 30s. He was as dark-skinned as me, wore gold-rimmed glasses, had a receding hairline, smoked non-stop, and seemed to always be grinning as he spoke. When he informed me that I had the job, he smiled and said the first lesson is “You’re going to have to forget a lot of what they’re teaching you in journalism class.”

I was stunned by that statement and, seeing it in my face, he chuckled, “Oh, don’t worry. We don’t lie. We just tell the story from our side mostly.” I nodded, although I wasn’t sure what he meant.

It turned out that Rudy Mann was really Rudy Hageneder, an Austrian who didn’t go out of his way to tell people he wasn’t Indigenous. He was a fun guy and a great mentor who taught me a lot about the reality of reporting, especially agenda writing, which Kainai News definitely was.

Agenda writing is just as it sounds: it is journalism that has taken a position and, while not always peddling in blatant falsehoods, will mostly tell one side of a story and give, at best, lip service to the other side. The most prominent example today is Sun media and, in my neck of the woods, Black Press, which lean largely to the right in the political spectrum.

I was instructed to call the other side, usually government, for comment but not be dogged about it. Let the phone ring three times, shrug, and say you tried. So, our hard news (timely, usually political and having a significant impact) was told almost exclusively from the Indigenous perspective, while the government/business side was copied or paraphrased from their press release.

When I told the journalism head, MacDonald, about Kainai’s practices, he nodded and smirked, and said such reporting was becoming more prevalent in the industry but he was hopeful that objective journalism would always be the rule rather than the exception. I wish I could get his feelings about that now.

And so, I sucked it up and became an agenda writer – and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. After all, back then the government side, the white perspective, was given far more air time and newspaper space, especially in ultra-Conservative Alberta. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing to have outlets that told our side of the story, even though the readership was mostly our own, the converted. And, hey, sometimes, you got a chance to piss off some powerful people, like then-Premier Don Getty!

I wrote a story on the Meech Lake Accord talks, which took place in the summer of 1987, and Don Getty’s comments about rejecting the Accord if native rights were to be entrenched in it (which were confirmed in other mainstream publications). The spin I put on it was in line with comments from several Alberta indigenous leaders that I interviewed. Then, a couple of weeks after the story was published, a letter arrived from the Premier’s office, from Getty himself and addressed to me, in which he takes issue with the story and accuses me of “indulging in mischief.”

I was intimidated by the letter. Becoming the target of the Premier of the province didn’t strike me as a good thing. But, then, Rudy Mann said “An angry letter from the Premier, to a student reporter! We’ve got to celebrate this, Mr. Mischief Maker!” and he put on his jacket and led the way to the nearest bar.

From that day on, Mischief Maker was my nickname in the office. As it turns out, Mr. Getty may have been onto something, as there were a few times during my tenure with the Prince Rupert Daily News when the tag fit.

NEXT: Stumbling towards ecstasy

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All Native

The debut novel for Aboriginal author Rudy Kelly.



1640 - 7th Avenue East

Prince Rupert, BC



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