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.

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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“I want to write novels.”

Ron MacDonald’s surprise at my answer showed only slightly; a smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.

There was no assessment exam for the Mount Royal College journalism diploma program. Instead, writing samples were submitted along with a copy of your dogwood and a letter explaining your interest. There was also an in-person interview with the head of the department, Ron MacDonald.

MacDonald had asked me why I wanted to be a journalist. I’m not sure why I chose to be honest rather than wax on about the nobility of the profession; the search for truth, holding people in power accountable, keeping the little guy informed, etc. Maybe it was the immediate good vibe I got from him and a certainty I got, that any bullshit would just insult him.

Asked to elaborate, I explained to him that I had noticed that there were many famous novelists whom had been journalists and that it made perfect sense to me, seeing as how journalism taught one how to gather information, how to interview people, how to observe so that your stories would paint a full picture of events and people. MacDonald smiled as I spoke and I sensed there was a novel behind those eyes as well. He was everything a college prof and department head should be: intelligent, caring, honest and so fair that I didn’t want to disappoint him, to abuse his trust.

The coolest thing MacDonald did was NOT tell me that I was (potentially, then) going to be the first Indigenous graduate of the Mount Royal journalism program. Knowing that might have made me feel like a golden goose and take it for granted that they wanted me to do it for that purpose alone, and I would have walked even more of a tightrope than I already did. Instead, he waited until I was done and on my way to my first full-time gig. They were pretty much his last words to me, besides “good luck.”

Before starting the program, I took a few courses at the college, mostly to acquire the typing skills that I would need for the program. My dad had purchased a small, bright red typewriter for me that, while adorable and becoming obsolete, got plenty of use. I would not join the home computer club until the early 90s.

At first, my girlfriend and I stayed with my older sister and her family, who had been living in Calgary for several years. Eventually, we would move into our own apartment just down the street. We were in the Westbrook area of Southwest Calgary and the college was about 10 minutes away by bus.

The college was big, with over 3,000 students and it would get bigger due to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, which required accommodations and food services, some of which were provided by or built near Mount Royal. My favorite addition was the new Student Centre, which had a sports bar and a hall for small concerts and parties – I saw a young man named Jeff Healey perform there, opening for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils!

The core courses in the program were Reporting, Editing, Media Law, and Photography. Print journalism students often shared classes with students in electronic media and public relations (where all good journalists now go to die, albeit in a nicer apartment and car).

The electives I took were Literature, Psychology, and Sociology, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. In what was perhaps my all-time high as a student, I got a 100 per cent mark on an essay in the Literature course. The instructor kept me anonymous as she took up a whole class dissecting my essay, using it as an example to the class on how an essay should be written. It reminded me of Grade Eight, when my high marks surprised the Brainiacs from the other elementary schools but, this time, the reveal was made only after class and to a few students whom I had befriended.

True to form, I came out of the gate strong, making the Dean’s list in my first semester. My GPA fell just short of a repeat the following semester and, as I became more comfortable and made friends (in and out of school), the decline would continue into academic mediocrity in a second year that saw me, as I did in graduating high school, narrowly get through.

But get through the program I did and, along the way, met some wonderful people and had some unforgettable experiences that included working at an Aboriginal newspaper, pissing off the Premier of Alberta, experiencing the Winter Olympics and Calgary Stampede as a reporter and fan, flying in a drunk squadron, and escaping a beat down in a house full of white guys. Oh, Calgary.

NEXT: The Calgary saga continues with my foray into "Indian Journalism"

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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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