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  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.

As journalism school graduation by-the-skin-of-my-teeth neared, I faced an important decision. I could continue to work for Kainai News in Calgary or I could go home to Prince Rupert and work at the Daily News. It was not an easy decision.

Coming home had always been in my plans. My family was there and I knew that my father, whose approval I still sought, would be so proud of me. My best friends were also there, playing in sports leagues such as floor hockey, flag football and slo-pitch, that I dearly missed – although I had enjoyed being a secret ringer playing in the University of Calgary (using the name of a student there) slo-pitch league and its floor hockey tournament.

I had enjoyed Calgary, though. It was an exciting, growing city, where I could watch professional hockey, football and baseball, and go to concerts. And my sister and her family were there, not to mention a handful of good friends I had made. And Kainai dangled a carrot: the current editor had plans to move on soon and I would be given the job if I stayed. I would certainly make more money there than I would at the Daily.

Journalism department head, Ron Macdonald, made the decision easier. He understood my desire to make more money and be fast-tracked to an editor position, but he also thought I could be a good journalist, in its truest form.

MacDonald said most journalism grads would jump at the chance of working on a daily newspaper, rather than the usual ritual of cutting their teeth on weeklies. It was more prestige, more exposure, more pressure (the good kind), and more exciting. In other words, what journalists live for. He also said what was well known about Aboriginal papers but usually not said aloud. He asked me if I really wanted to become an “agenda” writer. I hadn’t thought about it in that way.

I thought of Kainai News as a paper that was providing a different perspective, through an Aboriginal lens, that mainstream media didn’t offer. And that was correct. But, in having that agenda, it often went too far. It virtually ignored the other side of the story, making only half-hearted efforts to get their comments on an issue. And I did not want to be trapped in that.

And, so, I said yes to Daily News editor, Dina Von Hahn, when she called and asked me if I wanted a job at the paper in a few weeks when I graduated. I also lied to her when she asked if I had a driver’s license, and managed to get one just before I left Calgary (thanks to a good friend who taught me so well, so quickly, that I aced the test!).

I had met Dina during my practicum. Then, she was the senior news writer and Iain Lawrence was the editor. I remember dressing up as best as I could on the first day of my practicum, thinking a professional appearance was important. But, when I was brought to the editor’s desk in the newsroom, there sat a long-haired, disheveled man, in a ratty baseball cap, plaid wool shirt, and gumboots. His cap was pulled down so much that had to tilt his head back to see me.

Iain welcomed me and told me where my desk was, and asked if I had any questions. I did, of course, and they were always greeted with a mischievous grin, as if he was thinking, oh, boy, you’ve got the wrong idea but you’ll figure it out soon enough.

Lawrence was a great guy and, of course, went on to become a successful, popular author of young adult novels. His debut hit, The Wreckers, was one of the first books I got my oldest son.

And, thus, began a revolving door of editors as, before too long, Dina moved on to CBC radio and was succeeded by Shelly Brown, Dan Gilmore, then Scott Crowson, who stabilized the position. I would be there for almost 10 years.

It’s remarkable when we think of decisions like the one I made in the spring of 1988 and what a difference it makes. If I had remained in Calgary, maybe I would have stayed in Aboriginal journalism and helped shape it on a broader level. Or I might have made the jump to one of the bigger papers, the Sun or Herald – although I don’t think Calgary was there yet.

But home I came.

I was mainly a sports reporter at The Daily News but I also delved into community and hard news. I covered some of the biggest local and provincial stories of that time. Like many reporters then, I was an alcoholic and lucky to have kept my job. But keep it I did and, man, it was a wild ride.

NEXT: The Daily News and me. They tried to tame me but …

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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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All Native

The debut novel for Aboriginal author Rudy Kelly.



1640 - 7th Avenue East

Prince Rupert, BC



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