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10 years in, Unreserved has become the ‘space for fearless Indigenous voices’: Rosanna Deerchild

Unreserved1:06:23Unreserved live: 10 year anniversary show

Ten years ago my life changed.

I was invited to host a regional radio show that highlighted some of CBC Radio’s Indigenous content. We aired interviews with or about Indigenous people, from other regions across the country, in a magazine-style format. 

Cree journalist Connie Walker joined us every week to tell us about some of the top Indigenous news stories. That was before she became a Peabody and Pulitzer Prize winner for her amazing podcast series Stolen

In those early days, I mostly introduced other CBC hosts, their shows and interviews, so I felt a bit like that guy in those old-timey movies whose only job is to announce the party guests at the door. Only, it was supposed to be my party, with my guests.  

Composite image with woman on the left with headphones around her neck standing in front of water scenery, and woman on the right with dark hair and glasses wearing green top.
Deerchild, left, seen here in 2017 on location in Skidegate, B.C., and Cree journalist Connie Walker. (CBC)

Nonetheless, they were important steps in claiming mainstream space for Indigenous stories and we definitely had our moccasin in the door. Indigenous people were already raising their voices on TV with APTN, rez radio was ever present, and podcasting and social media were starting to pop up in Indigi-pop-culture.  

But at the time, Indigenous folks didn’t have a national talk show on the public broadcaster. Sure, there were successes like Thomas King’s hilarious satire Dead Dog Cafe and award-winning series like ReVision Quest. But it had been nearly 30 years since Our Native Land, with the late Bernelda Wheeler — legendary Cree broadcaster, actor and writer — was on the national airwaves. 

I acknowledge and thank them for the paths they made so that my journey was possible.

Unreserved turned on the broadcasting light in 2014 and started sharing our stories. We premiered across the country, the following season. I even remember the exact date: Sunday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. on CBC Radio One. 

PHOTOS | Unreserved’s 10th anniversary show:

Since then, we have grown and learned and unlearned so much together. Unreserved has made space for both the hard stories and the joyful ones. 

We’ve had conversations with Indigenous celebrities, politicians and grassroot change-makers, storytellers, music-makers, beaders, artists and actors. All of them lead with their hearts with the next seven generations in mind.

Residential school survivors like Phyllis Webstad showed us grace and dignity with her story about her orange shirt and how it was taken away from her on the first day at school. Now, Phyllis shares her journey with young people in schools and in books as a way to heal and foster understanding. 

Composite image showing woman holding a book titled, 'Every child matters,' another woman wearing an orange shirt, and a man and woman walking in a country setting.
Deerchild, top left, has spoken with guests including Phyllis Webstad, top right, author of Every Child Matters, and Murray Sinclair, a former senator and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (CBC)

Leaders like Murray Sinclair, who co-chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission taught us the wisdom in reconciliation. But also that reconciliation must start within our families. That we must know who we are and where we are from to know where we are going. Plus, Murr, as I like to call him, has some pretty good Uncle jokes. 

We’ve talked about the ongoing national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the Indigenous-led movements to stop it.

WATCH | Murray Sinclair on Sept. 30 and reconciliation (2021):

Sept. 30 marks step toward reconciliation, says Murray Sinclair

3 years ago

Duration 1:28

For Murray Sinclair, Sept. 30 marks a day when we should all stand for reconciliation.

In Winnipeg, Bernadette Smith invited us onto the boat they use to Drag the Red every summer in search of signs of our missing women. Her sister Claudette Osborne-Tyo has been missing for 16 years.

Cambria Harris invited us into her home to tell us about her mother Morgan Harris, who fell victim to an admitted serial killer. 

A young woman stands beside an older woman with braids.
Cambria Harris, left, talks to Deerchild at Harris’s home about calls demanding the search of a Manitoba landfill for the remains of First Nations women. Her mother Morgan Harris is believed to be buried there. (CBC)

In Vancouver, Lorelei Williams founded Butterflies In Spirit, a group that dances to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her aunt, Belinda Williams, went missing in 1978, and her cousin, Tanya Holyk, was a victim of a convicted serial killer in 1996. 

These women showed us incredible strength in the face of doubt, delay and at times public anger. Yet they were relentless in their search for justice. 

But we’ve also laughed together. Comedians like Paul Rabliauskas and Sherry Mckay told us jokes. Contemporary storyteller Drew Hayden Taylor and prolific author Richard Van Camp showed us that Indigenous people are funny and love to laugh big Auntie laughs and Uncle guffaws.

Together, we witnessed the “coming in” of our two-spirit kin with Alex Wilson, Elder Albert McLeod and author and academic Chantal Fiola. As opposed to being outed or coming out as 2SLGBTQ these leaders have coined the term coming in the circle to reflect a welcoming environment. Our drag queens and kings entertained us in love and acceptance. They taught us that being two-spirit means more than sexual orientation or gender identity. They hold a sacred role in many Indigenous nations and they are returning and reclaiming that place in the circle.

We learned how to put up a tipi with the help of Elder Barbara Nepinak, and visited communities from Haida Gwaii, where I saw my first bald eagle up close, to Halifax, where I went on a tour with Mi’kmaw poet Rebecca Thomas, and to Iqaluit, where I first ate maktaaq at former CBC Igalaaq host Madeleine Allakariallak’s house. Every community has welcomed us with open arms.  

A woman with bright hair performs on stage.
Comedian Sherry Mckay performs at Unreserved’s 10th anniversary show at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg on May 22. (Justin Deeley/CBC)

I’ve received countless letters from non-Indigenous listeners over the years — some emailed, others carefully handwritten — who tell us how they have been changed by our show. You listen and learn with us in your cars and at your kitchen tables; tell us what actions you have taken or make guest suggestions or ask what the heck I am saying at the top of the show. By the way, tansi, aaniin and boozhoo are all greetings in Cree, Anishinaabemowin and Michif languages. 

It proves that 10 years later, our little radio show has become an important part of our national conversation. Unreserved has become the radio space for fearless Indigenous voices; our aunties, our cousins, our parents and grandparents, our heroes.

WATCH | The Unreserved team builds a tipi (2016):

Team Unreserved builds a tipi

8 years ago

Duration 1:50

Team Unreserved builds a tipi

We are still here because our ancestors resisted, survived and thrived. Our youth are returning to the lodges and leading everyone into the circle. We are reclaiming land, language, art, dance, music and ceremony all over Turtle Island.

We have done our best to hold that space open for those who give so much. 

In my Cree culture, the role of storyteller is an important one. It means we must learn and tell the stories for our next generations, so they too know who they are and where they come from and can walk with confidence into the future. 

I hope to keep doing that for many years to come.

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