After over 40 years as a journalist, host and manager with CBC North, Emma Saganash is calling it a career and retiring from the media business to focus on her family. Saganash has left an indelible mark on CBC North’s Cree programming unit based in Montreal, which offers radio and television in Cree and a web service in English – all geared towards the communities of Eeyou Istchee.
In an interview with the Nation, Saganash recounted the journey she took from Waswanipi to residential schools in Ontario and Quebec and ultimately to the town of Saint-Hubert on Montreal’s south shore, where she commuted to and from the CBC offices downtown.
“I’m Cree from Waswanipi, although I’ve never really lived there,” said Saganash. “My parents came from Waswanipi. I grew up in residential school, I went to school in Brantford, Ontario, and we couldn’t even go home for the summer. They moved us to Quebec when the provinces took over and we moved to La Tuque because it was closer to our home in Waswanipi. Then, when the residential schools closed, I went to school in Val-d’Or.”
Saganash’s family moved to Miquelon when residents of Waswanipi were warned of the flooding that was to take place near their community and not long after, following the passing of her father, her mother moved Saganash, her 11 siblings and a few stepchildren to an apartment in Chapais.
Then Saganash went to work with her sister in Ontario for a while, until she could find something else.
“That was the first time I heard of Cree radio,” she said. “I thought it was really neat. I told my Mom, ‘I want to do that one day.’ I wasn’t thinking of taking any courses anything like that, I thought I would keep taking courses in the medical field.”
Her plans changed when she had a baby and moved south to live with her partner.
“I got pregnant at a young age and that brought me to where my boyfriend lived, in Saint-Hubert,” she explained. “The wish that I had back [in Chapais] brought me to where I am today. I found out that the news items I was hearing in Cree were being made in Montreal.
“I got a phone call in 1977 from Diane Reid asking if I’d like to come work at CBC,” she continued. “I said, ‘I have no training in that field but it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.’ She said, ‘Well, we’ll give you training.’
“I was supposed to get two weeks training,” she laughed. “I only got about one week and then I was on the radio.”
Back then, working for CBC North only required one thing – speaking a Native language. Saganash was perfect for the job.
“At that time the only criteria you needed was to be Cree, to speak the language,” she said. “Over the years I had a lot of training from many professionals, and I did some formal training through CBC as well. I felt I was way behind compared to the others, but I never refused any of the training I was offered. I feel like I learned something from every single one of [my colleagues].”
As she progressed in her career as a journalist and radio host, Saganash was determined to continue her academic pursuits in the field.
“I went to summer school at Ryerson University in Toronto,” she said. “I felt I already knew more than some of the students who were there because I had so much training from CBC. At that point [after studying at Ryerson] I’d learned quite a bit.”
Throughout her time at CBC North, Saganash insists it was a love for her work that kept her going. She was so passionate about providing Cree content and delivering it to her people that it never got old or tiresome.
“I loved doing that work,” she said. “It kept me in touch with my people, with the language and the culture. I loved it. I was learning as much as I could about broadcasting and then eventually, I moved on to producing the shows.”
By that time, Saganash had hosted the popular Maamuitaau program for 10 years.
One thing that helped maintain Saganah’s passion was the chance to travel to the communities she served and to see firsthand the impact that CBC North had on the Cree Nation and other Indigenous communities around the James Bay.
Finally, Saganash became the manager of CBC North Quebec, the position she held until she retired November 2. Just a week before she decided to hang up her headphones and producer cap, she was honoured with the 2018 Buckley Petawabano Eeyou Istchee Achievement Award, which recognizes achievements in the media.
“I thank everyone who gave us their stories,” she declared. “I hope that we treated their stories well.”
Saganash remembers the challenges she faced as a manager. Keeping things running during the Harper-era budget cuts was among the biggest of those. But her memories at CBC are overwhelmingly positive.
The decision to retire was one that came naturally for the Cree journalist – simply listening to her inner voice and knowing that it was time to move on.
“I never expressed that when I was working as an announcer, producer, host, manager, I never felt that I didn’t want to go to work. When the time came, and I said I can’t do this anymore, that’s when I knew it was time for me to go.”
Saganash plans to spend plenty of time with her husband, her two daughters and their six children, who will be coming to visit at her cabin in Atikamekw. She also has siblings who live up north in different communities in the Cree Nation.
And of course, Saganash will continue to listen to Cree radio, as she always has.
Asked if there were any highlights that stood out from her 40-plus years working with CBC, Saganash mentioned finding the unmarked grave of her brother, who died while attending residential school, while on assignment in Moose Factory.
While in town, a woman called her and said she knew her younger brother, Johnny. “She took me to the graveyard and we looked for the grave of another woman who had been buried at the same time,” Saganash recounted. “The grave was unmarked, but she knew where he was buried because she had worked at the residential school at that time. He had passed away on December 6, 1954 and we were there exactly 40 years later, on December 6, 1994.”
The discovery helped lead to closure for her and her family, but especially for her mother.
“For her, the last image she had of our brother was when they came to pick up all of the kids in those bush planes and he wasn’t happy, he didn’t want to go. For her to finally know where he was, it was great closure for her.”