Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The unlikely professor: My journey from a reluctant student to a university faculty member

BY Steve Bonspiel Jan 17, 2020

I firmly believe that Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) has a unique opportunity to produce some of the most successful students in my Mohawk community – and they have filled up an impressive list already. But there’s still room for improvement.

I can say this because I attended KSS from 1988 to 1993 – first year high school right up to graduation.

I wasn’t the best student, but I had a lot of things to deal with. Fighting the first year-and-a-half for your very survival at high school, travelling three hours each day from Kanesatake to Kahnawake and back, and then throwing the Oka Crisis into the mix right in the middle of those years; well, let’s just say it was tough.

But I grew strong, and I learned to protect myself. I went to the longhouse and I excelled at learning Kanien’kéha.

When you’re not encouraged to do things, however, you become adept at making excuses. If I didn’t try, I wouldn’t fail.

Steve Bonspeil

And during all of this there was a feeling of a total lack of direction. I wasn’t encouraged at home to go past high school – and as a result I never did – even though I knew I had the smarts to do so. I excelled whenever wasn’t lazy and decided to apply myself.

I took journalism classes and I read. A lot. Books, newspapers, magazines – whatever I could get my hands on.

I read about things I wasn’t being taught – Greek and Roman history, inventive minds, war, and hockey. Oh, so much about hockey.

But I also digested what was given to us at KSS – learning about Father Isaac Jogues, the many moves of Kahnawake until the present-day location, and the makeup and construct of our beautiful language.

I absorbed as much as I could while trying to joke around and fit in. I attempted, quite successfully, eventually, to deflect eyes from me to others by poking fun. It’s a common trait amongst our people, many of whom never grow out of doing it in a sharp, hurtful way as adults.

But through it all there was this itching feeling about journalism. I liked to read, no, study hockey. So why not write about it?

I knew the numbers of every player on every team (no joke), and I would keep the sports page with me throughout the school day and memorize stats, rookies and records.

I would take out books at the KSS library on different topics, but it was hockey books I loved most of all. I would, I thought at a certain point, get into sports journalism one day.

When you’re not encouraged to do things, however, you become adept at making excuses. If I didn’t try, I wouldn’t fail. Sadly, it still happens to too many of our people.

As a result, I want to be one of those people who show just how much you can accomplish if you push yourself beyond the expectations of others.

So once I had the opportunity I applied at the Nation magazine to work for the Crees and I became a journalist. At first it was part-time, which suited me in the sense I wasn’t committing; instead waiting until I found something else. So, of course – no pressure. 

That was way back in 2003.

Something strange happened, though. 

Well, two things:

I started to live, eat, sleep and breathe Cree issues specifically and journalism as a whole. I loved it.

I also excelled and became assistant editor within nine months. 

I was hooked and there was nowhere to go but up.

Then, less than six years after I started, I found myself with a huge opportunity in 2008; to work for my own people, in the community I went to high school in, and buy The Eastern Door.

And, here we are, 11-and-a-half years later, and I’m still going.

All of this you may already know.

But in what is probably the world’s longest delayed lead, here comes the crux of why I put all of this on paper, aside from my enjoyment of waxing nostalgia.

I will be teaching Indigenous Journalism at Concordia University this winter, and if everything goes well, it will become a regular part of the curriculum.

Oh, and I wrote the course.

Imagine; some regular kid from one rez goes to high school in another rez where he eventually ends up teaching a post-sec, credited Indigenous journalism course to non-Native students, without nary a degree to my name.

Quite a story, eh?

Concordia actually hired me as the Journalist-in-Residence a couple of years ago and my class produced a multi-media project on Kanien’kéha and the importance to preserve and fight for it.

Then, I suggested and fought for a regular Indigenous Journalism course. It had been tried before, but never got off the ground.

“Write the curriculum,” the journalism chair and Concordia dean told me. “You have a year and we’ll see what you can do.”

Well, write it I did. With my own office at the Loyola campus, with no certainty this would ever become anything at all, let alone a course that’s part of the regular schedule, I wrote like the wind.

During this time, Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, hired me to teach this year.

So here I was, this Kanesatake kid who no one gave a sniff to, whom barely anyone believed in, teaching at one college and writing curriculum for one of the best journalism universities in the country.

Kind of crazy, isn’t it?

But the lesson in this is you can do it too, regardless of where you come from, of how much or how little you’ve been helped, who your parents are, or what you eat for breakfast.

Because none of it matters.

If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

January 2020 will mark 17 years as a journalist-cum-editor who is respected (and sometimes loathed) for my opinions, who gets people talking and effects change, who has been interviewed by almost every TV, radio station and newspaper around; and who still fights, every day, for our people, and when necessary, against our people.

You may not always agree with me, and that’s good. I don’t want to be surrounded with an atmosphere that doesn’t challenge me. After all, I’ve come this far with tons of diversity to overcome, and I am not going anywhere.

I will pull our communities, kicking and screaming, into a better life, a better world and a better future. If you can’t see that’s what my intentions are, or how hard I fight for us to be better, or how much I have sacrificed just to tell our stories; well, you’re just not paying attention. Or you don’t care.

My story is your story. I want you to be successful just as much as I am. It just took me some time to wrap it all into the kind of success I’m now having. 

It takes hard, honest work, long hours and a ton of BS thrown at you, but it is all worth it in the end.

If someone like me can become a lecturer at a university I would never have been accepted into, it means your hopes and dreams can come true, too.

Just try not to take the long route like I did. It may sound cliché, but stay in school and use the educational route to be even better.

Pay attention to politics of all stripes and read as much as you can. Listen to people, observe, and pay attention to things others ignore.

You will become a better person by doing what you have to, not by listening to the ones who say you will fail.

If I gave up every time someone said something bad about me, spread childish rumours or petty gossip, or threatened me, I wouldn’t be here right now.

Instead, I use it as fuel and it makes me stronger.

You can, too.

Steve Bonspiel was an award-winning writer and editor at the Nation from 2003 to 2008.

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Steve Bonspiel was an award-winning writer and editor at the Nation from 2003 to 2008.