I could fill a whole newspaper with the teachings I received from Joyce Atcheson.
But the one I feel compelled to share on Joyce’s passing, seems even more relevant today than it was a decade ago when we worked together at Wawatay.
It was late, as it often was in the newspaper office and we were pushing the deadline to get an important story out: an employee from a big company that operated in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory had made racist comments towards a family from Kitchenuhmaykoosib.
It’s never easy for someone to talk about being the target of something so demeaning and it was almost unheard of back then for racism to become news.
But Joyce had tracked down the people the comment was directed at and earned their trust.
As the editor, it was my job to decide whether to print the story. As the reporter it was Joyce’s name and her reputation, that would stand beside it.
It felt like we were staring over the edge of a cliff...both exhilarating and terrifying.
We were about to take a run at a company that seemed to ‘own’ NAN, (at least on the west side).
Think of every journalistic cliche you want: we were slaying a giant; we were exposing the nakedness of the proverbial emperor; we were uncovering the TRUTH.
The opportunities to do such things in the media are not as common as you might think. It takes guts and there is often little glory in it.
You rip off a bandage, and people start blaming you for making them stare at an exposed wound.
Still, Joyce and I were giddy with the thought of doing justice to the experience of the people who had been hurt by the remarks.
That’s when the phone rang.
The head of the corporation was returning Joyce’s call...finally. He yelled at her and threatened her and told her not to run the story.
He reminded her of his clout, of what a good ‘corporate citizen’ he was, of all the charities he supported, of all the fine things he did for the people of the North.
“Just because you take someone out for dinner, it doesn’t give you the right to slap them in the face,” Joyce said.
He hung up on her, angrier than ever.
And Joyce laughed.
She laughed and laughed, that great resounding chuckle of hers that could erase all the tension in a room in an instant.
She stood up from her desk and mimed the act of stirring an enormous vat of soup with a giant spoon. She so loved to ‘stir the pot.’ And then she laughed some more.
We ran the story.
And in the most rare of journalistic experiences, it resulted in change.
Joyce’s story prompted other people to speak out about their experiences of racism with the company. We ran their stories too.
There was more anger from the owner, and a few uneasy weeks wondering if the paper would survive it all. The company was a major advertiser and had ties to powerful people within NAN.
But eventually there was an apology from the company and an acknowledgement that First Nations people deserved more than charity given with one hand, while the other slapped them in the face.
Of all the things I learned from Joyce, this is what sticks with me the most:
To never be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, even if it means you have to go hungry for a while.
I will miss my great friend, her wisdom, her courage, her incredible generosity of spirit; the way she greeted every single person she met with a smile.
An Elder tells me these things are not lost to me, I need only access them in a different way.
If we share Joyce’s stories with each other, and have a good laugh the next time we meet, I’ll know that’s true.
Well, our short summer up here in Northern Ontario is beginning to fade. Summer is so precious to all of us in the north and this year we started very late...