The power of community news

The Eastern Door is having a very, very good year. First, it was nominated for a 2011 Michener Award; then it was honoured by the Canadian Association of Journalists. Brittany LeBorgne tells how one small, 2,000-circulation paper based in Kahnawake became a big player in the news world by doing great community journalism.

But first, let us tell you a little bit about the writer. Brittany LeBorgne is a 27-year-old Mohawk woman from Kahnawake. She attended the University of British Columbia from 2003 – 2005, majoring in art history, before deciding “it just wasn’t for me”.  From there, she worked all kinds of jobs — hairdresser’s assistant, waitress, bartender, convenience store clerk, make-up artist (she is certified) and actress (she is an ACTRA Apprentice) — before deciding to go back to school.  Brittany has just completed her second year of journalism at Concordia, and has one year left to go. She was The Eastern Door’s summer student two years in a row. “I wanted to work here because I wanted experience and it’s my community paper,” she says. “It’s a great environment.”

When The Eastern Door’s editor and publisher Steve Bonspiel got word his small community newspaper was up for the 2011 Michener Award, he thought his year couldn’t get any better. Then, one month later, in May, he won his first Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) award for the same story series. Not bad for a small, 2,000-circulation paper based in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake — especially when you consider the competition.

Bonspiel’s series on the attempted eviction of non-Natives from Kahnawake is up against several major dailies (The Calgary Herald, The Hamilton Spectator and The Vancouver Sun) and broadcast networks (CBC and Radio-Canada) for the Michener. “I never even knew it existed until last year. If we win – I can’t even imagine it,” says Bonspiel, “But it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t have the stories, you don’t have anything.”

Indeed, it was a major, breaking story on aboriginal issues that inspired The Eastern Door’s creation in 1992. Two years before, the Oka Crisis in the summer of 1990 was on the front page of newspapers across the country — but on few, if any, aboriginally-owned newspapers. “I felt it was something the community really needed [after that],” says Kenneth Deer, who started The Eastern Door out of his kitchen with one computer, a few friends and family members as writers, and grew it from there. “I didn’t know if it would work,” he adds, “I just knew we needed a real newspaper, one that wasn’t just a political rag.”

Certainly, it took a “real paper” to report the eviction story. When the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) sent out 35 eviction letters to non-aboriginals living in the community last February, it didn’t name names. “It was a tough story,” says Bonspiel. “There was no public list of who received a letter, so we had to track them down and most didn’t want to talk.” No wonder: many in the community have long held the belief that Kahnawake, like other aboriginal communities, are for aboriginals only.

Bonspiel and his wife, filmmaker Tracey Deer, decided it was only fair to give the letter recipients a voice, all of whom either have a family with a community member, or Kahnawa’kehró:non (People or person of Kahnawake), or are in a relationship with one. To find the names, Bonspiel had to do some old-fashioned digging, and a whole lot of research, to link people together.

It paid off. From February to August, Bonspiel wrote a series of 10 stories on the evictions. He convinced all but one of the interviewees to allow their names to be published. In the end, the MCK decided to cease action on the evictions until the community could be consulted through the Community-Decision Making Process, a tool designed to allow the people of Kahnawake to create their own laws. What’s more, the story went international. “Al Jazeera called me, USA Today, CBC, CTV, APTN, Maclean’s and reporters from France and Belgium,” says Bonspiel. “Not to brag, but that’s community journalism, that’s what we can do.”

All of this from a 35-year-old, originally from the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, who has only stood at the helm of The Eastern Door for three years.

Indeed, while Bonspiel wrote about sports for his high school’s newsletter as a teen, he never planned to become a full-time journalist. “I really liked it [in high school],” he says, “And I always said if I really wanted to do something as a career, it would be journalism, but I never thought I would land here.”

Instead, after high school, he went to work for his parents, who ran a medical taxi service in Kanesatake. It didn’t last. After a few years, Bonspiel wanted to break away. Next, he moved to New York City, where he took up ironworking, a trade that’s become somewhat of a tradition among Mohawk men. After a year, however, Bonspiel decided it just wasn’t for him. “The travelling was too hard,” he says, adding, “I was there for 9/11. I grew a lot and the experience did help form who I am.”

Bonspiel’s real break came in 2002, when Tracey started a youth magazine in the community and asked him to write a piece on that year’s NHL Playoffs. “She loved it and said it was great, but gave me a few pointers, and when I wrote my next piece, it was even better,” says Bonspiel. From there, his journalism experience continued at The Nation, an independent Cree publication. Within nine months, he went from writing grants for the magazine to being assistant editor, learning as he went along.

Throughout that time, Bonspiel continued to be an avid reader of The Eastern Door. In 2007, he noticed Kenneth was writing less and less for the paper. Bonspiel called him and asked whether he would consider selling. It took a year of paperwork and grant-applying, but by July 2008, The Eastern Door officially belonged to Bonspiel and Tracey.

Together, they moved The Eastern Door’s office to an old two-storey house the two had purchased a few years back, always with the paper in mind. Now, over a dozen employees come in and out of the purple front door, the paper’s signature colour.

And while it hasn’t been easy — especially since Bonspiel is from another community — it has been worth it. “There’s nothing else I would rather do,” he says, “I want to be bringing up the quality of the paper all the time, keep telling our stories.  We have a duty to keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Michener Award recipient will be announced June 14.

Brittany LeBorgne is a 27-year-old Mohawk woman from Kahnawake. Brittany has just completed her second year of journalism at Concordia, and has one year left. After a recent internship at CJAD Radio in Montreal, she hopes to do some television internships later this year.