Rita Shelton Deverell

I am an immigrant to Canada. What follows is a chronological account of my relationship as a settler to the Indigenous population. It is hoped that by leaving nothing out we can live together in the contemporary aspects of an ancient meeting of cultures.


There are shadowy brown people creeping around the edge of what feels like a USA Wild West town square. In my mind’s eye, it resembles 1940s Texas, where I grew up.

But focus. Get a grip, woman. This is not Texas. This is Canada, my new country, the 1970s. This is Thunder Bay, Ontario. I am still black; however, these brown people are not Afro-Canadians.

Regina is my final destination this first trip west from Toronto, and there I come to understand that these mysterious brown people are Aboriginal. The déjà vu feeling is correct though. Aboriginal persons are literally and figuratively on the margins. They are excluded from the center of society’s hustle and bustle.

In those days I was an actress and thrilled beyond words to have been hired by Regina’s professional theatre, The Globe. It was not easy for black and other visible minority actors working in mainstream theatre back then, and not much easier now. But that’s another story for another article.

1971: only three years have passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and memories of the civil rights era are still fresh. Many Regina citizens still have vivid memories of news footage featuring police dogs, fire hoses, and angry mobs shaking their fists at little black girls. When Saskatchewanites mentally connect me with this racial trauma they’ve witnessed on television, they begin to chant with passion and compassion, “We are not racist” (in Canada). Quickly I discover that these same not racist people believe that Indians are all on welfare, are lazy and shiftless, are not proactive about their children’s education, have messy family lives, and are drunks. I tell at least three individuals per day that these attitudes directed at an identifiable group constitute racism. They have become convinced that only if their negative feelings are directed at black people, of whom there are almost none in Regina, are they being racist. “Racism” and “Aboriginal people” are not yet terms that can be logically linked together for most folk. So I tell at least three people a day that I, a middle-class, well-educated, employed in professional theatre of all places black person, identify with the Aboriginal targets of racism. Never mind that I know next to nothing about the lives, issues, history, and concerns of these Plains peoples. It is a skin-deep, knee-jerk identification thing that has followed me for forty years.

Now to the actual work I am in Regina for: to perform for the Globe Theatre School Tour in over one hundred Saskatchewan communities from Thanksgiving to Labour Day. My inclusion makes the Globe cast multiracial. Our company carries three plays, one for kindergarten to grade three, another for grades four to six, and a high school anthology called Shakespeare’s Women. When we get to our first small-town school that is near a First Nation community we all spot several rows of dark big guys and gals with baseball hats at the back of the gym. Who are they? Teachers tell us “the Natives may have to catch the bus early. Pay no attention when they walk out.” Or, if “the Natives don’t listen to your show, don’t worry, the others will.” This isn’t quite good enough for actors as an explanation of how our art is being received. All high school audiences are tough. Go to a Stratford Festival “school matinee” if you don’t believe me! And, as with any successful performance, when our shows work well it is because the audience finds something with which they can identify at a very deep level. Theatre people are artistically and ethically responsible for that kind of true communication, and when it is working, the audience will meet you halfway and you can commune.

Sometimes the communication was true and real. The big guys who were bused in from First Nations had tears in their eyes at Shakespeare’s tales of betrayal, abandonment, jealousy, love, romance, hate, corrupt government, and witchcraft. Sometimes we blew it. There would be a near-riot of gum popping, snoring, catcalls, and spitballs. Five actors from Toronto learned a lot about what happened when you did not connect with an audience, across your differences, about what was most important to them. But we would sometimes get it right with those audiences. And there is no high like it.


Broadcasting is now another of my occupations, obtained after another three-year stint in Toronto. I become an official messenger, a reporter, a presenter. I have the opportunity to do feature stories for 24 Hours, the CBC TV supper-hour news show in Regina. True, this is the hind-end of the CBC system. We are so under-resourced that our Regina studio is in Moose Jaw, and most days I can get a crew. But I have been hired as a messenger. How am I going to use that power? In an early meeting with the news director I say: “Aboriginal people are 30 per cent of the population. You’d never know that from looking at our show. So I’d like to do stories with them, about their issues.” The news director’s response is pretty close to: “I’m not going to stop you, but I’m not going to help you. Those people are impossible. They are always late, or don’t show up at all, pay them on Friday, they don’t show on Monday, et cetera, et cetera. Good luck to you.” The Aboriginal stories get on the air though. And I do learn a few basic lessons in “diversity journalism,” which continue to come in handy and, I hope, deepen over the years.

Some of those lessons are:

  • Women are excellent story contacts, experts, and spokespersons in Aboriginal communities, and most other communities as well.

  • It takes time and patience to develop relationships, but these pay off for the media person. My crew and I went on night patrol with a Native women’s organization, got an exclusive with the spokesman for the Warrior Society, got inside the economics of inner-city housing, and more.

  • Being the messenger has its dangers. I was questioned by the police twice simply because of being seen with the interviewees in my stories. To this day I cannot say whether the police wanted information from me, which I was not going to give beyond what was on television and therefore readily available or whether I was being warned off the Aboriginal subject matter, contacts, issues, the messages.

  • Finally, there is the dawning understanding of how I have come to be middle-class, well-educated, and working at my chosen professions in spite of having grown up black in the violently segregated and racist US South. Privileges and opportunity were mine for a number of reasons: my parents had been able to own land and houses from the beginning of their long marriage in 1940, as had their parents and grandparents. While by no means rich, they had steady employment, savings, insurance, were able to obtain mortgages, thought education was the most important thing in the world, and were able and willing to pay my tuition fees through graduate school. I, as an only girl child, had two ambitious, intelligent, politically astute parents deeply devoted to my development and their own advancement in the world. Canada was happy to welcome an immigrant in 1967 who brought all those assets into the country. I came to understand over time that these were all advantages that most, though not all, Aboriginal people who had been here since time immemorial, simply did not have.

With hindsight I also know that I did not know much then. There are Aboriginal realities that other Canadians, recent or long-term immigrants, have to work hard to discover. For example, during the Saskatchewan years I drove by the former residential school at Lebret many times. I did not know what it was, found out nothing about residential schools, nor were the schools mentioned in my stories. My contacts were not yet ready to reveal their experiences, and I didn’t even know what questions to ask.


Being a professor of Journalism, and then acting Director of the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Regina, places me in an official capacity to train messengers. This is both rewarding and frustrating in terms of First Nations issues specifically.

At that time there was very little information, investigation, or even curiosity from the “white” students I was teaching. During my five-year tenure there was a grand total of two visible minority students: one was a Spanish speaker, a recent immigrant from South America; the other was a Muslim with a Pakistani background who had been in Saskatchewan since elementary school. Coexisting with the School of Journalism and Communications was the Indian Communications Arts (INCA) Program of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, later to become First Nations University. We could not establish a working relationship regardless of how potentially fruitful and necessary it appeared. The settler journalists certainly needed to learn from INCA students and faculty, and they in turn could have made use of our resources, human and material. So I am very pleased to look at the U of R and FNU websites in 2010 and see that there is a relationship, and that the settler journalism school knows that it is in Treaty 4 Territory. For me, twenty-five years ago though, this was a crisis in training messengers.


Lurching to another more visible and famous crisis, a telephone call came out of the blue during Oka. Dorothy Christian, an Okanagan–Shuswap woman I had never met, phones me at Vision TV and asks if I would do the peaceful side of the Oka story.

Dorothy and a number of other women were planning to make a peace march to Oka and do peace ceremonies behind the barricades. Dorothy said she could not interest any mainstream media in this story and thought that perhaps the current affairs unit of Vision TV would be interested. Well we certainly were, all three of us, who produced a one-hour, weekly current affairs magazine show for a network that had little money. Thus began a working relationship with Dorothy Christian that lasted for ten years and a friendship that still continues. She had no formal media or journalism training, was slightly over forty, but was very willing to learn, deeply committed to telling several other sides of Aboriginal stories, committed to communicating with the settler and recent immigrant production team, and with our audiences. We were patient with Dorothy learning the tricks of the TV current affairs trade. She was even more patient with what we did not know about Aboriginal issues. Dorothy produced, directed, and wrote award-winning stories. She was on pundits’ panels. She did phone-ins from various locations and was very active in our annual production team planning meetings.

There was a truckload of learnings that came from this experience:

  • Peace stories are hard to do in media, but are important.
  • We needed to introduce our multi-faith and multicultural audiences to a diversity of Aboriginal points of view, not just one POV.
  • As long as we were willing to play ball there would be Aboriginal people ready to do the work of educating us and our audiences. They would also be ready to share respectfully in whatever expertise we had to offer.


We learn that our annual production planning meetings are significant. Over the years we go from producing a weekly show to daily current affairs series, and frequently both at the same time. The teams, technical and editorial, usually consist of persons with the following faith and ethnic backgrounds: Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Quaker, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, Humanist/Atheist, Buddhist, New Age, Aboriginal spirituality; recent or ancient ancestry in Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, British Isles, West Indian, Swiss, American, prairie Mennonite, Atlantic and Pacific regions, Quebec, urban and rural cultures, all with diversity in class, ability, sexual orientation, and age.

We had to be able to explain our personal and professional assumptions to each other. We had to do this non-defensively, with humour, and with trust. These annual production planning meetings had a strong educational component. That was why we were getting together. First, over the days and seasons, everyone got to lead the team in meditation/worship/reflection/their spirituality, or whatever you wish to call it. Second, everyone got to lead the team in their storytelling expertise. We had team members with dazzling picture sense, or brilliant writing skills, or wonderful approaches to editing, or riveting presentation techniques. We were sharing our strengths as workers, individuals, and cultures; and the production teams became stronger every year. We were award winning: Geminis, Women in Film and TV-Toronto, Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Urban Alliance on Race Relations, et cetera. Our stories ranged from serious investigative journalism to profiles to multi-faith comedy.


The first serious information comes into my head about residential schools, in the way that it has come to many non-Aboriginal Canadians, via Phil Fontaine.

On the tenth anniversary of Vision TV we decided to do ten programs on human rights topics in ten provinces and territories. Fontaine, then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, talked about the physical, sexual, and cultural abuses endured in residential schools. He said that such things had happened to him and that it was time he talked about it. There was tremendous power in the humility of Phil Fontaine’s message at that time. He was willing to appear vulnerable and weak, a way of being strong for other Survivors. Now I knew a bit more, and residential schools stayed with me as a subject to be explored with the ROC—the rest of Canada.


“The churches will be bankrupt!” by the residential schools settlements is the rumour that is flying through the corridors of Vision TV. Since churches are one of the many constituencies with whom we work, and we have always dealt with Aboriginal issues, and share some of our information programming with CBC Newsworld, I propose a co-production. The third partner is to be the just-launched APTN where a longtime colleague, Dan David, Mohawk from Kahnawake, is news director. The project is ambitious and fraught with editorial and technical pitfalls for all of us, but especially for APTN, which has been on the air about fourteen months. Finally, we have five hours on residential schools to be broadcast on all three networks. The host for newbie APTN is splendidly articulate Rick Harp. I am fronting for Vision TV, and veteran Anne Petrie is there for Newsworld. In addition, APTN and VTV are responsible for the documentary style “field pieces” that walk with real Survivors, Victims, and Players. Newsworld handles the studio segments in which early participants in the Aboriginal Healing Foundation examine the present and the future as well as the past.

Our programs are called Canada’s National Shame; and we are tripping landmines. The churches are wary of the economics of apology. The government is not apologizing. Both parties finger point. Some Aboriginal people do not see why APTN should talk to Vision TV and CBC Newsworld. CBC seriously questions how the other two production partners can be objective about such an emotional subject.

We survived. We went to air. Everybody managed to tell the truth from where they stood. Working out those shows was a major exercise in cross-cultural communications and finding solutions. We have no regrets.


After thirty-ish years in the TV trenches, I am invited to be Director of News and Current Affairs at APTN. The task is to mentor my Aboriginal successor and kick-start a daily news show. On editorial content I seldom try to convince my all-Aboriginal team that something is or is not a story. They know more about that than I do. My job is simply to clarify, to keep our writing and our focus sharp, and to build the kind of well-oiled machine that can reliably produce daily, fifty-two weeks of the year.

Part of my learning curve is to hear almost weekly about the fallout from residential schools on our live open-line show Contact, on APTN National News, and, naturally, on specials. The other big story is the Ipperwash Inquiry. We decide to broadcast three hours a week of the hearings. Mainstream media outlets are really not covering this Commission, created by the government of Ontario after ten years of pleas and threatened lawsuits from Sam George, brother of the murdered unarmed protestor Dudley. The lack of interest in the Ipperwash proceedings in Forest, Ontario, speaks volumes about a land claims story that takes seventy years to resolve. It is a story of the appropriation, misappropriation, exploitation, and reclaiming of land. It is a long story. The mainstream can only deal with sound bites.

In August 2005, near the end of my time at APTN, Hurricane Katrina makes a landfall on the Gulf Coast. For five days after, Canadian newspapers run front-page pictures of 100,000 trapped, poor black people. I know those people. But nobody is talking about the racism, classicism, and cronyism that trap those former slaves. I ask permission to write an opinion-editorial piece from my boss, APTN CEO Jean LaRose. He says, “go ahead.” Mr. LaRose, Abenaki from Quebec, is disturbed by the news coverage too. And as an Aboriginal person he immediately sees that the same thing could and does happen in Canada. The news gets it right on the sixth day after the hurricane though; that is, they get the racism part right. They do not get that it could and does happen here. I do not have to write that editorial right then. But three years later, I have worked up a head of steam about all the money, time, and tears Canadians are spending down there without looking in our own backyards.


This year sees a play written and performed by me in Winnipeg named Big Ease, Big Sleaze. I do not think Big Ease, Big Sleaze is my finest dramatic hour; however, what I need to say is this: before Canadians attempt to achieve salvation by assisting people in far-flung lands, like the ninth ward of New Orleans after Katrina, let us recognize that we have tons of sins to deal with right here. We save ourselves by recognizing those sins and changing our relationship to Aboriginal people, beginning with being truthful. My central characters in Big Ease, Big Sleaze, both Canadians, are an older brown gentleman and a young white woman. They both realize they do not have to get on an airplane to attempt to right wrongs. The wrongs are at their doorsteps.


More successful than Big Ease, Big Sleaze, I hope, is a TV docudrama, Not a Drop, first broadcast in 2009 on OMNI. By nature of service, mandate, and conditions of license, OMNI, a multilingual broadcaster, does not deal with Aboriginal languages and issues (APTN does that), or Francophone matters (Radio-Canada and TVA do that). OMNI is interested though in the story I want to tell about the relationship of recent or long-term immigrants to Aboriginal people. The story centers down on a fictionalized graduate school class in Diversity Journalism, based on real events. One of the students, Jeremy, who is black, stresses that he almost doesn’t take the course because:

Like from my own personal background I didn’t think there was anything I could even learn about diversity, but when you showed us some of those other experiences of people who’ve been here for so long, but still feel disenfranchised, still feel isolated, it made me think to myself—like there’s way more to cover out there than fatherless Jamaican families, not to put that down.1

While we were in pre-production for Not a Drop the Sunrise Propane explosion hit Toronto on 10 August 2008. This caused me to write an opinion-editorial piece in the Toronto Sun on the differences between Ontario’s downtown capital city and the Walpole Island First Nation where the documentary portions were being shot:

Just how high and how fast can last Sunday morning’s Sunrise Propane explosion make Queen’s Park jump?
If I were a gambling woman, I’d say the provincial government will close the loopholes around the Technical Standards and Safety Authority in three months…
Now, here’s another bet: Just how high and how fast can Queen’s Park jump about some longer term chemical problems in the province?
I wager it’ll take 50 years for politicians to vibrate and pontificate about Chemical Valley. The dice are loaded. I’ve won already, because it has taken them at least that long to date.
Who lives in Chemical Valley? The people of the Walpole Island First Nation, the Sarnia First Nation, and the small city of Sarnia. It’s the area that produces approximately 40% of the oil, gas, and petrochemicals for Eastern Canada.
We’re talking the southwestern part of the Queen’s Park empire, on Lakes Huron, Michigan, and St. Clair, and the St. Clair River. It will take a lot longer, if ever, to decide what an acceptable level of risk is for those people. They are farther away from the centre of power, fewer in numbers, many of them Aboriginal, and it’s a slow, cross-generational danger. More like a leak than an explosion.
Sunday’s dangerous events happened to thousands at once. They’re getting lots of justified media attention in the capital city. Toronto was also beyond lucky that only two people died.
How can that be compared to 50 years of gradual chemical spills, and possibly related gradual deaths, and non-births?…If the warning system works, at least people are told not to swim, not to drink the water, and not to eat the fish. Sometimes they’re not warned in time though, and that makes the communities suspect that the high number of miscarriages, new diseases, birth defects, and fish with cancer has something to do with chemical spills…
Walpole Island can make its own laws, just like Queen’s Park. It’s on territory that was never ceded to the Crown. Trouble is, the laws can’t stop spills from coming down the river to the First Nations, or into Sarnia and Wallaceburg.
What has been agreed upon by the government of Ontario and the Walpole Island First Nation is that their unceded territory is home to 50 endangered or at risk species. Maybe that’s 51, if we add in human beings.
There is no universal agreement in Chemical Valley that gradual hazards to life are such a bad thing. The refineries are major employers of people in the cities and minor employers of First Nations citizens as well.
Therefore not everybody is calling for new legislation, instant investigation, and the closing of loopholes.
Not as many live within sudden death distance like we’ve just experienced in Toronto.
They just live in the shadow of slow, quiet, possibly fatal, health and environmental hazards.2

In Not a Drop the people of Walpole Island eloquently explain to the young journalists, and all the rest of us in the audience, the place of the land in their world view. And they give us a tour of the slice of creation for which they feel spiritually responsible.


The Halifax mayor’s apology to the people of Africville happens during the time I am privileged to live and work in the Atlantic region. The apology includes a commitment to a new church to be built on the site of the old one, and there is to be an interpretive centre that explains how the land of these black citizens came to be expropriated. Financial compensation goes to the black community, not to individuals.

True, the damage was done fifty years ago. A historic black community that had lived on the shores of the Bedford Basin for generations found their church bulldozed in the middle of the night, their possessions and themselves loaded onto garbage trucks and dumped into public housing in the inner city. Halifax needed to build a bridge where Africville’s destroyed homes had been. I had produced a program for CBC Access about Africville thirty-three years previously and so thought the problem had been solved! It took a lot more than my one show for the land to be reclaimed.

Roberta Jamieson, distinguished head of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, was a convocation speaker at Mount Saint Vincent University in the spring of 2010. Her honourary doctorate was presented at the ceremony for graduates in Education. Why? The administration hoped, and Ms. Jamieson agreed, that what was said to these people who were teachers and principals in Nova Scotia schools was terribly important. They were the people who would continue to put false histories or true communication about the Aboriginal past, present, and future into the classroom. They were important gatekeepers for positive self-images of young Native people and the esteem with which all ethnicities would hold each other. Jamieson said that the grads had a choice. They could build classrooms and worlds of inclusion or of exclusion. They had this power. The educators were the people who would tell the truth, or not, about the bulldozers, garbage trucks, airplanes, and other expropriation vehicles of history. We welcomed her message. Roberta Jamieson was very generous to give the graduates another chance to decide which path to take.

However, being the slave masters is very bad for the masters’ health. It is our tradition in Canada to shoot the messenger who brings this news; we are killing our souls when we exclude. We have charged messengers with exaggeration, lying, inaccuracy, or simply misinterpreting the intentions of the masters forever. 1922 was the publication year of Dr. Peter Bryce’s book about residential schools, The Story of a National Crime. Bryce, who had been suppressed by the Canadian governments who hired him, was talking about death rates of nearly 50 per cent in western Indian residential schools, and the denial of this evidence by the Canadian government and churches.3

We shot the messenger then. But the time has long since past when we can afford to silence the bad news about residential schools, about land, resources, or our lives with one another. The current Truth and Reconciliation Commission is probably our last chance as societies to hear the messengers. The mental, physical, and spiritual health of those of us who are black (like me), brown, yellow, white—or red—depends on our speaking, walking, and living the truth.


Rita Shelton Deverell : More than 40 years as a broadcaster, television host, theatre artist, professor, and public speaker has taught me that there are questions which are important to audiences, yet remain un-answered by my usual biographical sketches. If these questions are stuck in the listeners’ ears they can’t hear what I’m saying. Since I don’t want that to happen to you dear readers, I’m dealing with these Frequently Asked (in an embarrassed sort of way) Questions about Rita Shelton Deverell, B.A., Adelphi; MA, Columbia; Ed.D., OISE/University of Toronto; presently the 12th holder of Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University:

Q: Where are you from?
A: It turns out this really means “where were you born?” Answer: Houston Negro Hospital in 1945. For the record, I have been black and female ever since.
Q: Why did you come to Canada?
A: The answer, though I’d like it to be more dramatic, is that I married a fellow graduate student in New York, who was and still is Canadian.
Q: Did he stick around?
A: Yes, although I hasten to add that I’m not old enough to have been married 43 years. He is.
Q: Was emigrating a mistake?
A: At first I thought it might be. I immigrated in 1967, the year Canada gave up British titles. What rotten luck! Like any little girl who wished herself a princess and an actress, I wanted to be a “Dame.” All is happiness, though, because I was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004.
Q: How do you stand our winters?
A: Personal temperature comfort is a matter of metabolism, not determined by birthplace. My elementary school teachers in the South always felt I was underdressed for winter. When I first lived in a colder climate, I felt instantly happier, more productive, and had a lively spring in my step. Everything else, dear readers, about the relationship of Aboriginal peoples to this immigrant, is in the essay that follows.

  1. Excerpted from the screenplay, Not a Drop. See: Deverell, Rita Shelton (Producer/Director/Writer) (2009). Not a Drop (Docudrama). Toronto, ON: OMNI.
  2. Deverell, Rita Shelton (2008, August 15). Toronto blast gets action, what about elsewhere? The Toronto Sun: 21.
  3. Bryce, P.H. (1922). The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, The Wards of the Nation: Our Allies in the Revolutionary War : Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War. Ottawa, ON: James Hope & Sons, Limited. Retrieved 9 November 2010 from: http://www.archive.org/details/storyofnationalc00brycuoft