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Justice for Canada's Aboriginals

In honour of former editor Hugh McCullum, The Observer investigates the state of education on Canada’s First Nations reserves

By David Wilson

When Hugh McCullum believed in a story, he would go to great lengths to get it. During his 10 years as editor of this magazine, he was arrested, deported and shot at. He would often come back from assignments exhausted or sick — but exhilarated just the same.

After McCullum died in October 2008, The Observer’s board of directors agreed that the most appropriate way to commemorate his enormous contribution to justice-driven journalism was to keep his crusading spirit alive in our pages. And so the Hugh McCullum Feature was born. It is an annual investigative report commissioned around a theme central to McCullum’s own reporting: justice for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The first of these features appears this month: Richard Wright’s investigation of the state of education on Canada’s First Nations reserves ("A national disgrace"). Wright zeroed in on the small Vancouver Island community of Ahousaht, the birthplace of Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who was elected last summer on an education platform.

Just before he left Toronto for the West Coast, Wright tracked down and interviewed Atleo’s 90-year-old grandmother, Elsie Robinson, who had been a student at a United Church-run residential school in Ahousaht and was living near Nanaimo, B.C. Two days later, Wright arrived in Nanaimo. But when he called Robinson’s home to arrange a face-to-face meeting, a tearful daughter broke the news that Robinson had died unexpectedly 24 hours earlier.

Wright was suddenly caught up in a wave of mourning for a deeply respected Nuu-chah-nulth elder. The ferry he boarded to journey to Ahousaht became part of a flotilla carrying Robinson’s cedar coffin and hundreds of mourners. The community shut down for the funeral, which threw Wright’s itinerary into complete disarray but drew him into the midst of powerful time-honoured rituals.

He persevered and got the story — and a bout of H1N1 flu for good measure. He journeyed back to Toronto in the fog of a raging fever. “I was never so sick in all my life,” Wright says.

He’s over the flu now but the richness of the experience still lingers. “It was an exceptional privilege to participate in this,” he says.

Hugh McCullum would understand completely.

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Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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