'Legend' retires after 40 years with CBC North's Cree unit

'I really loved the work that went with it. It was fun,' says Emma Saganash. 'It kept me speaking my language and kept me in touch with my own people.'

Emma Saganash, Cree journalist, host, manager and mentor turns the page

Emma Saganash accepted the 2018 Buckley Petawabano Eeyou Istchee Achievement Award on Oct. 24, 2018, which recognizes achievements in the media. (Gaston Cooper)

It was the early 1970s when a Cree-language newscast blasting out of a radio in her mom's kitchen in northern Quebec captured Emma Saganash's imagination.

"I thought it was so, so neat," said Saganash, who was 15 or 16 at the time and was visiting her mother in Chapais, Que., on summer break from residential school. 

"I told my mom it would be great to do that [job] one day." 

Emma Saganash in the early 1990s with then Maamuitaau producer Solomon Awashish. Saganash hosted the show for more than 10 years before moving to producing and then management. (CBC North Quebec )

Those were early days of CBC North's efforts to serve the Cree and Inuit communities on shortwave radio.

This Friday, Saganash will mark the end of more than 40 years with CBC North's Cree unit, based in Montreal and serving the communities of James Bay with Cree-language radio and television shows and an English language web service. 

Gifted storyteller

"I really loved the work that went with it. It was fun," said Saganash. "It kept me speaking my language and kept me in touch with my own people."

It was Saganash's warmth, curiosity and storytelling abilities that really made her excel in the role, according to Solomon Awashish, who recruited her to host the television documentary series Maamuitaau

Emma Saganash, pictured here in a CBC radio studio in 2002, did most of the jobs at CBC North Quebec - from translator, journalist, host, producer and manager since joining the unit in 1977. (CBC North Quebec )

"They asked me to find the best Crees to work as a host and Emma's name kept coming up," said Awashish, who said he might need to "write a book" to list all the qualities she brought to the job. 

Emma Saganash hosted the Cree TV program Maamuitaau. She's also worked as a translator, journalist, producer and manager of CBC North's Cree unit. 1:31

"She was a very dedicated worker. Not only was she curious, but she was also very interested in human interest stories." 

It was during her time as host of Maamuitaau that Saganash covered one of her most memorable stories about a group of walkers who set out in the winter of 1999 to walk more than a thousand kilometres from Whapmagoostui to Mistissini to raise funds to make dialysis available in the Cree territory. 

Award-winning journalist

'The Journey - Bringing our People Home' told the story of a group of walkers who covered 1,000 kilometres from Whapmagoostui to Mistissini to raise funds to buy dialysis machines for the territory. (The Nation/Thomas Jolly)

Saganash and her crew walked part of the way with the group and recorded stories with seven of the original walkers. The Journey - Bringing our People Home won a Gabriel Award, one of the many awards CBC North's Cree unit won during Saganash's time with the unit. 

Last week, she won the Buckley Petawabano award from the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association, for her contribution to Cree broadcasting.

"On behalf of the Cree Nation, thank you, Emma, for making our people, our land, and our stories shine across the country," said Cree Nation Grand Chief Abel Bosum.  

Over the years, Saganash did most of the jobs available at CBC North — from translator, journalist, producer, and host in both radio and television, and since 2003, as area manager.

I worked with a legend.- Vincent Georgekish , former CBC  North employee 

"Emma championed CBC services to the James Bay Cree communities," said Janice Stein, managing director of CBC North, adding she was also "an outspoken and wise voice" educating CBC leaders about what Cree communities needed, and mentoring many young Cree. 

"I remembered the 'motherly' feeling I always got from [her]," said Vincent Georgekish, who worked at CBC North both in radio and television a few times over the years, before moving back to Cree territory.

"I worked with a legend," said Georgekish, adding Saganash shaped his future and gave him a good work ethic.

Former CBC North employee Vincent Georgekish keeps this photo in his phone to remind himself of lessons Saganash taught him. (Vincent Georgekish)

Many of the young people who spent time with the unit have gone on to become leaders both at CBC and in other fields, helping to build the Cree Nation.

"She was a risk-taker. She gave chances to the Cree people," said Joshua Loon, who worked with the unit for a few years beginning in 2012 and now works at the Cree health board.

"I saw her really want to help Cree people and share their stories," said Loon. "I'm very thankful for her giving me the opportunity to do journalism in Montreal."

'The work is very important'

Saganash says she never really saw herself as a mentor, but is happy so many of her former employees are doing well and helping to build the Cree Nation. 

"I'm also happy to see young people are interested in journalism," said Saganash. "If they could have the passion I had they could go even further. The work is very important." 

Emma Saganash says she's looking forward to spending more time with her family and grandchildren. (CBC North Quebec )

Saganash says she's looking forward to travelling more and spending time with her husband, daughters and grandchildren.

Eyou Dipajimoon will broadcast a special tribute show to Saganash Friday, from noon to 1 p.m.

With files from Jaime Little and Diane Icebound

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