Why rez radio matters: Leela Gilday, Mattmac, Garret T. Willie, more

DJs and artists on the power and community of Indigenous-led radio programming.

DJs and artists on the power and community of Indigenous-led radio programming

From left: Mattmac is a blind Oji-Cree man whose hair is parted in the middle and in short braids. He is wearing a yellow and black plaid jacket over a tan collared shirt and a white t-shirt. Leela Gilday is a Dene-Canadian woman who has straight brown hair and is wearing a brown leather jack, an orange floral skirt, black top, and long beaded earrings. Garret T. Willie is a First Nations' man with short, dark hair wearing a great hat with a brim, an off-white short-sleeved button-up shirt, and hugging an electric guitar.
From left: Mattmac, Leela Gilday and Garret T. Willie reflect on how rez radio has influenced their lives and artistry. (Mattmac from the artist; Leela Gilday by Pat Kane; Garret T. Willie by Shelanne Justice)

Indigenous-led radio stations and "rez radio" are vital community hubs and connectors — nation to nation, territory to territory, coast to coast. The network of stations is vast and diverse, as is the programming, music, and the people who make it.

Rez radio stations are often established by people within communities or local governments, and act as vehicles for information for the communities they serve. Sometimes they're licensed, polished and recognizable as a radio station; sometimes they're guerilla-style setups run from someone's backyard or basement. 

LISTEN | Reclaimed's one-hour special to celebrate all things Rez Radio: 

But rez radio stations are also outlets for creativity, and platforms for Indigenous artists at home and beyond. They're made by Indigenous folks for Indigenous folks — but everyone is welcome to listen. In the spirit of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, CBC Indigenous and CBC Music spoke to a variety of DJs and artists about their experiences with rez radio, why rez radio matters and what it means to them.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Leela Gilday, singer, songwriter, producer (Denendeh)

Rez radio or Indigenous radio has played a big part in my life. We only have two reservations in the Northwest Territories and Denendeh, our communities, are not considered reservations. But Indian Brotherhood [of the Northwest Territories] and the Native Communication Society formed a radio station many years ago, and it was through that station that I started to get introduced to Indigenous music. It was actually my very first summer job.

I was given a show on CKLB and I met all of the really famous broadcasters, Peter Hope and Lee Jones and, like, legends in Native radio in Denendeh. So I was working right alongside them cutting, learning how to cut tape, like splice tape, because that's how old I am, and made my own radio show for our Indigenous radio stations. I was just a student, so it was a real surreal situation. But I really started to understand how important that radio station was for us and for us in the communities, how people got messages through on the airwaves to one another, to family members. This developed a healthy respect for the part that radio has played in connecting our people across the North, and our musicians across the world.

Knowing that people were listening, and knowing that no matter what my music would be heard across our territories, had a really buoying effect on me as I launched into a music career. I've been performing since I was eight and writing my own music since I was like, 11. And I always had my community behind me … I sometimes felt like I was a lone voice in the broader music industry. No disrespect to all of the trailblazers and all of our Indigenous music community, [but] in the greater music industry, which was quite dominated by — it used to be quite patriarchal and very centred on white male voices. It was difficult for me to feel like I was celebrated or making any headway, but CKLB was always in my corner. NCI was always spinning all the greatest Indigenous music out there. It's actually had a profound effect on my career.

The one song that makes me think of rez radio: Johnny Landry's "Hina Na Ho Hine." That's a big, big classic. That's like our Dene anthem kind of thing. And Susan Aglukark actually did cover it and made it quite famous, but it's by a Decho musician named Johnny Landry. That song always makes them think of rez radio.

Garret T. Willie, blues singer-songwriter (Kingcome Inlet)

Growing up, it's funny, we didn't really have rez radio. The only radio station we had was CBC, so I grew up listening to CBC and to me, I thought that was rez radio…. But there was a radio station out of Fort St. John [Canada's First Nation Radio/ CFNR] that wanted to do an interview [with me] and I started listening to them. A real beautiful radio host, name's Kelly Kenny, was the one that interviewed me. We had a really nice conversation.

George Thorogood was interviewed a couple of weeks after I was interviewed, and then I got the opportunity to ask him a question. So I asked him if I could open up for him and I don't think he really liked that question [laughs]. Because it put him on the spot, and I thought about it after and thought maybe I should have asked him something else. You know, you never know unless you ask.

There's another radio station that plays my stuff up in Bella Coola, Nuxalk Radio, and I've done an interview with a gentleman named Roland Mack, goes by Rollah Mack, and he's a cool guy. We talked a lot about different types of music, from Howlin' Wolf to Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones. We kind of kept in touch afterwards and just kept talking about music and things like that, because he's an artist himself

The one song that makes me think of rez radio: "NDN Kars," I used to hear that a bit and it wasn't played on very many other radio stations, so that comes to mind…. It's like an old standard. [Sings] "Ridin' in my NDN car," it's really good, you have to listen to it. I wouldn't do it justice to sing it.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids, hip-hop duo (Haisla Nation)

Yung Trybez: [Growing up, rez radio was] classic rock and what our parents grew up listening to.

Young D: And "your nation, your station!" Shout out to CFNR!

CBC Music: Why is rez radio important?

Yung Trybez: For us growing up, it's because there was no access to music, and even though they play the same kind of stuff our parents were listening to, it was just nice to have something on that wasn't just in your own catalogue.

The one song that makes us think of rez radio:

Yung Trybez: Any AC/DC.

Young D: Any AC/DC is a classic.

Yung Trybez: "Thunderstruck" for sure!

Mattmac, producer, recording artist (Garden Hill First Nation)

There's a community radio station in Garden Hill that serves not only as a community radio station, but also doubles as a TV station because they are broadcasting on 87.7 and that also doubled up as Channel 6 on analog TV. Garden Hill is surrounded by other nearby reserves like Saint Theresa Point, Wasagamack, [and] they had their own radio station, their own community radio stations, respectively. Growing up, I was really, really interested in radio. So I grew up listening to [radio] on the reserve … and hearing CBC Radio over the air, and grew up hearing Native Communications Commission over the air, and just a very faint signal of those respective other community radio stations plus our own, too… I believe it really just allowed myself to be open to what's on the radio.

Anytime I travel anywhere, [an AM/FM radio] literally follows me wherever I go. So I've always been interested in not only just radio on the reserve, [but] the whole entire concept in general. So I'm very, very familiar with the Canadian broadcasting landscape and just a lot of stuff that not a lot of people my age would even think to care about.

The one song that makes me think of rez radio: I remember growing up, the community radio stations obviously played a lot of old rock music, plus a mixture of gospel songs or CBC Radio shows, like CBC Radio's news and what's going on around the world and our country. Then we got NCI that played country music but it was also programming that was geared to Indigenous people, especially because this particular radio station was broadcasting all over Manitoba. 

And one of the artists that really, really reminds me of that time is the late Shane Yellowbird. He was an artist who is based out of Alberta, and he's a Cree country artist. And I just remember hearing his music growing up on the radio, so on the reserve. And yeah, I mean, I don't do I don't I don't do country music. I don't make country music. But that's a memory I have for sure…. If I can remember correctly, it was released in 2006, and it was track one and track number three, if I can recall — oh it's "They're All About You" by Shane Yellowbird. 

William Patrick 'the Best in the West' Richard, radio DJ for Sandy Bay Radio 106.3 FM (Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, Treaty 1) 

an elder man named William Patrick Richard sits in his radio studio room.
Sandy Bay Radio 106.3 FM DJ William Patrick Richard in his radio shack in Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation. (Janell Henry/CBC)

I call this my radio shack. I start from 6 a.m., I'm always here at 5:45 or 5:50. So from 6 to 1 p.m. I'm online. I make my list and then do my announcements for the weather and whatever comes up. I get calls at 6, I take lots of requests … we got like, maybe, 300,000 songs. It all started on a powwow weekend … I heard that the radio station was gonna open up at noon and I was at a mud bog with the kiddos. I went to my truck, waited for the station to open and sure enough it came on, started up, my truck came straight to the radio station because I love music and so I wanted to know how they set the system. At that time it was Chris Spence running it … he asked me, "What brings you here?" "I just come to be nosey," I told him. Then he said, "You wanna try it?" And that's how it all started. I loved it. I still love it. That's why I'm still here. I don't think I'd like to quit this job.

The one song that makes me think of rez radio: Georgie Jones, "Walk Through This World With Me." And Don Williams, "Lord, I Hope This Day is Good." And also a little bit of Elton John.

'Uncle Mike' Maple, radio DJ and program manager for 90.9 BON FM (Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Treaty 1)

A dressed up man with a snap back hat sits at his desk in the radio room in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation
Mike Maple has his dream job as radio DJ at 90.9 BON F.M. the local station for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. (Janell Henry/ CBC)

I'm program manager, radio announcer, editor, audio engineer, live-on-location dude and everything in between. We started the radio here last year in April, and they were just trying to figure out who they could get this going and I've been writing them proposals for over 10 years, trying to get a radio station out here, so I got interviewed and got the job.

My idea when we got here was to change the way we listen to radio, to get our knowledge in there, to get our stories passed down and then just have a great time with some good music playing. One minute you'll be head-banging, next minute you're dancing with some good auntie music, next music you're right down and out listening to some Ernest. Rez radio is so much different than the radio you would get inside the city because you could actually be fully engaged with the people in your community. We need our people in the media because it not only builds jobs, it builds truth and we can get our stories and stuff out there.

The one song that makes me think of rez radio: That Mattmac song, that rez song. I love that song. When I first heard it, I was like, we need songs like this.

This year on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, you can watch and listen to Reclaimed Presents: ʔəm̓i ce:p xʷiwəl Come Toward the Fire, a celebration of Indigenous talent, creativity and brilliance, with music performances from Black Belt Eagle Scout, Zoon, Tia Wood and more. 

Tune in at 5 p.m. (6 AT, 6:30 NT) on CBC Music and CBC Listen and 9 p.m. (10 AT, 10:30 NT) on CBC Radio  7 p.m. (8 AT, 8:30 NT) on CBC-TV. It will be available on CBC Gem as of 9 a.m. ET.