Observer: not a terribly exciting name for a newspaper, but right to the point! The word neatly wraps up all those things that an idealistic, dedicated journalist stands for. A watcher, keeping a close eye on all that is going on, and bringing a wide range of important events to the notice of a public that is often too busy to do much watching itself. And a watchman, too, taking note of changes that could have a profound effect on our way of life and our way of thinking, and then warning us, protecting us, or alternatively, causing us to celebrate positive change. A sentinel, standing apart and above, looking outward, ready to shout out and alert us to action! A detective, digging deep, observing details overlooked by others, discovering the truth about what is really going on. An eyewitness, observing events as they happen, interviewing other eyewitnesses, looking for all the different angles and perceptions, and recording as full and accurate an account as possible, not only for the present, but also for the use of historians and sociologists and future generations. Sometimes even a meddler, a spy, endangering herself by prying into affairs that others would rather have ignored or glossed over, and in the end doing a great service to society as the truth is told and individuals or society are rescued from unseen evils or dangers, and from being sucked into or careening off into a dangerous path.
On the islands of Haida Gwaii, there is a little newspaper called The Queen Charlotte Islands Observer. City folk, upon first glancing at it, would probably contemptuously refer to it as a “country rag.” When I first encountered it, the paper was very small, and bore all the marks of a rural community effort; the print was obviously done on an outdated print-shop set up, the few pictures very grainy, the lay-out apparently amateurish, the staff limited to the owner/reporter and a few amateur community “stringers.” But for the reader who took the time to actually read and consider, a surprise was in store. For not only was local gossip recorded, birthdays and anniversaries, school concerts, upcoming events, births and weddings and deaths; but there was also in-depth, carefully examined and considered coverage of important evolving issues, like concern for great forests being clear-cut, and the need for preservation of a unique ecosystem and historical Haida first nation sites – which would lead to the establishment of a national park – and changing population dynamics, and the developing re-growth of the Haida nation and culture, and their relationships with other islands inhabitants and even with the province and nation. In fact, when I became a Social Studies teacher and school librarian there on the islands, this little country rag of a paper turned out to be a rich resource for projects not only on local history and issues, but also had valuable resources linking the local issues to much broader national and international issues.
When Elvira Bryant, the very popular stringer for my small community, Masset, retired from teaching and moved away to follow her dreams, I was given the opportunity to write the Masset column. I changed the name of the column to “Masset Sounds,” a word-play on the name of the widening of the ocean inlet beside which the village sits. While I continued to record the daily community events that are always important to its members, I wanted to also somehow give readers outside the community a sense of the heart of the community, as well as the issues that were part of the evolution of the community itself, of its place in the islands community, and even its place in the greater world. So nearly every column opened with a listing of Masset sounds… and scents, and sights, and sensations… that were intended to evoke a sense in the reader about what Masset was really about. “Waves rolling onto the shoreline; wind rustling, blustering, blowing; Tuesday evening fire practice alarm; fishing boats moving in and out of the harbour; seaplane engines revving up; friendly voices meeting and greeting in a community small enough you can get to know almost everyone….”
But I was also determined to keep an eye and ear on community events and changes – the relationship of the Armed Forces Base to the rest of the community, and the changes that came with the radical downsizing of the base; the community pulling together to raise funds for a covered rink for youth activities; the yearly local Timmy’s Telethon which always raised more funds per capita than any other Timmy’s Telethon in the province, which was a great reflection on the generosity and caring of the people; the developing relationship between the communities of Masset and Old Massett; changing economies as fishing and logging were no longer viable as primary sources of jobs and income for the community. And inevitably, observing my community, interviewing its members, attending its meetings and events, had a profound effect on my own life. It drew me into much greater personal participation in community events. It made me more aware of my own environmental footprint in a place with an ecosystem that is unique in the world. It gave me a sense of really being part of a dynamic community family. I even left my own mark on the community in small ways; for example a cross-walk, school crossing sign, and newly paved pathways replacing muddy tracks, as I observed the dangers for children from a residential subdivision walking to school through undeveloped areas and across a busy roadway, and then collected signatures on a petition, reported on the situation in my column, and made a presentation to the town council.
The Queen Charlotte Islands Observer changed somewhat over the years, with the acquisition of a new printing plant, change in ownership, hiring of a full-time reporter, an effort to focus on more “hard news,” and of course simply because of the nature of an evolving island community. I moved away from Masset for a few years, then returned and took up the column again for a time. But I will always value the experience of having been an “observer” for the Observer. I had always enjoyed writing, and in high school seriously contemplated going into journalism. Later I would write for my college paper, and some years later greatly enjoy working for CBC Radio. Although I was not usually directly involved in reporting, I had the opportunity to work in an environment where I learned much about both the value and the methods of journalism. I have not worked directly in journalism for some time, but I have continued to write in a variety of ways: stories both fiction and non-fiction, articles for a church newsletter, publishing my own newsletter the Home Educator, active involvement in a wide variety of email lists, articles and stories published in magazines and anthologies, a number of blogs and websites of my own, editing the writing of others, and so on. But I will always have fond memories of writing for the Observer, and appreciate greatly the opportunity it gave me to really understand and develop the skill of the observer.
Written May 17, 2007
Norma J Hill