By Marie White
For more than 30 years, Myra Cree, the recipient of the 2006 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the Media and Communications category, made outstanding contributions as a radio and TV host, and was an inspiring role model.
Myra was nominated for the award by Canada’s foremost Aboriginal violinist, Tara-Louise Montour of the Kahnawake First Nation and her mother, Vanda Intini. Cree knew she would receive this award and was able to accept it several weeks before passing away on Oct. 13. When the award was officially and publicly presented months later, it was the first time that the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation had honored a recipient posthumously.
Cree’s daughter, Myra Cree-Bernier went to Vancouver to accept the award on her mother’s behalf.
Myra Cree was born in 1937 into the Mohawk community of Oka-Kanesatake, 53 kilometres west of Montreal, Que. surrounded by tall pine trees and green cliffs overlooking the blue waters of the Lake of Two Mountains. She was the adored daughter of elected Grand Chief Ernest Cree and Georgiana Johnson and granddaughter of traditional Grand Chief Timothy Ahiron.
“My mother was always very proud to be Mohawk,” said Myra Cree-Bernier.
Myra, an only child, spoke English first then French. Since there was no Mohawk curriculum in the 1940s, young Myra learned only a very small amount of her Native language. She attended Oka’s French elementary school, but it was “in her adolescence that she truly fell in love with the French language,” explained Myra’s companion for 36 years, Solange Gagnon.
After her graduation in 1958, she taught for two years. “That’s when she realized that her favourite part of teaching was recess,” Gagnon gently chuckled. She realized that her talent lay with words, especially the spoken word. She turned her career towards journalism and found her true lifelong path.
Cree encouraged young people, including her own grandchildren, to educate themselves, to find interests which make them happy, to develop their talents and to have the courage to follow their paths. Myra encouraged those around her to be the best they could be, to strive for more, to exceed themselves. Her idea was that if you are truly good at something and enjoy it, it will bring you somewhere good.
Cree was first heard over the radio waves on CKRS in Jonquière in the early 1960s. One year later, she joined Sherbrooke’s CHLT TV station using the pseudonym, Myra Morgan. She set in motion a lasting reputation for her generous spirit, her elegance and her rigorous work habits.
In 1963, she married Jacques Bernier, a lawyer, with whom she had four children—Myra, Jacques, Martin and Isabel—in as many years. “Having been an only child, she was eager to have a large family of her own,” explained Gagnon who understood that since Myra’s Mohawk traditions were matriarchal, her greatest source of pride was her family.
In 1969, Cree was in a car accident in which she lost her husband. She was 32 years old and had four young children to raise. In 1970, Solange Gagnon, a scientific journalist, and Cree bought a house together in the community and formed a close-knit family. Two years after the accident, Myra bravely returned to work at a time when very few women were working full-time.
Lifelong friend and Radio-Canada colleague, Monique Giroux remembered how “Myra lived through some very hard moments yet she was strong enough to go ahead. She started all over again and built a remarkable career.”
From 1973 on, she became a mainstay at Radio-Canada, CBC’s French-language network. As part of Actualité 24 in 1974 and the Téléjournal in 1975, she became the first woman in the history of Radio-Canada to host the evening news.
Myra Cree’s work helped to blaze a brand new path for women in the media. She became one of the first women in North America, in fact, to anchor the evening news, along with Jan Tennant for CBC’s The National out of Toronto followed in 1976 by Barbara Walters on ABC in the United States.
Yves Bergeron was assistant producer at Radio-Canada when he first met Myra.
“She was very confidant in her talent as a woman, as the first one on the air in 1974. She was so confidant, in fact, and knew what she was good at and what was good for her, that she didn’t even do the standard audition for the position and she got the job.”
Bergeron recalled how “she had an exceptional ability to see things from the outside and be very sure of herself. She could uphold her opinions and yet express them in such a manner as not to offend anyone.”
From 1978 to 1984, she ran the religious affairs magazine, Second Regard. Her warm voice, poise and clever turn of phrase caught the interest and deep admiration of her viewers throughout the city of Montreal, as well as the entire province of Quebec.
Bright and witty, she loved to play with words. She was also an avid reader. “Her favourite pastimes were crossword puzzles and Scrabble. You wouldn’t believe how many puzzles she did every day,” said Gagnon.
In 1990 her community became the heart of the Oka crisis. Cree humorously termed it the Golf War since the summer standoff occurred at a pine forest near the Native cemetery, targeted to become an additional nine holes for the adjacent golf course.
“The shock of these events lead to a sort of awakening for Myra,” explained Gagnon. “Childhood memories came flooding back.”
Always proud of her Mohawk roots and a non-believer in violence, Myra helped found the Movement for Justice and Peace at Oka-Kahnesatake to bridge the gap between Native and non-Native people in the Montreal region.
Myra Cree’s daughter, Myra, explained “There were about 20 of us in the movement when it was founded and my mother became president. She believed in developing peaceful ways of resolving problems.”
“Culture was very important to Myra. She was a citizen of her community and also of the world,” said Gagnon. Myra believed the future lay in cultural diversity and in opening up as many horizons as possible so as not to be limited. A woman of integrity, Myra’s beliefs formed an integral part of who she was and how she lived. If she believed in freedom, then she lived in freedom.
André Dudemaine, Innu friend and founding member of Land Insights, an organization which encourageed and promoted Aboriginal culture and talent as part of the annual Montreal First Peoples’ Festival, felt that Myra believed in merging traditional Mohawk government with more modern forms. Dudemaine felt that Myra was very proud to be a descendant of a traditional chief and an elected one. Blending the best of both worlds would lead to a unique and effective Mohawk government.
Myra Cree’s daughter, felt her mother’s greatest involvement in her community lay in a deep commitment to improving local governance, promoting peace and justice, fighting organized crime and encouraging dialogue between members of the community as well as between Natives and non-Natives.
Wishing she could have spoken more of her own native language, Myra supported the practice of teaching Mohawk in Kanesatake schools. In 1991, she edited Native Languages of Quebec, a book that heightened interest in language preservation. In it, she responded to the question ‘Is there a future for the Mohawk language?’
She wrote that she would like Mohawk to be valued again and to be spoken more especially by young Mohawks. Reviving Mohawk in school would prevent cultural erosion and the consequent gradual extinction of th proud nation which had played such an important part in Canada’s history.
From 1985 until her retirement in 2002, Myra Cree worked on radio shows for Radio-Canada. She launched evening cultural programs, L'Embarquement pour si tard and Cree et chuchotement.
“Myra was appreciated by everyone,” said Bergeron. “So much so, that exceptionally everyone from the network was at her retirement party.”
Her brilliant career brought her professional recognition and public affection. In 1997, Cree won the Humour Prize for Radio Montreal. The Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists awarded her with the Judith Jasmin Prize for outstanding work in radio-journalism in 1981. Cree became a Knight of the Ordre national du Québec, the province’s highest award in 1995. In 2004, she became a member of the Order of Quebec and was also awarded the Paul-Gilson Grand Prize from Public Radio Stations of French-speaking communities for Il était une fois.
Myra’s life and work inspired another Radio-Canada radio host from Oka, Monique Giroux. “She really was a role model for me. Those who were fortunate enough to have met her were fortunate indeed. I sincerely believe that,” continued Giroux who admired Myra’s integrity and loyalty.
“I met her when I was 14. She helped me discover the world, the importance of self-respect and being respected, how to see the beauty in life, how to discern good from bad. She had strong beliefs and stood solidly by them.
“In fact, with her poise and eloquence, I think she could have been an excellent ambassador.”
Cree was active within many organizations. Cree hosted segments of Montreal’s First Peoples’ film and video festival starting in 1988. In 1995, she co-chaired the campaign of the 25th anniversary of Recherches amérindienne au Québec, a Quebec edited magazine devoted to Native studies in North America. She served as president and spokesperson for Land InSights (Terres en Vues) and worked hard to obtain grants for its projects.
Land Insights’ Dudemaine explained “Ms Cree had been Land InSights’ board president since the founding of our organization. Myra was a dependable ally, a sincere friend and an inspired spokeswoman. Her death is a painful loss for Aboriginal peoples throughout Canada.”
“Myra transmitted her strong convictions with a lot of humour in very sophisticated language. Her deep in the guts passion yet very artistic way of expression marked Myra’s personality,” said Dudemaine. She could be very strong, even intimidating, if necessary to stand up for something in which she truly believed, such as obtaining grants for Aboriginal art. Yet underneath lay a warm heart and her ever-present sense of humour.
“She made us laugh so much and that was important. Whenever we found a clever turn of phrase or word, she would give us a dollar. But if she gave us two dollars, wow, then you would be really happy because you knew you’d been really amazing!” laughed Dudemaine.
Cree had the ability to make each person feel important and to turn any event into a great experience. “I remember the first screening for the film festival. We had almost no financial support and we were very small. There were maybe 10 of us in the room,” remembered Dudemaine. “But when Myra arrived as master of ceremonies, the artists were so happy. Many of them had lived bad experiences before but she treated them with such honor as if we were at the Academy Awards. It was fantastic to see Myra giving them all this recognition.”
Quebec Native Women’s President, Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk from Myra’s community, stated: “Myra Cree was a strong role model for all Aboriginal women in the province. She gave her support to QNW and she carried the voices of many people of her community through her involvement in the Movement for Justice and Peace at Oka-Kanesatake, created during the summer of 1990.” Gabriel added “It is an important loss for the community but also for all Aboriginal women. Her work at CBC modified the representation of Aboriginal people in the media.”
Myra Cree was a trailblazer in many ways. “Her tenacity as an Aboriginal woman in the predominantly non-Aboriginal, non-female world of media was unprecedented,” said Gabriel. “She really was a true role model. Here was a Mohawk woman in a French-speaking milieu who never forgot her identity and her small community.”
Myra found out in June 2005 that she had lung and bone cancer. Four months later, surrounded by all her family and her very closest friends, according to her wishes, she passed away at home. She is buried in the same cemetery as her husband and parents.
The Quebec National Assembly paid tribute to her with speeches by Michel Létourneau, Geoffrey Kelley and Janvier Grondin.
Bernard Cleary, Native of the Innu nation and Member of Parliament for Louis-St.Laurent, spoke in Ottawa’s House of Commons saying she was “a great lady, an ambassador for Aboriginal values, culture and language. I had the pleasure of working with her on many occasions. Each time, I saw how proud Quebeckers, all of us, were of Myra Cree.”