Roderick Rabbitskin got his job at CBC North partially because he wanted to address the under-representation of women on the airwaves.
At the time, very few women were playing large roles in politics, but they were also all but invisible in every type of leadership capacity.
When he started in 1993, his first female interview was then-Chisasibi Chief Violet Pachanos. Since then, women have earned promotions to deputy chief of the Grand Council (Pachanos) and director of the Cree Health Board (Dianne Reid) to name but a couple of important professions in Eeyou Istchee.
While Rabbitskin was getting his feet wet as a journalist and in his current job as host of Eeyou Dipajimoon, he was hiding a secret that he didn’t want anyone to know. He is gay and he was ashamed to admit it.
The main reason behind keeping it a secret was obvious: Cree territory is not the most welcoming place to admit you are a homosexual and his childhood proved that.
Growing up in Mistissini, Rabbitskin put up with his share of bullying while he attended Voyageur Memorial School.
“I always knew when I was young that I was different from other young guys,” Rabbitskin told the Nation in an exclusive interview. “I always knew on the inside that I was gay. When I was in school I’d look at guys instead of girls.
“I always hung around with the girls and never played with the boys. Because of that, I went through a lot of hurt and a lot of bullying from other kids. I was spit on, people swore at me almost every day. They threw stones at me and as I grew older, adults bullied me as well,” he said.
Rabbitskin realized around “10 or 12 years old” that life for him would be different.
“I always felt alone growing up and hurt by what people were saying and doing to me. That’s how I knew I was gay, by the treatment I got from people. I always said to myself that there was nothing I could do to change it.
“There were times in high school when I didn’t go to public places or events because I knew what was going to happen if I went. I didn’t associate with people, I just stayed away. A lot of times I was alone. The only people I could talk to were my parents and my brothers and sisters,” he said.
Sadly, Rabbitskin was also sexually abused by a family friend at a young age, pushing him into a deep depression. He saw no way out of his situation but he somehow found the strength to carry on.
“There were times I was so alone that all I did was cry. I was hurt and I was begging for someone to help me, but I didn’t have anyone,” he said.
Rabbitskin turned to his family for support and questioned why the bullying was happening to him. But they didn’t have answers that helped him get through those tough teen years.
“They told me it would end soon but I asked them ‘When is it going to end? I don’t think it’s going to end.’ I was tired of it.”
The Nation visited Rabbitskin at his apartment in Montreal and even to this day, the sorrow and feelings of helplessness as a young gay teen in a small Cree community are hard for him to talk about.
Friends and family members know he is gay, but the decision to come out publicly, in the only newspaper serving the nine Cree communities, was not an easy one.
He put it out to his friends through phone calls, Facebook and private chats. Should he come out? The feedback was an overwhelming yes.
Over the years, people who targeted Rabbitskin as a teen have matured and grown as individuals, to the point where they realized the harm they caused him.
“All the hurt that I went through and all those people who hurt me when I was young have come up to me to say ‘Roderick, I’m sorry for what I did to you when you were young.’ They feel terrible. They apologized to me so I don’t have anything against them,” he said.
“Kids sometimes come up to me and ask me if I was bullied as a kid. I can see on their faces that they are going through a similar thing, so I talk to them.”
Last summer, Rabbitskin was back home in Mistissini for a visit when a 14-year-old boy came up to him and said that he heard from his mother what Rabbitskin went through as a child.
“I asked him if he was being bullied and he said yes. So I sat down and talked to him and he started crying,” he said.
“Before I left he took down my number. So far he’s called three times to talk. I could feel what he was going through.
“For all the hurt I went through as a child, I just want to reach out and help those kids who are going through the same thing, because I know what it’s like. “
Coming out in the Nation “feels like a weight has been lifted off of me,” he said, but he regrets not being able to tell his mom and dad before they passed away, 27 years and 12 years ago respectively.
He did muster up the courage to tell the rest of his family about three years ago, however.
“I had a hard time telling my family,” he said. “I was afraid I was going to lose them. I told other friends and they encouraged me to tell my family. It took me years to come up and say, ‘I’m different, I’m gay.’”
Admitting a secret this big doesn’t come easy, but the way it came out surprised Rabbitskin himself.
“The first one I told in my family was my brother-in-law. He was in Montreal with my sister and we were walking on St. Catherine St. It kept bugging me that I should tell them, but I never thought he’d be the first to know,” Rabbitskin said.
“He told me ‘You’re still my brother-in-law and it doesn’t change anything. I’m glad you told me.’ That helped a lot.”
From there, Rabbitskin opened up to his four brothers and three sisters and to more friends, but he kept it secret from others, fearing their reaction.
When he told his sisters Minnie and Elizabeth, they merely smiled and said, ‘You know Roderick, we always knew, we were just waiting for you to come and tell us.’
“Both of them said they would still love and support me and not treat me any different. I haven’t lost any of my family members since I came out.
“I regret not telling them way before. I always felt so miserable inside, knowing that I couldn’t tell them that I was gay because I was so afraid to lose them. I’m so glad now that they know.
“I didn’t choose to be gay. It’s just who I am.”
Rabbitskin’s coming-out party wasn’t just for his peace of mind; he was doing what he does currently as a host interviewer for CBC North – helping others.
“I started thinking about the younger generation. There are a lot of them who know they are (gay). Today is different compared to what I experienced. People are more open-minded and they accept others for who they are. It’s a lot easier today,” he said.
“I was always in misery, always in pain because I kept it to myself. Since I came out and told my family and friends, I feel so different compared to when I was still in the closet.”