Northern community radio has been used for decades to unite and inform Native people. Long before the existence of television or even telephone service, radio was an important part of everyday life. In the last decade, the importance of radio has declined. Small community stations have been taken for granted and they no longer have the impact they once did.

The phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” explains the current state of community radio.

I have had the chance to install radio stations in many remote communities. In August of this year, I was asked to build a radio station similar to the ones used in many Cree communities. The difference was that this station was to be installed in Antigua, a small country located a few hundred miles southeast of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Antigua has a population of about 65,000 people living on an island about 12 km long.

Television and radio services broadcast a great deal of government propaganda. Highly placed government officials are also shareholders in these stations. Huge financial subsidies are fed into the pockets of these same shareholders by their own government.

The owners of The National Observer, a local daily newspaper, wanted a change.

The Observer has been publishing the untold side of many corrupt deals and unfair legal decisions for years. The paper has not been able to reach all of the Antiguan nation because many individuals have difficulty reading.

Radio seemed to be the answer. Although the project was started over three years ago, Antiguan government officials had blocked every move with red tape, to protect their own interests.

The decision was made to go on the air without government support. This would force a confrontation that would lead to a court battle. Lawyers for The Observer were confident that the station had to be permitted under constitutional law.

I started the contract with a three-week deadline until airtime. There was an incredible amount of public support for the project. Antiguans were eager to hear another view over the airwaves. The National Observer started to print a daily countdown to air date. Thousands of Antiguans were watching the events that were unfolding like a soccer match.

The radio station site was kept a close secret. Studio construction and air conditioning were done by supporters for “A New Voice for Antigua Radio 91.1.” The station was quietly assembled within the sight of the Antiguan police station, a fact that I am certain caused a considerable amount of embarrassment later.

Two days before the opening date, I found myself in the station transmitting tests to check the radio coverage. The army and police were still not aware of the position at that time, and all went well. Except for the singing of tree frogs that penetrated the studio soundproofing, Radio 91.1 was ready to go on the air according to plan.

I wanted to stay for the grand opening but it was recommended that I leave the country immediately before I possibly ended up detained by the government, should the prime minister not appreciate my contribution to democracy.

After arriving safely back in Montreal, I awaited the results. The station was on the air for two days before the police could find it.

All of the equipment was politely and carefully seized. After all, no one wanted to be front-page news. This was democratic power. During the brief life of Radio 91.1, most of the people of Antigua listened to the station and liked what they heard… another, more truthful radio voice. There will be no going back. The democratic direction of the country has been changed. Legal delays that have kept the station off the air for years have been bypassed. The case goes to court this month. The voice of 91.1, with the help of the justice system, will return soon.

The facts are that a dedicated group of people were willing to risk going to jail to establish the right to broadcast from a community radio station.

Massive budget cuts for CBC shortwave, and within the CBC itself, might cut off Cree services that have been taken for granted. A nation that can no longer communicate individual ideas between its own people is no longer a nation.

The next time you listen to Cree regional news in the morning, imagine what would happen if a future country to the south pulled the plug.

Do not take community radio, and your democratic freedom to use it, lightly. It is a powerful political instrument that can help to guarantee the future of the Cree Nation.