Television was never a big part of my early childhood. In the early 1980s, TV was a new phenomenon that had just been introduced to our community merely a decade before. Even though mom and dad furnished our living room with a new TV set we had nothing to watch. CBC was the clearest channel we could receive and it was fuzzy. It was broadcast from the communications tower that the stood near the church. TVO provided regional programs from Ontario. These two channels offered plenty of educational programming but we would have preferred real entertainment. We yearned for the big blockbuster movies we heard about through commercials and other promotions.
Sometime in the ’80s, a CTV signal appeared but it was never really that clear. We went to great lengths to try to coax a better signal from our television. Everyone in the family thought they might have the magic touch in fabricating metal coat-hanger antennae extensions and aluminium foil streamers attached to the TV rabbit ears. We were constantly moving these extensions to try to catch a stronger signal. CTV offered more variety and once in a while a low-budget movie would appear so we were eager to try to catch a better signal.
It was during this period in my childhood that I developed an ability to watch just about any movie or show; heck I was happy to simply be able to see a clear image on that old TV. Of course, my favourites were the more recent big-budget Hollywood films but I also enjoyed Kung Fu movies, action flicks, B-movies, horror movies, black-and-white classics, low-budget films, independent productions and even foreign-language movies. When our local church started broadcasting so that Elders at home could watch daily mass, we gained a fourth channel. When mass wasn’t on air, we were fed a diet of religious epics and let me tell you that experience started me on a journey of accepting anything that came across the tube as being watchable. My siblings and I sat through hours of Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Still, to this day I can pretty much remember most of the important scenes and lines from those epics.
When I think about it now, it was good to not have so much exposure to the multitude of channels available to communities in the south. I spent more time outdoors with my friends and family. We played all day in the heat of the summer sun and trudged through blinding snowstorms in imaginary frost fantasy worlds just for the fun of it. There was no reason to stay inside under the spell of the television because most of the time the screen was just full of snow. Life outdoors offered up more adventures and entertainment.
As my friends and I became teenagers in the ’90s, visual entertainment changed and became almost all consuming. Video-rental businesses boomed and with the addition of a VCR in our home, we could watch the latest Hollywood films. It seemed like everyone wanted to run a video-rental business in Attawapiskat at the time. Many thought they had found the money tree. Some people specialized in really cheap B-movie copies from the ’70s, Kung Fu action flicks or low-budget films that none of us had ever heard about. Many of these entrepreneurs did not have much money and that resulted in some strange offerings. I recall one storeowner who rented out tattered VHS copies of old black-and-white films from the ’40s and ’50s.
My friends and I all had the same taste in films and by that I mean we had none. Nobody complained if we watched a boring movie. It didn’t matter what was on the screen, as long as it was new and fresh. Sitting in a friend’s bedroom in the dark watching a forgettable movie on a 15-inch screen was a chance to leave Attawapiskat for a while. The hour-and-a-half of car chases, monsters, love scenes, breakups and makeups made us forget the difficult world we lived in. Life was a constant rollercoaster of dysfunction in our reality. Often we tuned into other lives in different places on the outside. At times with the push of a button we moved out of our third-world reality and into the Canadian dream.
These days the world is my oyster as I have high-speed Internet access to services like Netflix or iTunes. I don’t even have to leave my home to rent a movie anymore. Television networks are broadcasting more and more over the Internet and websites like YouTube and Google Video provide plenty of independent documentaries. There are literally thousands of channels at my command.
My parents and Elders never really understood why anyone would want to sit and watch a little box for hours on end. They preferred being able to take part in life through the necessity to fend for our family and take care of our home. Our Elders had more of a connection to the land, the wilderness and the environment, so I don’t think they had many reasons to escape reality. Reality back then was all about survival.
My generation and more recent ones had a more difficult time adjusting to a new world where our traditions and cultural values and practices were slipping away. We have one foot in the past and one in modern day with the realities of dealing with oppression, colonization, addictions and the bright lights of the movie world. Sometimes it felt good to turn to Chee-Kan-Teh-Pee-Neesh-Chi-Kan or as it translates in Cree – the magic light box.