Named one of the best podcasts of 2022 by the Financial Times, Operation Morning Light (OML) aired its final episodes as we exit 2022 and enter a new year.
In December, Cassandra Blondin Burt, from News/North, joined Aliya Pabani, Michael LaPointe and Deneze Nakehk’o — the team from OML — to talk production, Dene ways of knowing and being, and holding a social justice lens up to contemporary entertainment media.
N/N: Michael, you are the writer, and you approached Deneze to put this together. But how did you find this story? Or, rather, how did the story find you?
ML: It did have a kind of serendipity to it. I was reading, for no really obvious reason, an article about nuclear diplomacy and whether different countries had ever co-operated internationally to contend with a nuclear disaster. There was some line in the article saying that basically, there had never been international cooperation on a nuclear disaster. Then there was an asterisk next to that, leading down to a footnote that said that, oh, well, there actually had been one instance — and that was the Cosmos 954 disaster in the Northwest Territories of Canada. And this just like, leapt out to me, because, to my surprise, I’d never heard of it before. And I think there is usually a feeling in Canada that you kind of know all these sorts of stories that have occurred here before. It just sounded like a story that I ought to have heard already. So I was completely flabbergasted that this had just fallen by the wayside of history. And everything kind of unfolded from that first little random footnote in a totally unrelated article.
N/N: The power of footnotes, honestly. In the CBC, Deneze, it mentioned that you were actually quite hesitant, skeptical even, when Michael first reached out to you. I think it said you thought he might be a scammer. So I wanted to ask you, in coming into this project, what was it that shifted that skepticism? What made you open up to Michael and consider the project as a Dene person and community member?
DN: Well, this place is filled with stories — the land of the Dene people, and Denendeh — many different layers over a long time. And if you’re listening, you can hear a lot of different things. And I’ve heard about this story before, about this Russian satellite that crashed. But then there were pieces of it, parts of the story that I had no idea. And then yeah, I don’t have a strong social media presence, you know. I am on Twitter, but Michael is like — I kind of see him like a 1940s private detective. I think Michael should have a fedora there while he’s sitting in his LA hotel room — that’d be really cool. But he’s really observant. I think it was his sincerity and he came out and wanted to be equal partners right from the beginning. So, he said we’ll work on this together, we’ll be partners on this. And he was pretty open and honest.
I had some stipulations as well too — as an Indigenous person, a person of colour, a brown guy growing up here in Canada, you know. You kind of have to navigate these spaces of discrimination and racism within these colonial systems. So you have your guard up all the time in a lot of different areas. So, when Michael approached, my guard came up. But he was able to explain the story in a way where it was obvious he really wanted to do a good job. And that was really important to me.
I had two things: I didn’t want to be tokenized. I didn’t want to be like you know, the brown person to add some sort of authenticity to this to ‘someone-else’s’ story. And the other thing is that, you know, I’m an advocate for Dene people and Dene ways of knowing. So if there’s any way we can bring some understanding and appreciation to us as Dene people and the things that we think are important, then I’m all about that — to tell the story of the Dene, to share that. So those were my two stipulations. And Mike was like, ‘Yeah, cool, man, let’s do this.’ So, I was like ‘stoodis’. And then Aliya came on board. And then it was a good crew right from the beginning. I think we all did a hot Pearl Jam high five. The number one thing was the story. The story was the most important thing, and to honour the voices that we were able to get into the story as well, too. So yeah, it’s kind of like, you know, as a brown person, you gotta feel things out, make sure you feel safe to do the work. And I think, as a team, we were able to do that all together. So that was one thing that really stood out for me that I’m appreciative for.
N/N: Michael, I’m super curious, at what point in the conception of the project did you really know that it needed an Indigenous voice – a Dene voice – and that you knew you wanted to tell it from this perspective? The Dene perspective?
ML: Honestly, that was very immediate. Because, in a sense, the story of Cosmos 954 had been told. If you, if anyone, wanted to look it up there was a Wikipedia page. The official reports were available if you probed a little bit. But we’re indebted to a handful of scholars who had done a little work recently on the subject – I found a graduate thesis from, I believe, an anthropologist at (the University of Toronto), who had circled back on the story and done a little bit of fieldwork, interviewing people in the North about the subject. That was when the penny dropped, so to speak, and I knew there actually could be a fully fledged story there, as opposed to a historical curiosity.
This was when it seemed to me that there was this whole still-under-a-curtain perspective that had never been addressed or exposed or given its proper hearing, or however you want to put it. And that that kind of energized the story for me – I was like ‘Oh, this actually could be something’. But it was obvious that it had to be an Indigenous perspective because it was fundamentally a story of this place. And to just stick to southern white perspectives would be to essentially reenact the dysfunctions of the operation to begin with, just on a storytelling level. It was very, very clear, right at the beginning, pretty much a couple of hours after that footnote came into my life that I knew this was going to be an indigenous-lead story, or it was not going to happen.
N/N: Deneze, in the CBC review, you shared that the main goal of the podcast, for you, or for your involvement, was to bring more attention to Operation Morning Light and the way that it continues to affect Dene communities — to make sure that the people you spoke to felt their voices were heard and honoured. Could you share a bit more on that?
DN: Michael did a deep, deep, deep dive into a lot of these things. And he was able to pull out these nuggets of information throughout the whole podcast, you know. He was able to find the exact number of times the satellite orbited Earth, and then at what time the satellite launched in ‘77. So there’s all these random nuggets that were really amazing. But when we were out and gathering interviews, we were pretty purposeful to take a trauma informed approach. Because there’s a lot of sadness and resiliency to the stories that people shared with us.
I was not really prepared for the number of times cancer came up — in a lot of the stories unprompted, you know? We’d say, ‘Have you heard about this satellite?’ And then people would say, ‘Oh, yeah, the white suits’ and they would just go off and all of a sudden, it’s ‘maybe that’s why there’s so much cancer’. So it’s a very serious thing.
And I think one of the things that we were able to illustrate through the story was the importance of the connection to land, you know, the beauty of it. But also, there’s parts of it that humble you as well. A lot of these elements of cultural understanding and Dene ways of knowing are peppered throughout the story. The things that they shared with us about how they feel about the land, how they feel about the lake. And this is a story of just another incursion into our way of life as Dene people. Unfortunately, there’s a history of many incursions into our way of life. You know, like trapping or residential school, mining, these are things that have come from the outside, and so forth, and incursion into our lands and our way of life, and we’re just forced to deal with it. That’s happened a number of times. This is a story of one of those many layers.
N/N: Aliya, how was it for you hearing first about this story, and then coming up North, and encountering the land and people here, and hearing this story retold, especially with the intersection between your work in social justice and the audio industry?
AP: One of the things that I remember that really struck me about going to Denendeh for the first time was how interested people were in hearing about our experiences on the land as though they were hosting us in their home, you know? So it was like people I had never met before. I was just really struck that everybody felt sort of like that they had this host relationship to us, like, they were so pleased to hear about our experiences on the land. And that was really moving for me.
And I think that, you know, in one of the interviews I found most moving, I wasn’t really expecting to tear up. Sometimes I’m, like, ‘Aliya, don’t do this. You’re drawing attention to yourself.’ But sometimes I’m like, this is a genuine reaction to the moment. Michael asked us, ‘What was your favorite interview of the project?’ and I would say, ‘this interview with Edith Drew, because she talks about this experience she had going to the place she’s from that’s now been left to be abandoned, because after a flood — is that Rochet River? After a flood the authorities just let the town stop existing rather than, than you know, help it get back together. And I think there was just like, such a moving moment where she was talking about coming back to that place, that river, after, you know, going to residential school and feeling so much shame about her identity, and just like an eagle flying overhead, and just knowing and feeling a connection to this place. And that felt like to me, like the strongest moment, you know, maybe my whole year, not even just the whole trip or the whole project, and even just when people would ask, like, what it was, like, you know, there were things that weren’t in the podcast, like shooting a moose, after having, you know, shared Musk Ox, with the Elders in Lutsel K’e. And just feeling very grateful — getting the opportunity to haul moose meat out of the bush to the boat — experiences that were so incredible.
I think, to me, this goes back to my interest in a lived politics. I’m coming from an identity where my parents, my grandparents, for instance, never have been to India, even though I’m Indian. They died never having gone to the place where I’m supposedly from. I lived in India for a while, my dad went back there to work for a few years when I was a kid in a village hospital. So I kind of like was able to see those resonances, but I also, as an adult now, see the kind of loss that comes with the loss of land, and how land actually is important to all people in a spiritual way and a really core way. And, you know, I think that that was one of the things that was so moving to me about spending time in Denendeh is just to really understand that connection and how it’s not just a slogan, it’s not just about resources, or you know, or it but it’s a spiritual connection and it’s really part of who you are in like a really fundamental way.
N/N: Deneze, I’d love to hear from you what this process has been like for you personally, as the story has unfolded, as you’ve sat with these Elders and community members and community leaders, and then in seeing this story come to completion?
DN: People shared a lot with us. And it’s really important for me to try to honour that in the best way. And, you know, some of these things I’m going to take with me. It’s also motivation and inspiration to be better up here. There’s a lot of ignorance in the North. And ignorance just means that, you know, people don’t know, and sometimes when people don’t know, they kind of do things that might be harmful, or might be like, continuing the status quo.
There’s people in the community that have really strong and serious concerns about the rates of cancer that’s going through their communities and their families. And really, there’s been no sound explanation or reasoning, why these things happen. And a lot of these stories are just swept under the rug — demeaned, dismissed, disregarded. And how hurtful is that? For those individuals to be going through this thing and trying to seek help for something like cancer, and then their concerns just get swatted away. That must be so tough for people in their communities like that. So if we can shine some light on that, and hold some space for those voices to be heard, I think that’s something that would make me feel pretty good about all the things that we learned and experienced along this story journey. You know, if we can shine that light and hold that space, so the voices from the communities are not disregarded, or demeaned or dismissed — but so that they’re actually heard. And if anything, I think that’s one of the main things that hopefully the listeners take away from a Dene perspective — how much this place means to us, how much it is tied to who we are. And hopefully people will enjoy it and hopefully it shines a light so we can hold that space for voices in those communities.