Heiltsuk Radio: Bringing the Community Together

When Nicole Carpenter was recruited to be the Program Coordinator for Heiltsuk Radio 95.1 FM last August, she knew it was the job for her.

“I love to engage with my community,” says Carpenter who is building Heiltsuk radio programs and audiences from the ground up with Technology Coordinator Gordon Humchitt. “We want to bring everyone together during this time when we can’t be with one another, but we can all be together around our radios.”

Community radio has brought members of Waglisla (Bella Bella) closer during months of lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions. The station was launched in 2019 by students who wanted to broadcast songs in the Háiɫzaqvḷa language to their community.

“The kids were composing songs at that time and singing public songs – like the herring song about all the different ways we eat herring,” explains Carpenter. “They used it when we won the closure of the herring fishery here in Bella Bella and we like when they sing it.”

Sharing Heiltsuk music, language and cultural ceremonies over the airways is bringing comfort to a community that has had more than its share of loss in the past year. When pandemic restrictions prohibited large gatherings, Carpenter began airing funeral services for members to listen to at home and in their cars.

“In 2020 when I started, we had quite a few deaths that were non-COVID related. The COVID restrictions were getting tighter and tighter and only 10 people were able to attend funerals,” Carpenter remembers. “We like to gather and we like to support each other. It’s really hard when we can’t right now.”

As many as 70 cars join a bereaved family in “drive-bys” through the community that replace funeral gatherings, she
says. The processions start when the radio broadcast begins. “When we have funerals here, especially when it’s a Chief, they usually fill up the halls with everybody in town. We started doing this and it really does feel better.”

Carpenter pre-records the service with the minister and creates a program based on the family’s wishes. She puts together eulogies, poems, Heiltsuk songs, hymns, messages from community members and has started including raven and eagle sounds.

“When I do a service it takes a lot out of me. I feel everything, I can hear it in their messages,” she says. “I like to make people think that they’re in church when I put the program together. So that we’re all sitting together, doing the same things we usually do when we’re comforting a grieving family. Just so they know they’re not alone.”

Heiltsuk Radio brings distant family closer in times of loss as well. Carpenter provides a recording to the grieving family to share with relatives in Vancouver and other far-off places. “Our families are big and for us to be able broadcast funerals and services and share this with them is quite nice.”

Carpenter believes community radio also has an important role to play in providing accurate and dependable information. Listeners tune in to 95.1 FM for public health messages and COVID-19 protocols, including band store rules and travel restrictions. “I want people to say, I heard it on the radio, instead of Facebook.”

She aims to uplift people’ spirits after months of being unable to gather. “Friday nights, we play popular end-of-the-week music. On Saturdays, we plan to have comedy nights and concerts to make you feel like you are out.”

“Eventually when we do come out of COVID, we’ll be going to basketball tournaments, and maybe even feasts and potlatches.” Carpenter hopes to share these ceremonies with Heiltsuk who may never have been to the community. Plans are underway to start streaming programs so that both community and off-reserve members can listen online.

“Our children in care are the ones I’m excited to reach. The ones who don’t even know this place, they don’t know anyone here,” she says. “Maybe it will start their language journey. Because the radio is meant to teach our language and share our stories, to share the culture.”

Carpenter hopes Heiltsuk music radio will give her community the support it’s provided her family in a difficult year.

“I think our songs and our stories are really powerful and guide us in ways we don’t even know about,” Carpenter concludes. “I think the music reminds us of when we were all together.”