A storyteller from the beginning, Jeff Bear first fell in love with the “medium of image-taking” during his days as a photojournalist with the University of Regina’s student-run newspaper Carillon. “I started taking photographs and wrapping stories around the images. I got hooked.” Bear had moved to Saskatchewan from his home in New Brunswick, where he was raised within the First Nation Maliseet community. Bear’s long-standing commitment to his roots was also evident from the start, with the first years of his career dedicated to the field of Native communications.
Then in 1983 he developed a taste for the moving image with the Advanced Electronic Media Course taught at Banff—at the time, “advanced electronic media” meant mixing shows on 8 tracks and editing tape to tape. Nevertheless, Bear was far from being dissuaded by the labour-intensive process involved in video editing: “I learned quite a bit and got hooked to that other medium, the moving image. From that point, I started focusing my energies on storytelling for television.”
With this ambition as a guiding principle, Bear moved from his work with First Nations groups to freelancing in Ottawa. Not long after, a short-term CBC contract turned into a 3-year stint at the national broadcaster’s Toronto office.
During this period, his assignments included segments for the highly popular daily show CBC Journal. “I worked swiftly under tight deadlines and learned how to turn large amounts of tape into a 5-minute piece.” On the one hand, this high-pressure environment taught Bear how to meet the quick turn-around demanded by a daily show’s schedule. On the other hand, his experience at the Journal also supplied him with the freedom to push his personal limits: “At the Journal there were certainly enough resources to experiment in all sorts of formats, and I did that. I was one of a select few producers who worked on documentary without reporters. I told stories in a traditional documentary format without narration, just letting the voices tell the story.”
The non-linear editing techniques he picked up during this period proved invaluable in his later work on CTV’s First Story, the first national aboriginal affairs program produced prior to the launch of APTN. Over a mere three-year period, he produced 78 half-hour documentaries for the station.
Then with the launch of APTN, Bear decided it was time to set up his own independent company, Urban Rez Productions. The name was inspired by the title of a segment within First Story. The original special spotlighted Vancouver’s indigenous population, but Bear felt that the term “urban rez” was just as applicable to his company: “We’re in the city, but we’re on the rez.” His sense of community, and his responsibility to the people of that community, is central to the Urban Rez ethos.
As evidence of this commitment, every documentary produced by Urban Rez is translated into the traditional Maliseet language of Bear’s people. Maliseet is widely considered a dying tongue, but Urban Rez productions has managed to create a small industry for remaining speakers. “With my sister and one of our clan mothers, we translate the entire script and then we hire speakers to come in. We try to get different speakers for different characters. We spend about $50,000 a year on that.”
Funding agencies offer very few incentives for this kind of initiative, but the challenges that come with translation sometimes bring their own rewards. Aside from helping to sustain a community of speakers, the effort allows Bear to tap his creativity. “We went through an incredible learning curve because of the new words used today… What do you call the internet when we didn’t have it twenty-five years ago? We’ve had to be inventive. For example, ‘internet’ was ‘sibellektigin’—and what that directly translates to is ‘spreading the word widely.’”
And ‘spreading the word widely’ is in large part what Bear’s work aims to achieve—not just the words of the Maliseet language, but also the word on a variety of pressing issues. Bear’s documentary series Samaqan, or Water Stories, aims to reach an audience outside the First Nations community:
“One of my hopes was for it to transcend our traditional story boundaries beyond an aboriginal viewership. Our children will grow up—black, white, brown, or red—and they will grow up in this environment, and what we leave behind for them is the legacy we leave. I felt it was important to try to bridge the gap between societies through Samaqan/Water Stories, and in that vein we hired Severn Cullis-Suzuki as our host. That’s second-generation environmentalist in Canada …Those stories are there for us to remember and for us to acknowledge our connection to water.”
This central theme—the human connection to water—pulls together a wide array of topics. One episode highlights the rebirth of birch-bark canoe making among First Nations communities. Another uses the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to consider the impact that a similar disaster would have on Canada’s West coast wildlife and seafood industry. Yet another concerns the lack of running water in the First Nations communities of Northern Manitoba. “If you don’t have running water, you can’t wash your hands. The First Nations community is like a lightning rod to any sort of national health disaster that might happen.” For Bear, the breadth of topics covered simply speaks to the central role that water plays in so many aspects of our lives, whether it be to sustain our livelihoods or to maintain our basic health. “This is a story for all of us.”
Bear still adheres to the approach he applied when filming his first CBC documentary, “just letting the voices tell the story.” But in order to be heard by a wide audience, these voices need the platform that Bear’s documentaries provide.
Recognizing the important role media plays in shaping public opinion, Bear joined the CMPA to have an influence on media-related policies. “I think it’s important to note that there is no aboriginal producers’ association. At the CMPA, I’m actively advocating better policies for us, policies that are equitable.”
Membership with the CMPA is just one more way for Bear to reach out to a wider community.