Nelson Bird continues to break path for Indigenous journalists
- Kerry Benjoe | July 13, 2023
On July 13th the province’s most recognizable TV personality Nelson Bird will reach a milestone in his career – a quarter century in front of the camera.
In June, he received a RTDNA (Radio, Television, Digital News Association) Lifetime Achievement Award making him quite possibly the first Status Indian to receive the recognition.
Other well-known recipients include Lloyd Robertson and Ian Hanomansing.
“Overall, it validates the work that I’ve done to share who we are as Indigenous people, because that was always my goal from the very beginning of my career,” said Bird. “I wanted to educate non-Indigenous people and even ourselves about who we are and what we’re about.”
The desire to educate others and to share stories about Indigenous people began long before he stepped into a newsroom.
“I think back to when I was 19 years old, as a young building maintenance person … I was always the only Indian in the room with a bunch of other coworkers whom I adored most of the time,” said Bird. “But I always felt (like) I needed to let them know who we are.”
He returned to school and graduated from the University of Regina and the First Nations University of Canada with a Bachelor of Journalism and Indigenous studies along with a certificate in Indigenous Communication Arts.
In 1998, Bird joined the CTV newsroom as a video journalist, producer and anchor. In addition to daily news coverage, he became the host of Indigenous Circle, which is one of the longest-running, Indigenous-focused news segments, which airs weekly on CTV Saskatchewan.
“Back then, it was not easy to get into the business,” he said. “They were not looking for Indigenous people, they were not looking for people of colour. It seemed to be a white career thing because every newsroom I ever went to as an intern or seen, there were no Indigenous people.”
Bird said CTV Regina was always ahead of its time when it came to showcasing Indigenous people and Indigenous stories.
“Carol Adams (now GoldenEagle) was a reporter here back in the early ’80s and she was a journalist and an anchorperson,” he said. “Most people don’t realize she was among the first (Indigenous reporters in Canada) and Joan Beatty also. They were here in the ’80s and I came along in 1998.”
Throughout his career he has won many local and national awards for his work, but says it’s never been about the accolades.
“I made it my mission from the very beginning to tell our stories in a way that they have never been told before,” said Bird. “I’ve maintained that and I still push for that.”
His dedication to the job, his love of storytelling and his nose for news did not go unnoticed.
In 2013, he became the first Indigenous person to hold the position of assignment editor for CTV News Regina – a mainstream news outlet.
To put the accomplishment into perspective.
At CTV there are only about seven Indigenous journalists across the country. Meanwhile most newsrooms still don’t have any Indigenous representation at all.
“The reason I have stayed so long, is because I felt like I need to do this and I’m not done yet,” said Bird about his career choice. “I prayed for this along time ago. I prayed for answers to where I should be in this world and what I should do. Some days I have nearly quit. There have been days I’ve almost walked out of here and said, ‘Screw this, I just can’t do this anymore.’ And there are very specific reasons why I thought that and those reasons still come across my desk, or my phone or my computer on a regular basis.”
Early in his career, he received death threats via telephone or mail, but that all changed with the introduction of social media.
“It opened a whole new door to more abuse toward all people, Indigenous people especially,” said Bird. “I nearly packed it in and thought ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ But I always felt like if I quit and I stopped then they win.”
News of his lifetime achievement award came the same day CTV announced massive job cuts throughout the news chain, which made him hesitant about sharing his good news.
However, he wanted to thank his co-workers for putting his name forward, so he made a post thanking the special people in his life.
Bird is the first to admit journalism is a tough profession because it’s unpredictable, but he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It was my destiny, it was my purpose. it was my mission,” he said. “It still is.”
Being a reporter is a demanding, high-stress and deadline-driven job.
“You have to have thick skin in this industry as an Indigenous person in mainstream,” said Bird. “This is what we are as journalists, we are reporting the story. We are not the story. We have to keep on maintaining that because some of the stuff we see and we report on are unfortunate especially when it comes to the poverty, the injustice and the issues like missing women, missing people. These are things that hurt me and bother me. But I just keep going. I may go home and cry. I may shed a tear sometimes, but I know I have to get back on that horse and get back in the newsroom each day. ”
He credits his wife Judy for being the one who gets him through those hard times.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just humans getting by, doing our jobs and doing the best we can,” said Bird.
Although he faced many tough situations throughout his career, he remains optimistic.
These days, he sees so many young people and young journalists who are genuinely interested in learning about Indigenous people, Indigenous culture and Indigenous history.
As a veteran journalist, he’s happy to mentor many of Canada’s up-and-coming young journalists.