Acclaimed Aboriginal Writer Passes Away

By Lloyd Dolha

Aboriginal author and radio personality Bernelda Wheeler, passed away from cancer on Saturday, September 10, 2005 at the age of 68, at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, with her family by her side.

Wheeler was one of the first female aboriginal journalists in Canada and was a pioneer with her work in media.

Born in Saskatchewan on April 3, 1937, of Cree, Assinaboine and Saulteaux heritage, Wheeler left the reserve with her parents in the 1940s and moved to Churchill, Manitoba.

In 1954, at the age of 17, she began her radio career as a disc jockey for CFHC, CBC’s northern service in Churchill.

Much of her success was achieved in Winnipeg between 1972 and 1982, when she was host, producer and investigative journalist for “Our Native Land,” a national CBC radio program dedicated to aboriginal issues.

She was known for the ground breaking work she did for CBC radio, interviewing and covering First Nations people, issues and events.

Wheeler was a pioneer when she began her work in the early 1970s and she was the first indigenous voice many people heard on radio.
In 1982, Wheeler won the ‘First Lady in Native Broadcasting’ award for her work on the national radio show. She was also nominated for two ACTRA awards for Best Writer and Best Radio Program and, in 1991, was nominated to the Order of Canada, for her work in media.

Book CoverWheeler was also the author of numerous short stories and poems and was best known for her four children’s books. She received the Children’s Choice and the Toronto Children’s Book Award for Where Did You Get Your Moccasins and I Can’t Have Bannock but the Beaver has a Dam. The book I Can’t Have Bannock is recommended for all elementary school libraries.

Wheeler was also an actor, acting in the play Someday at Saskatchewan’s Globe Theater and served as an advisor to the Aboriginal Film and Video Alliance.

In her final years, she had a monthly column in Eagle Feather News.
Five days before her death, Wheeler was notified the she was being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anskohk Aboriginal Literacy Festival for “her substantial contribution to Aboriginal Literature, her professionalism and leadership as a writer and her dedication to her craft and community.”

“As a pioneer in media and literary circles, Bernelda will always be remembered for her sensitive storytelling of the lives of aboriginal people,” said Eric Robinson, Minister of Culture, Heritage and Tourism, for Maintoba.

Bernelda Wheeler is survived by her daughter, Dr.Winona Wheeler, and her son Jordon Wheeler, and her extended family.