Coleen's story

Ten years after establishing herself as a hard news reporter for CBC Manitoba, Coleen Rajotte has her own production company, two hit health shows on the air and a self-titled documentary in the works. But the journey from girl with a dream to woman in charge wasn't always an easy road to travel.

Ten years after establishing herself as a hard news reporter for CBC Manitoba, Coleen Rajotte has her own production company, two hit health shows on the air and a self-titled documentary in the works. But the journey from girl with a dream to woman in charge wasn't always an easy road to travel.

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Fall 2009

It's just after 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning when Coleen Rajotte rolls into the Cindy Klassen Recreation Centre parking lot in her grey Toyota 4Runner.

The sky is overcast, suggesting rain may be in the offing, but the air is fresh and warm - a perfect morning for a quick workout.

Within minutes, Rajotte, stylishly decked out in black sweatpants and a white sweatshirt with a stylized "C" on the left shoulder, is on the track performing a series of lunges and side-squats. "Two, three, four," calls out Diane Kornel, a tiny but fitlooking woman who is Rajotte's personal trainer. Her voice is low, more encouraging than demanding, as she puts her client through her paces. "Five, six, seven - belly button in! Open up that chest."

Over the course of the next hour or so, Rajotte will run a series of 200 metre sprints, each one punctuated by a short walk. Later, she'll cap off the workout with a couple of runs up and down the bleachers. It's a demanding routine, one that Rajotte carries out at least twice a week, sometimes with Kornel, sometimes working alone.

That this 42-year-old woman is determined to optimize her health and wellbeing should not come as a surprise. Ten years after having established herself as a hard news reporter for CBC Manitoba, Rajotte now heads up her own television production company and is the host of its two flagship health and wellness programs - Vitality and Vitality Gardening - which are broadcast nationally on the Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN). As a CEO and television host, she needs to look the part.

But this isn't a tale about the need to keep fit and trim for the camera. Rather, it is a story of Rajotte's journey of selfdiscovery, one that enabled her to connect with her biological parents and tap into her Cree-Métis roots. Along the way, Rajotte has not only gained new insight into a world she barely knew, she has also learned about the importance of leading a balanced life, one that is rooted in the traditional aboriginal approaches to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. These ideas not only shape Rajotte's daily routine, they are also at the core of each and every episode of Vitality and Vitality Gardening that she produces.

Rajotte was not always as deeply immersed in aboriginal culture as she is today. Born in 1966, she says, "My life was blank until I was eight months old." That was when Nelson and Betty Rajotte - a United Church minister and his stay-at- home-wife adopted her.

Her early years - from toddler to midadolescence - were, as they say, "without incident." There was no trauma, no conflict. Indeed, she and her siblings (a younger brother and sister) were raised in a comfortable, secure environment in a sprawling manse on Elgin Avenue, while her father ministered to parishioners at Sparling United Church.

As for being "different," Rajotte and her brother (also adopted and aboriginal) hardly stood out from the other children in their multi-racial neighbourhood. In fact, as Rajotte recounts - still with strong feeling - the first time she realized she was "different" was when, at five years old, she was shopping with her mother at The Bay downtown.

"My mother was a few aisles over. I called out 'Mom' and all of a sudden people were staring at me. Then I saw a woman walk over to my mother; she asked if I was really her daughter and demanded an explanation. That was the first time I realized I was adopted," she recalls.

Rajotte's darkest moments came when her father was posted to a church in Westwood. The move from inner city to affluent suburbia was traumatic. "I began Grade 10 at Westwood Collegiate and as far as I could tell, I was the only aboriginal in the school," she says. "It was like being in a bad movie." There was no bullying, no fighting; the other kids just wouldn't talk to her. "I was shunned for the first time in my life. It was the loneliest experience I've ever had," she says.

Today though, reflecting on those years, Rajotte is convinced "that the experience forced me to look at the world in a different way." She says she coped by developing a tough exterior. And even as difficult as those years were, Rajotte never lost the sense of what she wanted to become. "I never thought of running because I was always focused. I knew I wanted to be a TV journalist and nothing was going to stop me from reaching that goal."

The first indication of Rajotte's creative and entrepreneurial flair came early on. As a little girl, she loved reading and performing. Her parents, mystified at her ideas, remember her writing plays and charging kids in the neighbourhood a nickel to come and watch her perform. But the most memorable moment in her young life took place when she was nine years old and in Grade 3 at Cecil Rhodes School. "One day, our librarian - a wonderful woman - encouraged us to write a book of our own." The result was The Sour Orange - a small book, bound in orange and black, neatly printed in grey crayon from title page to end credits. It tells the tale of an orange that runs away to discover hope and friendship.

This early effort, now a cherished keepsake, not only reflects Rajotte's early attention to detail, but also signifies a "pivotal point" in her life. "Writing that book exposed me to possibilities. It meant that books weren't just something in the library that others wrote, they were also something I could create," she says. Thus began the desire for storytelling, which - over time - evolved. A few years later, when Rajotte graduated from Grade 7 at Sargent Park School, her life's goal was quoted clearly under her yearbook picture: "Wants to be a TV journalist."

Soon after she enrolled at the University of Manitoba, first studying English and then Labour Studies, Rajotte's family transferred to British Columbia. The young student chose to stay in Winnipeg where, living in a small basement suite in St. James and waiting tables 30 hours a week, she put herself through university. In 1989 she graduated with an advanced Bachelor of Arts (BA).

After her dismal high school years, university was a huge relief. "I loved it," she says. "People were interested in me in a positive way. I can remember sitting in classes thinking, 'Wow, I can just be me.'"

And still Rajotte didn't feel any compelling need to explore where she came from or who she was. One reason, perhaps, was that over the years there had been little discussion about her adoption within her adoptive family. "It was a sensitive topic for my parents. I knew they loved me and I think they felt that if I looked into my background, they might lose me," she recalls.

After graduation, while working at a couple of brief government jobs, Rajotte, who still envisioned herself a TV reporter, decided to put her thoughts into action. One day, while downtown, she impulsively detoured into CBC's Human Resources Department. She filled out an application for a summer intern position and - as the cliché goes - the rest is history. Her resume caught the interest of management, which led to a three-week stint as a researcher that stretched, in turn, into a nine-year career as a TV journalist.

Over the years, while working in television, digging beneath the surfaces of people's lives, Rajotte began to feel the need to search for her own roots. It was, however, a gradual awakening. As one of CBC's aboriginal reporters, Rajotte was sent out to cover many of the stories that affected aboriginal people. At first, she was uncomfortable covering this area - she didn't want viewers to think there would be a bias in reporting. But with time, her attitude changed as she realized her very presence on air was unique.

"There was an outpouring of attention from aboriginal communities. I was invited to be a guest speaker at schools and aboriginal events. I was being invited as a role model. And I decided that if I'm going to be a role model, I have to find out who I am."

Rajotte strongly believes she has been "nudged" along every step of her journey of self-discovery by elders who have entered her life through her work. For instance, in late 1998, while working on a story about residential school survivors, she met Mildred and Esther Bunn from the Birdtail Sioux Reserve. As she toured the old Birtle Residential School with the elderly sisters, Mildred Bunn asked: "Did your parents go to residential school?"

Rajotte replied: "I don't know."

Mildred prodded further: "You have to find them."

By 1999, Rajotte felt it was time to leave CBC. Although she had made a name for herself as a respected journalist and was well established within the corporation, she was feeling somewhat frustrated. Obviously, within any television news show there are time constraints on each story told. But by this time, Rajotte, who had witnessed the many issues plaguing aboriginal communities, wanted to dig deeper; she felt the need to work on longer, in-depth documentaries. Subsequently, supported by longtime partner John Bronevitch (a videojournalist for CBC's The National), Rajotte left her comfortable salaried position to strike out on her own.

It was actually a fortuitous time for a Canadian aboriginal journalist. APTN was to premiere on television in September 1999, and as Canada's only aboriginal TV network, it would need material aimed specifically at Canada's indigenous peoples. It was a match made in heaven. Through her production company, Rajotte developed a number of documentaries for APTN, each one a poignant personal story about the social issues that have torn aboriginal communities apart for decades: stories about survivors of residential schools, of teen suicide in an isolated Ontario community, and, more recently, a three-part series on the tragic aftermath of aboriginal adoptees. These were hard-hitting programs, and while they certainly touched on issues of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, they were not "wellness" programs in the classic sense.

It was around the time she started her production company that Rajotte took Mildred Bunn's advice to find her people. After leaving the CBC, she applied to Child and Family Services for her adoption file. At that time, people who were adopted could get "non-identifying information."

Rajotte's adoption papers arrived on September 9, 1999. The date is etched in her mind. Not only because of the magnitude of the event, but also because she and partner Bronevitch captured the moment on film. In a brave move, considering the intimacy of the process, Rajotte had decided to document her search for her biological family. (This documentary - now 10 years in the making - goes under the working title of "Coleen's Story.")

Through her file, Rajotte discovered that her biological family had been looking for her since her 18th birthday. After a time, Rajotte did travel to Saskatchewan to meet with her large, extended biological family. But it wasn't a journey made in haste; it came after much thought and soul searching. She emphasizes that reuniting this way is a slow process. There is much raw emotion, and families, understandably, find it extremely difficult to discuss the past openly. Her own experience helped greatly as she produced a three-part series on adoption entitled "Confronting the Past." And it also helped as recently as four months ago when, as a guest speaker at Thunderbird House, during a session called "Circle of Courage," she was able to share her own experiences with other adoptees. "There is an assumption that when you are in your 40s you have dealt with it, but that isn't so," she says.

Reconnecting with her biological parents gave Rajotte a new perspective on her heritage in more ways than one. She was, of course, able to gain a deeper insight into her own identity. But contact with her family caused her to contemplate something she had taken for granted: her health. During her visit, she learned that some family members had diabetes, an indication that she may also be vulnerable to the disease. She also had an aunt who was disabled because of a stroke in her 50s. "It was kind of a wake-up call," she says.

In addition, Rajotte was becoming more aware of the health issues facing aboriginal people generally. According to the Health Canada website, the rate of heart disease among Aboriginal Canadians is 1.5 times higher than the general population, while diabetes rates are three to five times higher, and tuberculosis infection rates are eight to 10 times higher. Rajotte experienced the impact of these statistics first- hand when Louis Quill, a former chief of the Pikangikum First Nations Community in northwestern Ontario and a man she admired for raising awareness about suicide among young people on the reserve, died at the age of 38 while waiting for a kidney transplant.

It slowly dawned on Rajotte that she was in a position to do something to raise awareness about health issues facing aboriginal people, something that was unlike anything else on air or in print. The idea seemed to crystallize one evening during a dream. "I dreamt I was walking along when I came to a crossroads. There was a sign on the side of the road that said 'Vital.' The crossroads may have symbolized a time of change in Rajotte's life, and it didn't take her long to figure out what the word on the sign meant.

Vitality went to air on APTN in the fall of 2006. The key to the show, of course, was the exploration of health and wellness issues within an aboriginal context. There were lots of health and wellness television shows on the air, but none with an aboriginal flavour. Rajotte was determined to use the show to highlight personal stories of people dealing with their health challenges in a way that would resonate with the larger aboriginal community.

Season one was ambitious. The show aired five nights a week for six weeks: each weekday evening focused on a different individual facing a particular challenge. Mondays followed a firefighter from the Aboriginal Firefighters Association as he concentrated on losing weight to become more fit; Tuesdays focused on a teenage synchronized swimmer as she attempted to eliminate junk food from her diet; Wednesday's theme was diabetes management. This segment, of all others, garnered the most response as viewers identified with the young mother of five who, over the weeks, struggled painfully to manage her disease. On Thursdays, the show introduced viewers to the traditional ways of healing such as participating in a sweat lodge or gathering sage. And on Fridays, the show tackled stress management as viewers followed Rajotte through some of her professional and personal challenges. Episodes of Vitality are now in rerun on APTN, and video clips are available at

Season four of Vitality will air in the spring of 2010, and, staying with the show's basic theme, will concentrate on four individual makeovers over 12 weeks. Each person will be supported by a group of experts: doctors, nutritionists, fitness trainers, fashion stylists, and relationship coaches. As always, the shows are designed to connect to their audience. For example, Rajotte plans to introduce the participants in one episode to an authentic traditional experience as they spend a full day hauling wood poles to build a teepee, chopping wood, and cooking country foods over an open fire, all under the careful guidance of an elder. One of the ideas behind this particular episode is to measure the calories that the average person would burn off through these activities.

Rajotte's companion show on APTN, Vitality Gardening, has also proven to be a huge success. Initially, it started as a simple program to help people grow their own vegetables - no small thing when one considers the challenges of doing so in some northern communities with tricky climates. It didn't take long, however, for the show to become more than a gardening program.

In one of the first episodes, Rajotte learned about traditional ways of planting in her own backyard that go back thousands of years, such as sowing corn, beans and squash together in mounds. This sparked a series of programs that highlighted evidence of aboriginal farming along the Red River near Lockport prior to the arrival of the Selkirk settlers at Fort Garry, an important sociological point that is only now being included in grade school history textbooks.

Vitality Gardening has taken Rajotte and her production crew all over North America, from an innovative gardening project in Inuvik to exploring how the ancient Mayans in Mexico developed and grew the many varieties of corn. Besides travelling to locations in places like Nevada, New Orleans and Washington, the show has also featured a unique historical gardening site in North Dakota where the Mandans - in the 1700s - grew massive gardens of up to 300 acres. The local farming storyline will be picked up again when the program airs this fall.

Vitality and Vitality Gardening are major projects that take up a good chunk of Rajotte's time (planning for these programs takes 10 hour days, seven days a week for seven months). But she has other projects on the go. The documentary of her life continues to be a work in progress. She recently cast a young child to play a young Coleen and an older girl to play herself as a teen. She is also the Artistic Director and co-founder of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival, which celebrates its eighth season in November.

In a touch of irony, even though Rajotte didn't search out her aboriginal roots until she was in her 30s, today her awareness of indigenous people worldwide is deep and expansive. Her knowledge has grown through her exploration of traditional ways for her television shows, and through the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival, Rajotte has also had the opportunity to share ideas and stories with indigenous people around the world.

Rajotte considers the festival an important gathering place for international filmmakers, but perhaps more importantly, as an educational opportunity for young aboriginal filmmakers in high school. To that end, the festival offers an ambitious set of workshops over two days, which includes sessions on documentary making, news reporting, editing music videos, writing for TV and movies, and an introduction to acting. Also, there are workshops on the nuts and bolts of a complicated industry: how to create the right resume, how to pitch ideas, how to audition.

Just as she was introduced to the "possibility" of writing books in Grade 3 by a creative librarian, Rajotte sees the festival as an opportunity to show young filmmakers the possibility of working in video, film and television.

It's a late Friday afternoon in July and there's a certain "buzz" in the studios at Rajotte Productions. Although the interior of this renovated warehouse - with its soft white walls, gleaming wood floors and expansive windows - is designed to create a feeling of calm, at this moment the atmosphere is definitely tense.

It's deadline day. In a couple of hours, Rajotte Productions has to present its proposals for the 2010 season of Vitality and Vitality Gardening to APTN. After checking the numbers and then checking them again, the shows' templates are printed, tucked into a brown envelope and sent off to be hand-delivered to APTN's offices.

Rajotte visibly relaxes and takes time to reflect. From a small girl with a dream to a TV producer with budgets looming near half a million dollars, Rajotte has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. Through her work, Rajotte is recognized as a positive role model within aboriginal communities. It's a role she honours, not only because it gives value to her work, but also because it underscores her sense of identity.

But even now the experienced producer remains astonished at her early naiveté. "I didn't have a clue what I would need to do," she says.

Certainly she had story ideas - but to get them to air would require equipment (very expensive equipment), a crew (who would need to be paid), a base of operations and pre-commitments from broadcasters to air the finished product. Her biggest learning curve, though, was how to manage money flow. "I learned early to keep paper moving because deadlines and cash flow could be stressful." Rajotte estimates that about 35 per cent of her time is spent meeting with accountants, lawyers and bankers. Running a production company is a constant juggling act between working out funding formulas and production budget estimates and applying to funding corporations such as the Canadian Television Fund, CAVCO, Rogers Documentary Fund and the Manitoba Film and Music Corporation, to name a few.

Obviously, there were many tough moments in the early years. Too many, really, to count. One memory, however, does stand out: the time she didn't have enough money to pay the crew. It was scant days before Christmas, the crew hadn't been paid in weeks, and the bank refused to release the bridge financing money. The issue was one missing signature on one piece of paper - an issue out of Rajotte's control. The fledgling producer scrambled to borrow enough cash privately to sidestep the crisis, but it was a lesson learned. These days, she has a line of credit to cover immediate shortfalls.

But even with all the stress of working in a "crazy business," Rajotte says the past 10 years have offered her more peace of mind. "I am doing what I want to do. I can make a choice," she says. "My adoption affected my whole life. I realize how little people know about aboriginal people, and if one person learns a little through my work, I am successful."

And they are learning. As testimony to Rajotte's work, she has received many responses - many of them though e-mail. She keeps two in particular that were sent in response to her documentary on the aftermath of residential schools (Jaynelle: It's Never Easy to Escape The Past) posted in her home office:

"We are three white professionals living in downtown Toronto and your documentary got us discussing the problems that many aboriginal people face. While we have not arrived at any solutions, we sincerely believe that more can be learned about the problem if documentaries like the one you just aired were seen by more people."

And: "Just wanted to thank you . . . You touched me deeply. Please keep it up."

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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