BEHIND THE SCENES with the producers of My Life So Far

**For those of us outside of Alert Bay, can you tell us a brief history of the area and where it fits into the Canadian pastiche

Alert Bay is part of the home of the Namgis First Nation. They are among the coastal Indians of the Pacific Northwest. They have a rich cultural tradition. Their art is probably best known. If you watch the Vancouver Olympics, you'll see their visual motifs integrated into the look of the games . . . including the medals. Less known but just as significant is their dance, language, and spirituality. This was a thriving culture. But it is struggling today. The collision of European and aboriginal people in Canada has been tragic. In Alert Bay, two buildings, one beside the other, tell the story. There's the U'Mista Cultural Centre, a beautifully crafted log building that displays a treasure of masks and other artifacts. They had been confiscated during an earlier era when the government suppressed the potlatch. Now repatriated, these artifacts have place of pride in the community. Then there's St. Michaels Residential School, a looming relic filled with painful memories. Until it closed in the 1970s, native children taken from their parents and sent there to be educated and assimilated. The experience brutalized generations of children. In 2008 the Canadian government officially apologized for the wrongs committed at the residential schools. I think it's safe to say that most Canadians feel a sense of shame over our treatment of aboriginal people. There are some notable success stories. But far too many native people in Canada live in grinding poverty. When we in the Canadian media report on aboriginal issues, it is usually only to cover social ills. We parachute into a community looking particular stories, and – surprise, surprise – we leave a few days later with our expectations fulfilled. Small wonder that First Nations mistrust the media

Why did you decide to go there, and how much did you know about the area before you started this project

Neil had been looking for an opportunity to get Outfront into an aboriginal find a way to help them tell their stories. Teresa knew Alert Bay. She had produced a documentary about "grease" - the spiritually significant food stuff made from the oolichan fish. She had established a rapport with Randy Bell, a mover and shaker and all round cool dude from Alert Bay. Randy invited Teresa to return to Alert Bay to work with some youth. Outfront piggybacked on the invitation, and together, Teresa and Neil hatched a plan. Randy Bell was critical to the execution of the project. When you're a stranger going into a small community a go-between like Randy gives you legitimacy and opens doors

How did you find the five young people who recorded audio diaries? How much guidance (and what sort) did they receive from you

Finding the kids was a crap shoot. We worked through Randy, advising him on the kind of kids we wanted. He chose them, and he did well. But we got lucky too. 17-year-old Alvin Stevens had a summer job working at a salmon hatchery, but got injured just before we arrived. Randy steered him into the course. It turned out Alvin was a natural. Teresa and Neil developed a curriculum of sorts that combined teaching radio skills with assignments that we hoped would yield recordings we could work with. We got the kids hooked from the get-go. We recorded them saying a few lines about themselves, then played it back to them using every filter and gimmick Adobe Audition had to offer. We brought four recording kits with us. We set the fixings for peanut butter and jam sandwiches in front of them, paired them off, and had one kid be recording technician while the other described how to make the perfect pbj sandwich. Then they swapped roles. It was a two-fer. They learned how to handle a mic, how to describe something, and keep talking. And they got lunch. Each day we upped the risk level in terms of the kinds of material we asked the kids to record about their lives. We'd sample what they recorded at the end of each day. We'd play best practices the next morning. On the last day we rounded out the material with one-on-one interviews, and some speculative continuity. Of course, we improvised a ton. We suggested, directed, but ultimately, they chose what they recorded. For example, we asked them to record an interview with someone close to them. They decided who, and what they would ask that person. In preparing our makeshift curriculum, we borrowed from multiple sources including the fine work of Story Corps and Polar Radio

Did anything surprise you about the stories they chose to tell

Before Teresa and Neil arrived in Alert Bay, they fretted about how to get the kids to convey the extended family that is so much a part of island life. Then, on the first day, while Alvin was doing his "stream of consciousness" assignment walking around the town, he bumped into a construction worker. In a simple unplanned conversation he captured the extended family idea in a nutshell. That was a surprise

Jacqueline, a teenager, surprised me when she said that she felt old. But then I learned that she had effectively raised her baby sister since she (Jacqueline) was 8 years old. And Alvin surprised with his plain spoken eloquence. "They tried to make us them" was how he explained the residential schools. I've never heard anyone say it better

My Life so Far intertwines interviews, diary entries, sounds and the small details of daily in Alert Bay to draw a portrait of the community. With so many elements how did it come together so gracefully

Lindsay Michael did most of the editing of this version of My Life So Far . (There is another version – four Outfront episodes, each one a different theme.) Lindsay is a classically trained musician, and has a keen ear for juxtaposition and the rhythm of speech. You can hear that in the structure of the piece. It's like a composition. Quite impressionistic. I was not surprised that we got a pastiche. We didn't want to dictate the content. I thought early on that it would be a matter of finding the patterns and rhythms in what they gave us

How did community members react when they heard the story

I was nervous about that. I was confident that kids were telling their stories without our having twisted them into something different. But still, you want people to feel like they've been treated fairly. It turned out that the community was proud of the job the kids did in the broadcast and the picture they painted. We created a Facebook Group for the show (Alert Bay on CBC). The comments were positive. Some people who used to live in Alert Bay said that the programs made them long for home. In the documentary, Kari-Anne is the teenager who chafes under her parents' tight control. It's a funny, typically teenage moment. Her mother wrote me to say that they listened together. She said the shows prompted a real heart to heart talk, mother to daughter. Her mother also asked me for a copy of the raw tape of her daughter. She understood that it was an audio snapshot of her 17 year old that was worth keeping

Are the students you worked with continuing to record, and/or do you plan to keep up with them in any way

Thanks to Facebook I keep in touch with what they're up to. I wish I could report that they are recording their faces off, but they're not. I would love to follow up with them.