Ermineskin, Warren

Hobbema loses warm voice of encouragement

Radio announcer Warren Ermineskin dies of heart attack
By Elise Stolte, edmontonjournal.com
January 5, 2011 5:02 PM

EDMONTON — Listeners could often tell when someone called radio announcer Warren Ermineskin to talk about drugs or troubles at home.

There would be nothing on the airwaves but a long series of songs and advertisements before DJ Nyte-hawk finally came back. Then he’d talk about the call and give advice, and hope the young people of Hobbema were listening.

The community lost a warm voice of encouragement last week when the evening radio announcer died of a heart attack.

Ermineskin beat an alcohol addiction, put jail time behind him and started at Muskwachees Radio as a volunteer janitor eight years ago. He learned on the job and entertained listeners “bush radio” style — using with a mix of Cree and English.

He was 49 when he died.

“I didn’t know him personally, but when he was on the radio he was my friend and companion. He kept the evenings lively,” said Hobbema resident Beverly Crier.

“He was so funny, laughing at his own mistakes. I’ll really miss him.”

“He had quite a following,” said Bert Crowfoot, CEO of the Aboriginal Multi-media Society, which owns a competing radio station.

“I just liked his style. It’s bush radio, not a slick city or mainstream sound. I had a lot of respect for him.”

Ermineskin grew up in Edmonton, a world away from reserve life and his Cree culture. His alcohol addiction led to several drunk driving charges, which had him in and out of jail for years, said his wife, Debra Louis-Ermineskin.

Eventually he moved back home to the Ermineskin First Nation reserve, about 90 kilometres south of Edmonton, and started learning Cree and attending traditional ceremonies at the local Nayo-skan Treatment Centre.

But it was hard to stay sober. His last jail term was in 1996.

When he started volunteering at the Samson Cree radio station in 2002, he told manager Wilson Okeymaw, “ ‘I need to keep busy to keep myself straight,’ ” said Okeymaw.

From then on, he was a constant presence. He mopped up and ran errands for the secretaries. Left his number to call in case of emergency, then started helping set up equipment when the DJ’s went on location. Soon he was filling in on-air when DJ’s were late or sick.

“That’s how he started,” said Okeymaw. “People were asking, ‘Hey, who’s that funny man on air?’ So when a position was open, I asked him to apply. He fit in there like a glove.”

Ermineskin’s trademark was his self-depreciating style and his mix of Cree and English.

Crier remembers listening to him on a drive to Camrose once. He was telling a joke, then got interrupted by a phone call and played three sets of songs before suddenly remembering, “Oh yeah, I was telling a story.”

“Well, it’s because I don’t fire right (in the brain)” he’d often say in Cree.

“Oh, my gosh, I was just laughing,” said Crier. “That was only one of many incidents.”

Ermineskin’s goal was to give young people hope, to keep them away from drugs and gangs or thoughts of suicide, said Okeymaw. He was on most evenings for eight hours, playing a mixture of country, powwow and rock, as well as anything people requested.

He’d give out prizes, pass messages across the air from one friend to another, and slip in advertisements against drug use. They built an extra studio in the office to record these and he always tried to make them funny.

Recently, he and the current acting manager, Robert Ward, recorded a series of short comedies called Two Hairs and Smiles Alot. These will play throughout the week in Ermineskin’s memory, said Ward.

Muskwachees Radio can be heard at 89.1 FM between Wetaskiwin and Ponoka, or online at www.samsoncree.com/mradio.

Ermineskin and the radio station were involved in a labour dispute when he died.

Ward came on as acting manager after Okeymaw had a heart attack two years ago. Ward said he fired Ermineskin several months ago for “not following policy.”

Ermineskin appealed to the federal labour relations board. He was hoping to either get his job back or use compensation money to start his own station, said his niece Louisa Rain.