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Radio host Roderick Rabbitskin mourned in Quebec Cree communities

12/05/2014 07:00 EST | Updated 02/04/2015 05:59 EST
"Wachiyak mis-soo-waa, nii Roderick Rabbitskin," was how he said hello to his listeners every day on his radio show. He never had a chance to say goodbye.

Popular host Roderick Rabbitskin kept Quebec's Cree listeners company in their kitchens, cars and camps for more than two decades.

He died on Monday at the age of 49 following a cardiac arrest, leaving people throughout EeyouIstchee in northern Quebec in shock and sadness, as well as in awe of all the lives he touched over the years. 

"He had a way of connecting with his audience," said the CBC's Betsy Longchap, who grew up with Rabbitskin in Mistissini, Que., and later worked with him for 13 years.

"You could tell he had a passion for the stories he covered." 

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Beyond his familiar voice, Rabbitskin is being remembered for the impact of his public coming-out in 2010 in the pages of the monthly magazine The Nation and in an emotional interview on his own radio show the same week.

After years of hiding his homosexuality, he decided it was time to open up — and in the process, he helped other gay Crees gain the strength to talk openly about their own sexuality.

"I don't think he did it just to free his own soul," said Daniel Mark-Stewart from the Cree community of Eastmain.

"I think he wanted to bring awareness to the issue. It gave people courage."

In recent years, Rabbitskin also spoke out about the bullying and sexual abuse he went through as a child. 
Mark-Stewart says Rabbitskin's openness helped many of his fellow Crees to accept themselves and others.

"Alongside the grand chiefs, Roderick was probably one of the most well-known people in the Cree Nation, so he was very influential," he said. "He became an inspiration to many people."

As a young man, Rabbitskin got his start playing gospel music on the local radio station in Mistissini before moving to Montreal in 1993 to work with CBC North's Cree radio unit as the host of the show Eyou Dipajimoon, which means "Stories of the People" in Cree.

Longchap recalls travelling with Rabbitskin, gathering stories for his noon-hour radio show.

"One time an Elder came up to us and says, pointing to his wife, 'At five minutes to 12 she grabs a chair and sits by the radio, just waiting for you to come on air, and she doesn't move 'til you're done,'" she said.

"People really connected with him."

After almost 20 years with the CBC, tired of city living and yearning to be closer to family, Rabbitskin returned to Mistissini, where he continued his radio career as host and production manager at JBCCS, the James Bay Cree Communications Society.

This week, tributes poured in about his work keeping the Cree language strong, and sharing stories that helped Crees in isolated communities feel connected. Many also remember the warmth of his laughter. 

On Rabbitskin's Facebook page, one listener shared a memory that she says still makes her smile.

"One day during lunch break, I was home alone and your voice on the radio kept me company," wrote Edna Neeposh. "You played an old song from the late '70s and got me dancing in the middle of the day.

"When the song was over, you said, 'Heh, nuuich buut niimiicheh Edna!' ("Heh! Edna must be really dancing away!") Little did you know that you were right."

The funeral will be held on Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. in Mistissini.

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