CKJL firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-04-21 published
Suzanne ROCHON- BURNETT, Broadcaster: (1935-2006)
Articulate, bilingual and passionate, she became the owner of a commercial radio station -- the first aboriginal to do so in Canada, writes Sandra MARTIN. It turned out to be a powerhouse enterprise
By Sandra MARTIN, Page S9
Suzanne ROCHON- BURNETT had more "firsts" in her life than most people have fingers. The first aboriginal woman to own and operate a commercial radio station and the first woman to be inducted into the Canadian Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame, she had many other achievements, including membership in the Orders of Ontario and Canada and an honorary doctorate from Brock University.
Articulate, bilingual and female, she was an obvious candidate for community and cultural boards in the postfeminist, multicultural, postconstitutional Canada of the 1980s and 1990s. What mattered, though, was what she brought to these privileged positions: passion, experience, advocacy, business acumen and commercial success as a broadcaster and the Chief Executive Officer of her own business.
Cultural advocate Nalini Stewart, who met her after both women were appointed to the Canada Council in 1998, remembers Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT quoting Métis leader Louis Riel at her first board meeting: "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who will fuel their spirits."
This statement, which Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT repeated frequently, was like a mantra. "She was a very passionate advocate, but she was not strident," said Ms. Stewart, who credits Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT with pressing the council to hire more aboriginal arts officers. "She was always educating us… and I felt very enriched by all the things I learned from her."
"Suzanne was a grand lady who brought enormous pride to her people," said Tony BELCOURT, president of the Métis Nation of Ontario. Having known her since 1972, he said she was like a sister to him. "She met every challenge head-on, persevered and was successful in everything she touched -- in business, in the arts, in communications, public service and in life. She gave 110 per cent."
Suzanne ROCHON- BURNETT was born in the Laurentians, north of Montreal in the middle of the Depression, the only daughter and middle child of Achille Joseph and Jeanne Marie BURNETT (née FILLION.) She was proud of her Métis heritage, which she could trace back through both sides of her family. She loved to tell stories about how her grandmother made and sold hats to supplement her income after she was widowed in her 40s, with 12 children to raise and a farm to run. Her mother carried on the artisan tradition by designing sweaters, hiring local women to knit them and then selling the finished product to tourists. At 7, Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT was hard at work as a courier, delivering wool to knitters and picking up the finished pieces to take back to her mother to assemble into sweaters.
Her parents sent her to boarding school at Pensionnat des Saint-Anges, a convent in Saint_Jérome, Quebec, where the nuns rapped her knuckles if she didn't attend to lessons or speak clearly in class. Decades later, she told an interviewer that her parents had warned her before she left home to keep her Indian blood a secret because "it doesn't show." She believed her parents were trying to protect her, but it left her "wondering what was wrong with it."
After the convent, she went to Proulx Business College to learn typing and shorthand. The job choices in her community in the 1950s were few: "The bank, the Bell, or the mill." She wasn't interested in the first two, so she applied for a job as a secretary, but the mill owner rejected her, saying she was too talented. According to Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT, he called her father and said, "don't let her work in this small town. It will bury her." Instead, the mill owner introduced Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT to the manager of CKJL-AM (now CJER-AM,) a radio station that had opened in Saint_Jerome in 1952. The manager was so impressed with her diction and pronunciation that he gave her a job.
Later, Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT credited her knuckle-rapping nuns for getting her a start as a broadcaster. But it was her own drive, journalistic talents and easy charm that won her a job as host, producer and public relations director of the station when she was 19, a position she held for six years. During this time, she also repackaged some of her programs for other stations around the province, took night classes in public relations and marketing at McGill University, and began working as a freelance journalist in print as well as broadcast.
With her striking colouring -- pale skin and chestnut hair and dark eyes -- she also found work as a model, becoming "the face" of the Montreal Royals baseball team and appearing in commercials on television. She made the most of the hedonism of the 1960s travelling around Europe working as a freelance print and broadcast journalist, living for a time in Paris, where she was said to have stayed in Edith Piaf's apartment and made Friends with Jacques Brel, hooking up with Gypsies in Spain and acting in commercials for NBC in New York.
Back in Canada, she converted a Laurentian lodge into a successful art gallery. She sold the business after she met and married Gordon BURNETT, owner of CHOW-AM in Welland, Ontario, in 1967. They soon had a baby daughter, Michèle-Elise BURNETT. The family moved to St. Catharines, where Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT was a full-time mother and volunteer for several years. One day, after dropping her daughter at school, she was struck by the empty hours in her days. "I'm 40 years old. I'm going to be 60 one day and I'm going to turn around and say 'what have I done with my life,' " she told Niagara magazine in May, 2005.
She came up with Chansons à la Française, a program idea that she turned into a one-hour show on CHOW that quickly expanded into two, and then four hours. The Ontario Ministry of Culture sponsored its distribution to more than 20 AM and FM radio stations in the province. That led to frequent invitations to appear as a commentator on francophone and Québécois talent on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio's Morningside, first when Harry Brown was a host and then with Don Harron.
In the recession of the early 1990s, her husband's AM radio station was gasping for survival. In 1995, she formed a company, R.B. Communications, and bought her husband's firm Wellport Broadcasting Ltd., and became the owner of a commercial radio station -- the first aboriginal to do so in this country. She was 60 years old and her husband was 75. Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT knew that having an FM frequency was essential for the station's success and she also knew that there was a licence for an FM frequency -- 97.1 -- available from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
"I looked at my mom and she looked at me and we said: 'Okay, let's go for it,'" said her daughter Michèle-Elise BURNETT, who was then 28 and in the business, having studied radio and television arts at Ryerson in Toronto. They won the licence in 1997, and launched a new format country music station they called Spirit 91.7 F.M. "It was a powerhouse," said Ms. BURNETT. "We became the second-most powerful station in the market, and very competitive."
Beginning in the 1980s, Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT had begun sitting on the boards of community native and arts and culture organizations, including the Canadian Native foundation for the Arts, TVOntario, the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Canada Council for the Arts and Brock University. At one time, she was working on six major boards simultaneously.
About three years ago, Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT was having trouble breathing. She was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs that makes it increasingly difficult for them to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. There is no cure and treatment options are negligible. Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT applied for a lung transplant, but she was an unsuitable candidate. She sold the station in 2004, but continued her advocacy work. About a year ago, she and her husband, who had led separate lives for some time, separated. Their daughter said that the radio station was the last thing her parents had in common. After it was sold, they divorced.
Ms. ROCHON- BURNETT made her last public appearance in February when she was the first woman to be inducted into the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame. Still beautiful, her shoulder-length black hair still shiny, she made a joke about her "leash." It was a reference to the portable oxygen tank held by her 12-year-old grand_son, who had designed a backpack to make it easier for her to carry it around. Always intuitive, she spoke as though she were making a farewell speech, rather than accepting an award. "When you start reliving your life, you realize you don't really have any worries about dying because it is part of life," she said. "I am here to let you know that my life was good. It was full of challenges, but it was a great life." Referring to the many boards on which she served, she was grateful that "her dreams had become a reality" and that she had had the opportunity to work with people who had "the same belief in aboriginal capacity and power."
Suzanne ROCHON- BURNETT was born on March 10, 1935, in Mont Rolland, Quebec She died in Welland, Ontario, of a brain hemorrhage on April 2, 2006. She was 71.
She is survived by her daughter Michéle-Elise BURNETT and her husband Bill REICH and two grand_sons. She also leaves her former husband, Gordon BURNETT. There will be a traditional ceremony and celebration of her life on May 7 at 2 p.m. at the Pond Inlet at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario
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