A Cape Breton tradition of gathering around the television to watch local performers sing songs of the holiday is upheld in the island’s largest Mi’kmaw community.
Eskasoni First Nation residents are not solely glued to a Maritimes’ broadcast, but instead their own community station where for more than 20 years a Christmas telethon has been staged.
Robert Stevens said back in 1997, he and fellow band members of The Relatives decided it was time for a telethon similar to others that were happening on the island.
The bass player and singer said their first broadcast was held on a community station known as Goly Vision and included pre-recorded entertainment, a live auction and televised numbers for phone-in donations.
What began as a one-time event has become an annual tradition that helps deliver toys, gifts and other items through Eskasoni’s welfare services leading up to Christmas.
Last year alone, the telethon raised nearly $19,600.
“The five of us actually decided that we should try because we have all the equipment that we need, the sound system and everything,” Stevens said.
“We all went around, me and the boys in the band, to places in Sydney to get some stuff for the auction — anything at all we were getting, really. We were stopping at any stores in town, not just in Sydney but in Eskasoni too and other reserves.”
Eskasoni Christmas Telethon
- When: Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.
- Where: Events happening at the Sarah Denny Cultural Denny; broadcast available on Eskasoni Television (ETV), Eskasoni’s Community Channel 14 and on the web
- Program: Performances from various musical acts, live auction and phone-in donations
- Benefactor: Supporting the community’s children and families in need
Among the early telethon performers were renowned Mi’kmaw fiddlers, the late Lee Cremo and the late Wilfred Prosper Sr.
The inaugural telethon also featured The Relatives which includes Stevens and his brother Darren (the group’s lead vocalist) and their cousin Tom Sylliboy, along with siblings Tom and Stan Johnson. The Johnsons’ cousin Derek Johnson joined the group a little while later.
“We recorded bands and we had some fiddlers and karaoke too,” said Stevens. “We did about four or five years of recordings and then we stopped, and we’ve done it live ever since.”
Stevens said it was purely the success of the program led to its continuance.
“That’s how it started, and it’s been growing ever since,” he said.
“After that we had more people, more community members joining us and we had chiefs too. Our current chief, Leroy Denny, he was one who really started helping us out with more volunteers and all that stuff.”
This year’s telethon will be taking place the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre and will see the return of some pre-recorded performances along with an auction.
The programming begins Sunday at 1 p.m. and usually runs into the evening.
Stevens’ band has also inspired another musical group that performs in the telethon known as 2nd Generation. The band features Steven’s son, Allan, and two of Tom Sylliboy’s children. Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria Jaime Battiste lends guitar and vocals to the group.
“They enjoy it,” said Stevens. “Everybody is looking forward to it. Everybody is glued to the TV. We have people calling in from like New Brunswick, Quebec and all parts of Nova Scotia.
“People come from other communities to show their support and do a little singing and all that stuff. Not just the native communities, but communities outside Eskasoni in general."
This year’s telethon begins Sunday at 1 p.m. with members of the public invited to stop by to see the broadcast in person. Chief Leroy Denny, along with his brothers, Dion and Walter, and Eskasoni community councillors will help host the program.
The fundraiser will air on ETV — Eskasoni’s television station (Channel 14) and is expected to be broadcast live through YouTube with a link available on the community’s Facebook page.