Wendy Fraser spent 30 years at the Bridge River Lillooet News, as reporter, publisher but mostly as editor, and those are not easy or lucrative jobs, so it’s worth noting that–as she says goodbye to it all–her focus is gratitude.
In fact it’s the main reason she agreed to be interviewed for this story at all.
“I wanted to say thank you to the people of Lillooet, because they have been so kind and so supportive and so good to me over the years and that’s what I remember is the people. I don’t remember the big issues, I don’t remember what went on at a council meeting, or some school board crisis, nearly as acutely as I remember the people and the individuals that I reported on over the years,” Fraser said.
“They’ve been very, very good to me, particularly entrusting me to tell their stories, and that’s been an honour to be able to do that.”
It’s an honour that extends even beyond people whom she’s known personally. Out of all the faces, names and events she’s chronicled in her three decades here, no project has stayed with Fraser quite like a series she published in honour of the community’s WW I veterans titled The Boys of Lillooet.
The historical feature was inspired by Father Bob Haggarty whose curiosity about the short lives behind the names on the local Cenotaph she came to share. Father Bob started digging, and he came to Fraser with what he found.
“He did a lot of research and then he brought it to me and I kind of tried to stitch it together into a story.”
That effort included studying the history of the conflict, both in books and in local newspaper archives, in an attempt to provide the human stories with context that would bring them to life.
“I never knew these people, some of them had died 80 years before, but I kind of ended up feeling close to them. That was a really fascinating experience.”
Also fascinating, and also touching on the distant past while continuing into the present day, is the story of the Indigenous communities in the area, and the changes they have accomplished in the decades that she’s been watching.
“To see the changes in the Indigenous communities has been really fascinating and wonderful. To see the pride that is there now and to see that they now have economic clout that they never had before,” Fraser said.
“When I look back, the non-indigenous community was lacking at times in respect and wisdom and I hope we’ve all learned some lessons. We are a group of people living in a small, fairly confined valley, 5,000 people if you take the area population. How are we going to treat each other? How are we going to move forward and how are we going to learn the lessons of the past?”
The Indigenous issues she’s covered in her time at the News are an example of why Fraser describes Lillooet as a microcosm of the wider world.
“I really felt it was that because if you wanted environmental issues, I covered the huge, long struggle to save the Stein Valley in Lytton as a park, and that was just years and years of struggle and controversy, and all the different land-management plans that we went through trying to satisfy all the different environmental and economic interests in this area,” she recalled.
“And then we have all the indigenous issues that have played out all across B.C., and they’ve certainly played out in these valleys regarding Indigenous title and rights and they’re still not resolved.”
While her smaller and more isolated beat had representation of the issues her fellow Langara journalism grads were covering on a larger stage, Fraser said there are things that set small-town, community journalism apart.
“My friends in Vancouver could write a story on someone and odds are they would never se that person again. With me the odds were that I would bump into them at the post office or Buy Low, and that makes you approach your job differently,” she mused.
“I know it made me more accountable, and that’s a good thing.”
Fraser’s path to the Langara journalism program and to a 30-year career spent, with two brief exceptions, entirely at the Bridge River Lillooet News, was not something she saw coming as she was growing up.
Born and raised in Lillooet and a LSS grad, Fraser had no early aspirations to be a journalist.
“When I went off to UBC I was going to be a teacher,” she recalled.
“During my third year in the faculty of education I decided that I probably didn’t want to be a teacher”
Journalism still wasn’t on the horizon, though, and Fraser found other ways to keep busy including working at her brother’s business in Langley and at the credit union back in Lillooet.
Then, in the spring of 1978, her mother drew her attention to an ad for the journalism program, asking if it might be of interest. It was, but even then a lukewarm, ‘maybe’ sort of interest. Definitely not a calling–until she walked in the door.
“On a whim I sent in an application letter and two weeks later I was down in Vancouver for a day of tests and interviews. Two weeks later I was accepted into the program and three weeks after that I was down in Vancouver. And then I just loved it.”
That newfound love for her work and her lifelong love for her hometown turned out to be a perfect match, one that was cemented when she was invited by then publisher Jeff den Biesen to come and work at the News in the summer break between her two years at journalism school.
“I was really thrilled to be able to come back for the summer and work at the paper and kind of view my community through a different lens.”
After graduation, that arrangement was made permanent.
“I graduated in April of 1980 and I started here as editor, again, probably two weeks later.”
And here she stayed, although not without taking time out to pursue other interests, including serving two terms on municipal council.
“My 30 years at the paper have been in four different stints,” she explained.
“I don’t think I would have survived 30 continuous years, there were other things I got a chance to do, but there were always things that drew me back.”
What drew her back were people, people who appreciated the passion she brought to the job, although getting this admission from Fraser is a bit like pulling teeth, as she has a fairly broad humble streak.
“People were kind of glad to see me back, I think,” she finally admitted.
“I’m a Lillooet kid. I’m not a kid anymore and there are people in this town who remember the night I was born, there are people I went to school with, there are friendships I’ve built up over the years.”
That includes the people with whom she’s shared the daily grind at the newspaper office, and the camaraderie that comes with that common purpose.
“The people that I’ve worked with, Bruce and Eliza have been really great to work with, we’ve worked really hard here and these aren’t great times for the newspaper business, but we’ve had a lot of fun and we’ve been a great team,” Fraser said, also picking former publishers den Biesen and Bain Gair for mention from the list of colleagues who have come and gone.
“A lot of good people that I’ve met along the way.”
Fraser is quick to point that while she’s leaving the newspaper, she’s not going far, and she’s likely far from finished with her writing career.
“It’s not like I’m vanishing; I’ll still be around.”
And she might be working her way back to an early and ongoing passion that predates even journalism. That would be history–specifically, writing a history of the community during her time at the news.
“I love history. I have always been in love with words, always been super respectful of the power of words, the richness of the English language. I wanted to be an English and history teacher when I was studying at UBC. I’m fascinated by the local history here,” she said.
“In all my years at the paper, I’ve always had it at the back of my mind that journalism is the first draft of history and that in a way I was writing–on a weekly basis, in a rush–the history of the town as much as I could.”
As to why she’s retiring now, the answer is pretty simply that 30 years is about long enough.
“It was going to be happening in the next few years anyway because I’m getting near retirement age, and my family and friends have been encouraging me for the past year that I should leave,” she said.
“It was time.”
Time to slow down, to maybe write a subsequent draft of the history she’s chronicled for so long on the fly; the story of a community she’s never left for long and never wanted to.
“I love this place. I grew up here and…” she gestures out the window at a perfect spring day, sunshine warming the children playing in the park across the street and the mountain peaks beyond… “look at it. It’s amazing.”