From legislative chambers to classrooms to radio and television, Indigenous languages are spoken and heard every day in the North thanks to dedicated Elders, teachers, translators and broadcasters.
Jeela Palluq-Cloutier, who worked for a long time as an Inuktitut teacher and translator in Nunavut, said she learned the language from her unilingual parents growing up in Igloolik.
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“My dad is now dead, but when I was translating I always had him deep inside me thinking, ‘He must be able to understand this,'” she said.
“Unilingual Inuit have a right to information and the information that is translated must be of the highest quality.
Palluq-Cloutier has been involved in efforts to make Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun available on Microsoft Translator and has translated over 11,000 Inuktitut words for Facebook.
While residential schools and colonization have deprived some Inuit of their languages, Palluq-Cloutier said those languages are still thriving.
“We have over 90-95% speakers in some communities,” she said. “It’s something I’m very proud of, that our language is still there, given the history of our government trying to erase it from us.”
More than 21,000 people speak Inuktitut, the 2021 census shows, and Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are the official languages of Nunavut.
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In the Northwest Territories, Tlicho is the most common Aboriginal mother tongue with 1,700 speakers.
Georgina Frankie, who teaches Tlicho at Nordic College in Yellowknife, learned the language when she was young from her grandmother. Earlier this year, Frankie and language school coordinator Rosie Benning collaborated to publish a Tlicho workbook.
“All of the cultural teaching in the book is part of my grandmother’s teaching,” said Frankie, who lives in Behchoko, Northwest Territories.
“It means a lot to me because I have a granddaughter now and that means I have to leave something for her.”
Frankie continued to learn Tlicho during her decade in Toronto and taught herself to read and write it by comparing the English and Tlicho versions of the Bible.
Benning said Frankie is an inspiration because she was able to deepen her Tlicho while living away from home in Canada’s largest city.
“She is living proof that you can have a foot in both worlds and be successful and prosperous and that you don’t have to deny your Indigenous roots to be successful in this world.”
Benning and Frankie said language classes are an act of reconciliation because they allow people to reconnect with their culture and language.
“For a lot of people, it’s really healing,” Benning said.
Of the 11 official languages of the NWT, nine are Aboriginal. Other work to support Indigenous languages across the territory includes Language Circles and the Apprentice Mentor program, which pairs learners with fluent speakers.
In the Yukon, there are eight First Nations languages, although none are recognized as official languages.
Paul Caesar-Jules learned Kaska from his grandmother and teaches it now. He said that when he first started working for the Liard First Nation language department, he digitized tapes of elders speaking the language.
“The first time I heard a sad story, understood what was being said, I rightfully started crying just because of this elder explaining it,” he said. “It was really heartwarming and I felt really connected to the stories in our language and it’s really, really beautiful.”
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Emeral Poppe, who also works in the department, said his work includes registering elders, creating a verb inventory and phrase book, making videos, translating Robert Munsch’s books and organizing gatherings such as hidden camps focusing on language and intergenerational education.
Poppe said she heard Kaska words growing up and became more passionate about the language as a teenager after learning about Indigenous issues. Some of his family members were prevented from speaking their language in boarding schools.
“It made me angry, it upset me. So I wanted to kind of use that – turn that anger into passion and make it productive and try to do something for my community,” she said “It’s nice to be able to channel that energy into something really, really important.”
Poppe said preserving the language and passing it on to future generations helps connect people with their families and culture.
She said it was especially meaningful to see her mother get her tongue back.
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“The way you talk about the world shapes the way you see the world,” she said. “We’ve lived here for a very long time so we’ve learned quite a bit about the land and life here.”
The federal government announced late last month that it was spending $39.4 million to support Indigenous languages in the territories. It said it has spent a total of $77.2 million to support Indigenous languages in the North since 2019.
Fred Sangris, Chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation of Ndilo, Northwest Territories, said the funding is a step towards reconciliation and will allow his community to provide Wiiliideh language classes, camps and resources.
“We cling to our tongue at the very wire,” he said. “Without language, identity is lost. Without language, communication between old and young could not take place.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 29, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.