October 25th, 2020

Leaders, educators looking to safeguard ancestral languages

By Mabell, Dave on November 29, 2019.

Dave Mabell

Lethbridge Herald


Languages are known to be the key to a people’s culture and history.

But today, many of the 60-plus Indigenous languages spoken across Canada are considered under threat. Younger people haven’t learned their traditional language and elders are passing away.

In Alberta, however, there are dedicated leaders and educators determined to safeguard their ancestral languages and return them to the centre of community life. Some are featured in a new documentary series, “Voices on the Rise,” funded by Telus.

They’re being premiered on Telus OptikTV this week as part of the communications company’s participation in the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The series host is Eli Hirtle, a writer and director who traces his roots to the Cree community at Wabasca, a lakeside community hours north of Edmonton. He begins his journey there, then travels south to learn about efforts to revitalize language and cultural awareness in nine Alberta communities.

He discovers a mother and son finding ways to keep the Blackfoot language alive in the city, an elementary school’s first language festival, and an initiative to bring back traditional names for the mountains, lakes and rivers in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Hirtle hopes inspiring stories from people at the heart of language revitalization will “find the light they deserve.”

A filmmaker, beadworker, visual artist and curator based in Victoria, Hirtle speaks with men and women in a variety of centres – from Edmonton and Calgary to smaller places like Doig River, Morley and areas being lost at the controversial “Site C” hydro dam project on the Peace River.

He also shares the story of a Blackfoot language festival for school children at Napi’s Place in Brocket, and about Lethbridge-area educator Mike Bruised Head sharing the traditional names for parts of an elk killed by a cougar high in the Rockies.

Hirtle has been in touch with language preservation programs on the West Coast and the British Columbia’s Interior areas. The province is home to a multitude of aboriginal languages, he points out – about half of the number across Canada.

Across Canada, only Inuktitut in the north, Cree across the northern Prairies and Ojibway in the east are considered secure.

But Hirtle reports increased interest and efforts to ensure the smaller languages – and the cultures they encapsule – remain in use.

“People are making it their life’s work,” he says. “It’s not a hobby, not a part-time thing.”

Hirtle hopes his three-part series – also available online at VoicesOnTheRise.ca – will inspire others.

“We’re in a really exciting time,” he says.

But it’s critical to see language preservation projects activated right across Canada.

“We only have five to 10 years left,” before the wisdom and knowledge of the elders passes away.

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