Canadian media colonialism and the revitalization of indigenous languages

Author: Province of British Columbia
ANALYSIS. By John Ahni Schertow*. Some 93 percent of indigenous languages in Australia have become extinct. This is by far the most serious case of "linguicide" in the world. However, if things continue unchanged, Canada may come to challenge that record. According to UNESCO, 88 of Canada's 90 Indigenous languages are now on the verge of extinction. Unless indigenous language holders, communities and their allies develop appropriate strategies that focus more on revitalizing rather than merely preserving these endangered languages, it's only a matter of time before we lose them just as we have lost so many others.

Media has a distinct role to play in these language revitalization strategies. However, there are several social, political, economic and cultural obstacles that prevent Indigenous Peoples from using media to effectively compliment such efforts. Fortunately, it is possible to navigate around those obstacles.

To understand the role of media in language revitalization let us first come to terms with the number of Indigenous Peoples in the world. According to the United Nations there are approximately 370 million Indigenous Peoples. Very few people ever think to question that number, but question it we must. After all, several UN member states officially deny have any Indigenous Peoples including the Russian Federation, Namibia and People's Republic of China. If we tally up the populations of these and other indigenous nationalities not included in the UN's accounting, we end up with a figure that exceeds 1.3 billion people—18 percent of the world's population. That figure is according to the Center for World Indigenous Studies Fourth World Atlas Project.

The number of endangered Indigenous languages in the world also varies. According to UNESCO there are 6000 languages still spoken in the world, 43 per cent of which are considered endangered. According to the Center for World Indigenous Studies, there are closer to 7100 languages spoken in the world, 36 percent of which are threatened, declining or nearly extinct. Ethnologue, a comprehensive online catalog all of the world’s known living languages, reports similar numbers.

Whatever numbers we're prepared to accept, there's no disputing the threats to the security of the world's indigenous languages. These threats include: non-indigenous migrants and workforces entering into indigenous communities; constant exposure to foreign languages in the home and limited access to indigenous languages in school and in the media. The greatest threat of all, however, is found in the national language policies used by states like Russia, China, the United States of America, Canada and Australia. Two years ago, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, a professor of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, revealed just how much harm Australia's one language policy has caused to indigenous languages in the land of fire. Professor Zuckermann says that 93 percent of indigenous languages in Australia are now extinct.

If things continue unchanged, Canada may come to challenge that record. According to UNESCO, 88 of Canada's 90 Indigenous languages are now on the verge of extinction.

The reason for this ongoing catastrophe is fairly simple: During Canada's residential school era, which ran from 1831 to 1969, more than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their homes, brought into military-style camps and indoctrinated to think, dress, behave and speak like 'Canadians'. In addition to being stripped of both their language and culture, these children were forced to endure regular physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of residential school staff.

This 130-year legacy of assimilation took its toll on every residential school survivor—there are 80,000 former 'students' living today—as well as their families, their communities and their nations. That toll continues to be paid, in one form or another, in almost every indigenous household in what is now Canada.

However, Canada's assimilation agenda did not begin or end with Residential schools. Rather, it was the centerpiece in a much larger assimilation, enfranchisement and civilization strategy. Nor is it a relic of some by-gone era given the fact that Canada is still pursuing the same old policy objective; albeit with a modern twist. For instance, First Nation schools are generally obligated to obey provincial academic standards, which means First Nation students must perform in one of Canada's two official languages.

Of course, many schools on Reserve now offer their own culturally and linguistically appropriate curricula like the Akwesasne Freedom School which has provided a Kanienkéha (Mohawk) immersion curriculum for over 20 years “without approval or funding from state, federal or provincial governments." The Lau, Welnew Tribal School on the on Tsartlip Reserve has operated for almost the same amount of time, using a locally developed SENCOTEN language and culture curriculum. Many other First Nations, however, are still stuck in Canada's bilingual policy trap.

An unacceptable number of indigenous children are also being pulled into the foster care system and sent to non-indigenous Canadian households. Most of these households are completely void of anything even remotely connected to any indigenous culture and language.

Add all this up—along with our collective inability to access language programs and linguistically-relevant media—and we have ourselves a recipe for cultural genocide.

But all is not lost. Canada's 150-year old assimilation agenda is beginning to unravel—thanks in no small part to the work of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Idle No More.

Even though the Canadian government worked in tandem with the media and the Assembly of First Nations to prevent Idle No More from reaching critical mass, it is nonetheless aware of the fact that Idle No More was, in many respects, an early morning exercise for those among us who have never been politically active, including many residential school survivors and their children. Idle No More set the stage for Canada’s indigenous movement to mobilize in a manner that would make that movement look like a morning exercise. It's in Canada's best interest to avoid that potential.

Enter Prime Minister Trudeau. Ever since his election, Trudeau and his cabinet have been desperately working to build a new image of Canada that is less hostile towards Indigenous Peoples. This effort has included pushing forward with a long-sought national inquiry into Murder and Missing Indigenous Women and promising to offer “unqualified support" for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—a legal instrument that Canada actively worked against before it was officially approved in 2007. Most recently, Trudeau, in response to an article that was published on IC last April, acknowledged in Winnipeg on June 3 that preserving indigenous language is key to preventing youth suicide. While we haven't seen anything substantial come from these words and deeds (beyond a few stacks of cash), it is nonetheless encouraging to see Canada depart from the malignant standard that so many other administrations relied on with all the Canadian Pride they could muster.

Canada's apartheid-driven media landscape

Whether or not the Canadian government begins and continues to proactively support indigenous rights, Canada’s apartheid-driven media landscape will remain the same for the foreseeable future. This means Canadian corporate and non-profit media outlets will continue to marginalize indigenous voices, and suppress coverage of human rights abuses and environmental tragedies involving Indigenous Peoples. Canadian Journalists, reporters, correspondents and editors, meanwhile, will continue to offer trite, condescending, racist or factually inaccurate stories for their Canadian readers. And Canadian foundations will continue to treat indigenous media as a novelty, preferring instead to fund indigenous initiatives that are owned or controlled by non-indigenous Canadians. The utter lack of linguistic diversity in Canada’s media landscape will similarly continue.

We do not, however, need to accept the media's oppressive negligence. Instead, First Nations can develop ways to produce their own media, whether it's by producing a community-run television station like Akwesasne TV, a radio station like CFTI-FM in Elsipogtog First Nation, or a more comprehensive regionally-focused broadcasting network like the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation.

It's not an easy task, especially with the limited amount of funding that First Nations can access, but it's one that comes with several distinct benefits that we just can't afford to dismiss:

1. Communities that generate their own media are in the position to disseminate culturally-relevant information, which helps to ensure cultural continuity and community cohesion.

2.It ensures that everyone in the community can respond to any threats and challenges that arise, whether it's a fire, an oil spill, or a mining company's illegal intrusion into a culturally-sensitive area.

3. It insulates languages and promotes indigenous language use. If that community-generated media happens to broadcast online, it also serves as a linguistic lifeline that every community member can grasp, no matter where they are in the world.

Of course, a First Nation must overcome several obstacles before it can begin to produce its own media. Running a local television station is a prohibitively expensive effort that requires specialized training, equipment; and, under most circumstances, a broadcast license. For many indigenous communities, it's just not worth the effort, especially if most families don't even own a television.

Indigenous community radio is usually a more viable option. The cost of running a community radio station is still quite expensive—according to the Prometheus Radio Project, "Many stations get on the air for under $15,000 and can stay on the air for less than $1,000 per month"—but it's nowhere near as costly as running a television station.

Digital media is viable and far less costly alternative to radio and television. It costs next to nothing to start a digital media service like a blog, a podcast, an internet radio station or a daily video stream on YouTube or Isuma.tv. You also don't need much in the way of training: your entire family could have a blog running in less than a day.

However, new media still faces the same old problems. At this point, there aren't enough computers on reserve for new media to fully serve a community. Also, there is very little funding available for indigenous new media, be it from the government, from foundations, from advertisers or from crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter.

There have been a few crowdfunding successes over the last couple years. Reclaim Turtle Island, for instance, managed to raise $12K in 2014, the non-indigenous owned Ricochet Media has had two consecutive crowdfunding wins for its Indigenous Reporting Fund, and Ryan Mcmahon's Indian and Cowboy Podcast Network now gets around $1K per month from over 100 people. However, this is about as high as the indigenous media crowdfunding bar gets; and it is a continent-wide leap from the level of funds that non-indigenous media outlets routinely raise in Canada and the United States.

Independent and urban indigenous media is stuck between a rock and a hard place, however, Indigenous communities can overstep this problem with the help of Band/Tribal Councils who can fund the work directly, make arrangements with some kind of for-profit entity or set up their own entity to run the community service.

That said, it's also important to note that most of the world's Indigenous Peoples face the same problems that we have here in Canada; but that's not stopping them from launching their own new media projects. By teaming up with non-profits, Indigenous Peoples are utilizing mobile phones, cameras and laptops to document traditional stories, record songs, carry out interviews with elders and produce their own citizen journalism—all of which contributes directly to the preservation and promotion of indigenous language and culture.

In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, the Chariboan Joi project encourages Shipibo youth to produce their own media—and they're doing it with gusto. In Brazil, the landmark Indios Online project allows indigenous communities across several linguistic lines to promote intercultural dialogue while providing their own communities with information that they would never otherwise be able to access. Throughout Australia, Indigenous Peoples are using mobile phones to tell stories in their own languages. Video for Volunteers helps indigenous reporters in India produce independent video reports at India Unheard. And then of course we have the ever-growing Indigenous Communication Network of Abya Yala which is devoted to securing continent-wide Indigenous communication networks for Indigenous Peoples throughout Latin America. There is nothing else in the world quite like it.

Technology and language

While media technology can help to insulate and promote indigenous languages—especially when used as part of a larger language revitalization strategy—we have to make sure that our priorities are in check, as the Skwomesh language activist Khelsilem recently told IC. A lead Skwomesh language instructor at Simon Fraser University, Khelsilem has used a number of tools and techniques over the years to ensure that the traditional language of the Squamish Nation—now spoken by just 7 people in a community of 4000—survives for future generations.

"In my community I used various media platforms, such as a social media, a website, or tapping into classical media coverage to help raise awareness. The publicity of the tools helped create an understanding of the work and an interest too. I have used other tools such as recording devices, video recorders, [and a] searchable digital dictionary for looking up correct spellings, and flashcard apps on my iOS devices."

Through this work, Khelsilem has gained an intimate understanding of what it takes for an indigenous language to survive. He continues,

"First Nations should start pushing more to produce their own linguistically relevant media (radio and television especially) instead of being stuck with Canada's bilingual media landscape—if it's needed. A language community like mine, for example, could divert resources to producing a 100% or even 50% bilingual newspaper in Skwomesh and English, but for whom would this be useful? Only 0.2% of the community speaks the language, and significant resources would be needed to create such a resources. It might be more useful later in our stages of language community development when access to language media is both useful and needed. I'm in favour of building the need first, then the institution second. Not the other way around."

Expanding on that last point, Khelsilem adds that,

"Internet technology tools are often implied to be the panacea for the decline of Indigenous languages. People say things like "this new app we had built will help us save our language". In our desire to be bold and innovative, we're sucked into this flawed thinking that an app can do what is needed: create fluent speakers. A person has never become a highly proficient speaker with good fluency from an app the same way a professional basketball player can't become a highly skilled professional basketball player from an app. You have to practice, and you have to do the work. An app might help remind you to practice, or help you get directions to the games, but it's not going to make you a skilled player just like an app won't save a language. The trend to prioritize technological solutions is worrisome because significant resources are diverted into strategies that won't create results needed while our languages continue to decline."

As the Mississauga Nishnaabeg poet and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson points out, we also need to confront the "funding" mentality that deters us from initiating language revitalization in our communities. We can’t afford to wait around for the funding to come in. We have to begin this difficult process now, whether as families, individuals or online communities, without prompting or affirmation from funding agencies.

Cherokee Professor Jeff Corntassel, Director of the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria, adds,

"We have to be careful how we learn the language [as well]. Languages reflect our worldviews and the intricate relationships between land, culture and community. To fully honor the nuances and actions behind Indigenous languages, we cannot base our understanding of these languages on western worldviews by translating words based on the English equivalent. Such a dictionary approach loses the deeper meanings behind Indigenous languages and obscures the worldviews embedded in them. When our languages get colonized, our worldviews get compromised."

Building the need

Even though Canada has pushed, pulled, and prodded 88 indigenous languages to edge of extinction, there is still hope. With each passing day, more and more indigenous language revitalization efforts of all shapes and sizes are taking root. M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, for instance, is now in the process of creating a fully bilingual community and it’s altering the local school curriculum to immerse children in Anishinaabek. The Tsuut’ina Gunaha Institute in Alberta is rolling out different initiatives to save the Tsuut’ina language. The Nuu-chah-nulth are doing the same in BC. The four First Nations of the Maskwacîs Cree just made their official language Nêhiyawêwin (Cree). The non-profit organization Native Montreal is working to provide a wide range of language classes in Abenaquis, Anishnabe, Cree, Inuktitut, Innu and Mohawk. There's a lot more where this came from.

Canada’s rather colonized education system is also beginning to open new doors to support indigenous language use. More than a few colleges and universities have launched indigenous language courses, while others have established partnerships like Memorial University's team up with the Nunatsiavut Government to create children's books in the Labrador Inuktitut dialect. The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation recently adopted a new language policy to line up with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Unfortunately, when it comes to media, there isn't a heck of a lot to smile about. Even though media plays more of a supporting role in language revitalization, it is an essential service that all Indigenous Peoples depend on, especially when it comes to human rights abuses and environmental emergencies. Right now, Indigenous Peoples can't depend on Canadian media outlets to do have their backs. We cannot depend on Canadian editors, Canadian journalists, Canadian foundations, Canadian NGOs and the Canadian government. At this point, we can only rely on each other.

Given Canada's history, perhaps it's for the best. After all, there is nothing more empowering than standing on our own two feet, as long as there is a ground to stand on.

*John Ahni Schertow is IC Magazine founder and coordinator.

(This article is inspired by Tristan Ahtone's April 2016 interview of John Schertow. With notes from Rudolph Ryser, Soha Kneen, Jeff Corntassel, and Ossie Michelin. This article was first published on IC Magazine.)