[lg policy] Canadian media colonialism and the revitalization of indigenous languages
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jul 12 10:37:54 EDT 2016
Canadian media colonialism and the revitalization of indigenous languages
by John Ahni Schertow
<https://intercontinentalcry.org/author/administrator/>July 11, 2016
[image: Photo: Province of British Columbia @flckr. Some Rights Reserved]
Photo: Province of British Columbia @flckr. Some Rights Reserved
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 <http://cwis.org> 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 <http://www.ethnologue.com/>, 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
<http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=4>—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
Of course, many schools on Reserve now offer their own culturally and
linguistically appropriate curricula like the Akwesasne Freedom School
<http://freedom-school.org/> 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
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
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
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
<http://www.akwesasnetv.com/>, a radio station like CFTI-FM
<http://www.wikiwand.com/en/CFTI-FM> in Elsipogtog First Nation, or a more
comprehensive regionally-focused broadcasting network like the Inuit
Broadcasting Corporation <http://www.nac.nu.ca>.
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 <http://prometheusradio.org/startup_costs>, "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
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 <http://www.isuma.tv/>. You also don't need much in the
way of training: your entire family could have a blog running in less than
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
<https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/reclaim-turtle-island/> $12K in 2014,
the non-indigenous owned Ricochet Media <https://ricochet.media> has had
two consecutive crowdfunding wins for its Indigenous Reporting Fund, and
Ryan Mcmahon's Indian and Cowboy Podcast Network
<http://www.indianandcowboy.com/> 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
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
<https://intercontinentalcry.org/digital-indigenous/> 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
<http://www.videovolunteers.org/about/indiaunheard/>. 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
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
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
<http://leannesimpson.ca/> 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
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
<http://www.quuquuatsa.ca/Quuquuatsa/Welcome.html> in BC. The four First
Nations of the Maskwacîs Cree just made their official language
Nêhiyawêwin (Cree). The non-profit organization Native Montreal
<http://www.nativemontreal.com> 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
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.
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