The survival of a culture at the brink

The survival of a culture at the brink

This is a true story: It is autumn, circa 1980 in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

There is a celebration with a community bonfire. A lone Dene elder comes to the fire, brings out a traditional drum and heats it to make it taut. He begins to beat it with a shaped stick, singing songs he learned around fires as a young man, decades ago. Those around him, many of them Aboriginal, are surprised by what he is doing. It is something they have not heard or seen in the community. Young boys and girls laugh at him, mocking him with catcalls. A few throw things. Discouraged, he does not last long. He puts the precious drum in a protective bag and takes it to a friend’s house, fearing that people drinking will break into his house and damage it, silencing the voice of his ancestors that call over time.

Fast forward to 2014: The elder has long since passed away, but the song of the drum is alive and well in his community. Drummers from far and wide came to share their songs and rhythms some time ago and now the youth of Fort Smith hear the beating of the drum frequently, a backdrop to many community events. They feel from it a sense of pride – even strive to learn the songs themselves. Hand games with drums, so intrinsic to the cut and thrust and foolery of play, have become popular sport, enthralling and entertaining everyone. The culture that had died down to a bare whisper in 1980 has returned in force.

A beacon of Aboriginal language silenced

The shutdown of CKLB and the silencing of its Aboriginal language programming is a loss for all Northerners; and if reports that as many as a dozen Aboriginal language radio stations across the country may soon lose the financial means to continue their own programming are true, all Canadians will suffer a loss. In particular, the termination of CKLB and other radio stations like it is a serious blow to the ongoing efforts to revive Aboriginal language and culture.

CKLB is listened to in many Northern communities where Aboriginal languages are still used routinely by elders and the middle-aged, giving youth a chance to learn and carry on their ancestral languages. Taking that away is a great setback.

Not supporting the return of Aboriginal languages, while supplanting youth completely within English language instruction in schools – in order to facilitate a more efficient economic model – is as colonial in its way as residential schools were.

The cultures of Canada’s first peoples have been under siege for over 200 years, including targeted and systematic efforts to kill them off; but in the last 40 years, language and culture have begun to draw back from the brink. There has been a pervasive rekindling of awareness and pride in culture by First Nations across Canada in recent years. Youth are more engaged, the culture is being revitalized and the languages are being used. The drums are beating again. Granted, Aboriginal languages are second to English in most First Nation homes and youth struggle to learn their mother tongue, but at least the languages are still alive, their use actually growing.

The symbolic apology to Aboriginal Canadians by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in June, 2008 was expected to be a turning point in how First Nations are regarded and treated by the government of Canada, but things have stayed much the same within the system.

There is no real effort to support and further Aboriginal culture and languages. The treaties are routinely disregarded, especially when it comes to development – the imperative for corporations to create wealth.

The approach by the Harper Conservatives, in their drive to reduce the size of government, has been to focus on initiatives to encourage Aboriginal entrepreneurism. It is unfortunate that there is not room in their agenda for both. Intrinsic to its approach is the expectation that businesses, particularly large corporations, will step in and fill the vacuum by helping Aboriginal communities to prosper through development projects. That seems to be working only in isolated cases.

Yet rebirth of culture and language has come from within First Nations in spite of little support. We recognize that the only effective way for a people to honour and strengthen culture and languages successfully is to do it themselves – their way, on their terms. Still, help in the spirit of reconciliation for our faulted colonial history would be welcome.

It is unlikely that any other source of funding will emerge for Aboriginal language radio programming in the current climate. Whatever capacity that has been built up will be lost, which is most unfortunate. It is time for the federal government to act on its apology and work towards sustaining the Aboriginal language and culture it once strived to eliminate.

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