Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.


Language & Power Student Projects

In my teaching, I’ve been experimenting more and more with inviting my students to use a variety of formats for communicating their research projects, and not necessarily to produce a standard academic essay. My reasoning, heavily influenced by pedagogical blogs like The Tattooed Professor, is that the central skill I am helping them to develop is not “write an academic essay”, but “develop, organize, and transmit your thoughts about a topic”. Depending on their post-undergraduate goals, they may benefit from learning how to do this in, for example, a podcast form, or as an informative website, or as a video. They may benefit most from developing their essay writing skills, in which case, they are encouraged to write an essay, but it’s entirely up to them whether that’s the approach they want to take.

In my advanced seminar on Language & Power this term, I included an “unessay” option for presenting their research project results. Reader, the outcome was wonderful. As a

The “suppotter” (supportive otter) became the class mascot to mark the emotionally and intellectually sustaining environment the group created for themselves. (Suppotter artwork by Amanada Cole

colleague said on Twitter – it’s amazing what students will do if you let them. Since a few of their projects were web-based, or easily shareable on the web, I’ve asked for and received permission to link some of the great work that they did here. Another principle I’ve been working on encouraging, inspired by a talk given by Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof) at MacEwan’s Faculty Development Day this past August, is sharing their work with people other than me, as their professor. It truly is tragic how much pedagogical effort goes in to an exchange of information between two people – the individual student, and the professor grading their work. The students whose work is linked here are fully on board with this idea, have been developing their ideas in collaboration with one another all term, and have expressed to me that these two premises have helped them to learn more from this class than from any they’ve previously taken – which I consider to be the highest possible student praise, and I’m immensely glad to be able to share their work through this medium.


  1. Hear My Words. This is an ethnographic film produce by Daliso Mwanza (@prophetdali) and Megan H. about “how artists of colour experience double consciousness…in a society that speaks in a dominant white voice”. It’s an extremely ambitious project to have undertaken in a one-semester course, and well worth watching.
  2. Deconstructing Constructs. A tumblr by Delainey Neddow (@apatheticpotate)  about the language of sexual violence, inspired by and drawing heavily on the news stories from the last few months and the #MeToo hashtag campaign (read backwards, of course).
  3. Broification. A tumblr by Shannon Jubinville (@shannjub) about the linguistic construction of  “bro” culture and identities. She investigates how this playful piece of language is an important part of the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic (hetero)masculinity.
  4. Language Standardization zine. This Twitter thread includes the digital form of a zine produced by Ruth Werbiski that examines the various ways in which language standardization and standard languages constitute tools for upholding unequal power dynamics. As I have told Ruth, I find this project to be particularly strong as a possible teaching tool to use in my introductory linguistic anthropology classes, because it captures so many themes in concise and accessible ways.

This is just a sample of some of the topics and approaches that students used – I also received podcasts, presentations, an invented Twitter account with analysis, and many more. The success of this semester makes me suspect this type of post will become a semi-regular thing, so stay tuned for more in April.

The Glamorous Side of Anthropology: Thoughts from an Undergrad Research Assistant

This summer, the nerds who write this site were lucky enough to be able to hire an undergraduate student as a research assistant. In the spirit of pedagogy, we wanted to give that student an opportunity to talk about how she got the job (because this is a thing other people should definitely try to do), what she learned, and also what was totally the worst.

Editor: Tell us how this opportunity came about. How did you find a job with the anthropology department?

SJ: Haha, the short answer is: I asked. A couple years ago I was speaking with Dr. Shulist about how difficult it can be to find summer work. At the time, it was too late to apply for anything on campus, but she told me that, if you’re early enough, there are always plenty of opportunities at MacEwan. So this time I approached her in about February and asked her if she knew of any opportunities coming up for the summer. She told me about an upcoming STEP (ed: STEP is an Alberta government funding program that helps universities, government agencies, and other such organizations hire summer students in jobs that will hopefully benefit their learning as well as the organization’s needs.) position and suggested I apply for it, so I did. That’s pretty much how I got the job. It’s not a terribly crazy or exciting story, but just goes to show that it pays (literally) to get to know your professors!

E: What kind of work did you do as a research assistant?

Pile of bones that our friendly neighbourhood RA cleaned for Dr. Biittner’s fieldschool project (yes, with a toothbrush)

SJ: Anything you can think of. People often think that being a research assistant means just sitting at a desk poring over documents all day, but that only a small part of what I did this summer. I was working for three different professors with vastly different areas of expertise and goals, so I got to do all kinds of different things, from watching movies, to helping with Dr. Biittner’s field school, to transcribing interviews. One of the coolest things was learning how to use the 3D printer in the lab!

E: What did you learn in the process? How do you think this enhanced your education? What kinds of skills can you take from this into a future job situation?

SJ: I think the biggest lesson I learned is that you can pretty much do anything with

This is the editor realizing the importance of these lessons.


I mean, that’s something I sort of knew before I started working as a research assistant, but this really gave me the chance to take the skills I’d been learning in class and apply them, and in all kinds of different ways. Who would have known that anthropology would be useful for putting together a film series? Not me, that’s for sure. As far as its use for my education, this job helped me hone my actual research skills. One of my tasks was helping Dr. Shulist find and analyze sources for some projects she was working on, so not only did I have to get better at using the available databases to find sources, but I had to find the information she was looking for in those sources and communicate that back to her in a way that she could apply to her work. And really, this is a skill that I think will be valuable as I go on to other jobs as well. I also did inventory in the lab for Dr. Biittner, which meant going back to my Biological Anthropology lessons to identify hominin skulls, and having to stay super organized.

E: What was the best part of your work?

SJ: This is going to sound really cheesy, but the best part of my job was getting to work so closely with my professors. Drs. Biittner, Sinclair, and Shulist are all people that I really admire, and getting to know them and the kind of work they do was truly the highlight of my summer. I got to see what kinds of things anthropologists do when they’re not teaching, and learn a little bit about what goes into being a professor (and preparing all those awesome classes we get to take!!!). I got to see how much passion they have for anthropology and for their students. It was an amazing experience that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

E: What was your least favourite part?

SJ: Part of me wants to say scrubbing clinker with a toothbrush, but I think I would have to say transcribing interviews. It’s really interesting to hear the kinds of stories that people tell, but having to type it up sound for sound is really tedious. There were times that I spent hours listening and typing, and would only get through a few minutes of speaking, because there was so much happening in those few minutes that I’d have to go back and listen over and over again. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and skill. But that’s not to say I regret the experience. I think it made me a better listener. Not only did I have to pay close attention to what people were saying and how they were saying it, but typing it all up gives you a whole new perspective on how conversations work. It was a lot of work, but in the end I guess I can say it was pretty cool.

E: What would you tell future students looking into this kind of opportunity?

SJ: Don’t be shy. Talk to your professors. Find out what they’re working on and what’s going on in the department. The worst thing that can happen is that there’s nothing available and you’ll have to start looking for the kinds of jobs you’d have been doing anyway. The best thing that can happen is that you get your foot in the door and start being able to actually apply your degree. There’s really no downside. I’d encourage everyone try to do what I did. It’s SOOOO worth it.


So It Begins

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The beginning of a new school year is a thing. Even from my lofty, fictional, editorial position, I see the plans, the excitement, the resolutions. So as we head into this new school year, let’s check in with our people.

Ed: What are you most excited about this year?
Sarah (the Linguistic One): 
So many things! MacEwan has a new president, and while I’ve only heard her speak once, she articulated a vision for our school as a place that serve the entire community, that places justice and access at the centre of its mission, and that promises to take real action toward implementing the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I feel like we are at an amazing place right now.

Katie (the Archaeology One): Yeah our new president is ah-maze-ing! I’m really pumped that we are being led by someone who shares so many of the values that are important to me – community, caring, accessibility, activism, justice. Wow. I’m all fired up and feel empowered to create the kind of learning environment I think is important and needed.

Ed: What are you excited about in your teaching?
SS: Five out of the six courses I get to teach this year are linguistic anthropology! Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching sociocultural stuff too, but linguistic anthro is my one true love, and I will be swimming in it this year, with 2 seminars (Language & Power and Language & Media) and a third year course (Language, Gender, and Sexuality), along with 2 sections of intro to ling anth. I feel some definite blog incorporation work coming along…

KB: Can I sit in on your third year course? Because it sounds awesome! I’m redoing my written assignment for my Anth 110 course (Gender, Age, & Culture) to more explicitly involve this blog so that’s exciting. Anth 110 really has become my passion btw so overall I’m just jazzed to get back into it. I’m also really looking forward to finding new/better ways of bringing our lab resources into our classrooms. For example we have this rad new Neandertal skeleton, which we will definitely use in Anth 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) but it could also visit our Anth 101 classes as well.

Ed: OK, you know you have one – what’s your resolution?
 This year, I swear will be the one where I finally break out of the shackles of email notifications controlling my life. Really. I promise. Hold me to it.

KB: Boundaries. I really really need to be clear about what my open door policy is and how it works. Turns out that I need to have times when my door is closed.

Ed: What advice do you want to give your students?
SS: Whatever happens this semester, you’re a human first and a student second. Take care of your needs. Admittedly, some profs are better than others about hearing that, and sometimes your grades end up taking a hit because life. A bad semester, or a bad few classes, is something that can be overcome, and there are people who want to help you with that. Find them, and let them.

KB: ^^^THIS^^^ And read the syllabus #sorrynotsorry It really is an important, useful document.

Ed: New semester on – Got meme?