It’s Indigenous Languages Month in the Northwest Territories and with a recently much anticipated byelection just passing us in Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh, there may be no better time to point out the importance of language to our territory’s function.

As Northerners celebrate language around a “Let’s Go Fishing” theme, it should be noted that of the 891 registered electors in the district, only about half of Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh voters cast a ballot.

By appearance, this low voter turnout had little to do with apathy and more to a lack of engagement with voters.

Most candidates, including winner Richard Edjericon, pointed to poor use of Indigenous language translation availability and confusion around written words provided in the NWT’s first mail-based election.

For this reason, serious questions need to be considered by Elections NWT as to whether its approach to this type of election can reasonably work in the future.

Granted, this was the first effort by the GNWT to try this form of voting and much effort was made to accommodate the needs of voters, including the hiring of extra staff and the use of drop boxes in key polling areas.

Assuming we take at face value that there was a legitimate fear of the Omicron wave of the Covid-19 virus preventing in-person voting, it remains highly questionable why, with an area with such low literacy rates, spotty technology and predominant use of some of the official Indigenous languages that information wasn’t better communicated verbally in those languages.

The byelection is a case in point of how language underpins much of everything we do in society. It not only allows us to engage with our governments, but helps us mentally organize our realities from describing our senses to working with others to build, workable altruistic communities.

Students in Hay River and the K’atlodeeche First Nation join NWT students this month in marking the importance of Indigenous languages in our Northern culture; something our governments have told us are worthy of practising and recapturing as part of our collective identity.

In the case of Hay River and area schools, students are finding ways to build confidence and normality around the use of Dene Zhatie with fishing. This is promising as many agree that the language needs to be brought to a higher level of respectability after being historically denied to Indigenous people due to Canada’s history of colonialism.

As Chief Sunrise Education Centre principal Deborah Reid told us this week, for these languages to be revived, they have to be seen as relevant, useful and active. But perhaps most importantly, living.

“You just can’t say to students, ‘Learn the language.’ You have to have some kind of context tied to it and be able hook it onto something.”

Looking at the recent byelection, we question whether the delivery of language services was adequately provided during the election process as understood and used by voters on the ground and in the district.

While our future voters are supported and encouraged to use basic phrases, express feelings and offer greetings, we hope that the bigger aim is to have Indigenous languages more central and more widely respected during our democratic processes.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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