One of my greatest pleasures in life is driving. I drive a lot. I am familiar with many of our Northern roadways and enjoy taking to the open road whenever i can.
It’s usually while I’m driving that I can take the opportunity to think, consider things and go into my thoughts.
On a recent road trip, I made a stop at one of our many rest areas along the road. While I commend the GNWT Department of Transportation crews for providing great service in maintaining the area, something else struck me as odd.
Was it the restroom facilities? No, they were clean. Was it the picnic stations? No, they were well maintained. It was something else. Something basic. Something natural. So I started to think about it.
I have always prided myself on being able to participate in my culture, language and traditions since I was very young. I participate in Dene handgames whenever I get an opportunity. I hold the drum with pride as I sing. I encourage young people to do the same.
On my many treks along the Canol trail, I teach people about Dene culture and history as we hike past many landmarks. I do so not only in English, but also in my language, the language of my grandmother and her people from the Tulita region of the Sahtu. I introduce others to the beauty of not only the land, but also of our people, languages and history.
I am proud to be from this land.
So my pride was a bit hurt, and indeed, I was a bit mystified by what i saw at that particular rest stop. For I was resting in Akaitcho territory, was I not? And surely, a rest stop in Akaitcho territory along the Ingraham Trail would reflect the local culture and peoples, would it not? Yet, there it was. A sign. One that announced the name of this particular rest stop. In English. In French.
It’s a good thing my rudimentary French permitted me an inkling of where I was, for had I not been able to read English, I might never have known. Imagine if I had to have had to place a 9-1-1 distress call. I might not have been able to tell emergency personnel where I was because I could not read the sign.
We live in a remarkable country with shared histories embedded deeply in the languages, traditions and cultures. As a country, we have grown to acknowledge and respect the territories of the original inhabitants across the lands, such as the Miq’maq, Cree, Anishnabe, Blackfoot, Cowichan and Dene, as examples.
I recalled the early days of this territory’s political development. I was a much younger man, in 1984, when the Northwest Territories acknowledged and adopted 11 official languages, of which French and English were two.
Cree, Chipewyan, North Slavey, South Slavey, Tlicho, Innuanaqtun, Inuvialuktun, Inuktitut, and Gwich’in, were the others. All of which are rich and vibrant languages, each celebrated and used every day by their peoples. So for 35 years now, we have been blessed with living in the only jurisdiction in Canada that has 11 official languages, nine of which are Indigenous.
A 1971 study of Canadian language law prepared for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, offered me this definition for the term “official language”:
“An official language is a language in which all or some of the public affairs of a particular definition are, or can be, conducted, either by law or custom.”
So if attracting tourists to a campground and making them feel welcome in their own language, be it English, or French,is important each region should be able to welcome those same tourists in their own official language, should they not?
And yet here we are in a part of the country so rich in diversity, steep in culture and vast in history that archeologists are still pushing back the dates of human activity in our territory, that we still mark our place in time in only two official languages: French and English. We acknowledge the other nine in law but not in practice, where they might do the most good and be of the most benefit to not only tourists, but also our youth I say that because we are slowly losing our traditional place names as the generations of traditional elders pass. Names that were important to travellers as they migrated with the herds of caribou. It would be nice to keep them within the warm arms of their original tongue.
So I left that particular rest stop, feeling a bit wounded, and even mildly offended, knowing that my Dene roots and languages didn’t matter to whoever named that stop. All they knew, or maybe even cared about, was making sure Canada’s two official languages were represented on that sign, and not the local official language – Willideh.
It’s a practice we should be more willing to commit funds to – ensuring local traditional place names are kept alive by ensuring our parks, and signs reflect them.
It would have been nice to arrive at a rest stop being able to see, and sound out, the name of it, in a local official language. After all, it would have only taken an additional line of space on the sign to reaffirm in my mind at least, that I was still travelling within Dene territory.
Simple, n’est pas?