Achieving a Professional Life Goal During COVID-19: My Internship at the Canadian Language Museum

By: Marlène Viardot, Master of Anthropology student / Museum Intern

Bonjour, je m’appelle Marlène, and I am a student at the Université de Bordeaux, France. I’m doing my Master’s degree in Anthropologie sociale et culturelle, on the topic of la revitalisation linguistique of Canada Indigenous languages. I have been attracted to working in Canada for a very long time, wishing to contribute to the language revitalization work that is done there for Indigenous cultures (combining my love for languages and my ideals of justice). And with my mind constantly switching from anglais to français, this country seemed particulièrement indicated!

After studying Language Sciences in Strasbourg, I carried on with this Anthropology Master’s degree, aiming at becoming an ethnolinguist. During the first year of this degree, I wrote a thesis about linguistic revitalization and live art: how do live shows influence language revitalization?, do younger generations want to learn how to speak the language when they hear it on stage, during a puppet show or a story festival, for example? This appeared to be really interesting, but my conclusions led to a misjudgement of the situation – it’s only once languages are revitalized, are actually spoken again, that live shows are created
using them. Not the other way around, as I initially suspected.

So this has been the trail I have been following during this second and last year of my Master’s degree. The required internship offered the opportunity to undertake an enthralling survey of the field, and I was really looking forward to it. I wanted the internship to fully match with my career goals, that it would be more than just a glimpse of the field, but on the contrary, that it would be a real springboard to work in this area of language revitalization.

BUT…

The COVID-19 pandemic struck! What was I to do if going to Canada was no longer possible? A major part of my planned research relied on a trip there, to include various interviews, participation in pow wows, meetings with revitalization leaders…
After a deep but brief moment of despair, I pulled myself together: Canada was still my goal, and remote working had become the new trend, so why not give that a try?

I had found, during my research for my thesis, a great booklet about Canadian Indigenous languages, giving linguistic information about the eight distinct language families, plus three additional unclassified languages. This was precisely the type of document I was looking for, and I thought it would be enriching to get in touch with the people who had published it – this is how I discovered the Canadian Language Museum.

Booklet “Indigenous Languages in Canada” published by the Canadian Language Museum in 2019.

At the beginning of 2021, I had also followed a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) offered by the Université Laval du Québec, about Northern Quebec, which had captivated me. Consequently, I audaciously decided to contact both of these institutions, hoping that despite the decrease of activities linked to the pandemic, activities concerning language and culture protection and promotion were still ongoing.

The answers I received surpassed my expectations: the Canadian Language Museum and the Université Laval responded positively to my application! And even better – within the framework of this internship, a partnership between the two organizations was created, with me as the contact point.

My mission at the Museum involved research for the creation of a travelling exhibit about the Anishinaabe language and culture. The project was starting from scratch, and I was tasked with gathering linguistic and social data: where is the language spoken?, how many speakers are there?, how has the language community changed over time?

Speaking fluent English and French was an advantage here – this allowed me to link with people working with the Anishinaabe communities in both anglophone and francophone regions.

Indeed, the Anishinaabek were originally settled near the St Lawrence River. When the first European immigrants arrived and started settling, at the beginning of the 17th century, they migrated westward. According to Anishinaabe oral history, they were guided by a vision of a sacred miigis, a cowry seashell, which made a prophecy: if the Anishinaabeg did not move further west, they would not be able to keep their traditional ways alive, because of the many new pale-skinned settlers who would arrive soon in the east (Benton-Banai, 1979).

The community gradually moved westward, along the St Lawrence River to the Ottawa River, to Lake Nipissing, and then to the Great Lakes.

The Anishinaabe people now cover a great range of territory, as shown on this map below:

Map by Professor Will Oxford, University of Manitoba, 2021.

This wide distribution explains the number of dialects of Anishinaabemowin.

As explained to me by Carole Lemire, director of Minwashin, an association promoting the art, culture and language of the Anishinaabe people, this dialect diversity is one of the greatest challenges the language faces today. As is the case with many Indigenous languages of Canada, Anishinaabemowin is endangered and standardization of the language would make maintenance and revitalization easier.

Vigorous and effective acts of revitalization are taking place, such as the creation of games for tablets, the broadcasting of songs and podcasts, and festivals – for example, Minwashin founded the Miaja festival. “Miaja” means “now is the time”, or “let’s do this”, and this large gathering is a celebration of Anicinabe culture in all its forms.

Yes, “Anicinabe”, and not “Anishinaabe” as written previously in this article. Did you notice the difference? Well, this points exactly to the diversity problem I mentioned above: the very name of the culture itself comprises at least 11 variants (bolded for emphasis):

  • Anishinaabe
  • Anishnabe
  • Anishinabe
  • Anichnabe
  • Anichinabe
  • Anicinabe
  • Anicinape
  • Anishinaubae
  • Nishnaabe
  • Nishnabe
  • Neshnabé

The Museum uses “Anishinaabe”, but the Université Laval spells it “Anishinabe”. One might think the version with one ‘a’ is the spelling used in Quebec, but no! Minwashin, which is based in Rouyn-Nouranda, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, writes “Anicinabe”. And all three groups told me they had never seen these different spellings before.

Spelling standardization is an important goal for the survival of their language.

So, to put it in a nutshell: in my internship of only 4 weeks, I was in contact with real players in linguistic revitalization, within 3 different organizations. I learned many different ways to be active in language revival: festivals, exhibitions, apps, online classes, songs, etc.

I felt like I myself took an active part in this, as I have always dreamt of, when for example I worked with Dr. Gold, director of the Canadian Language Museum, on a questionnaire for the Anishinaabe communities. We really brainstormed about the formulation of the questions, about how to be respectful and how this could help them.

This brought up the complex issue of the position of a settler who works on an Indigenous matter: as a white, French person, I think it is my responsibility to think about my approach and my way of talking about Indigenous languages. My discussions with Dr. Gold deepened my reflections on that issue.

During this internship, I have been able to use as much French as English – which filled me with joy as you can guess – but most importantly, I have finally been able to touch on the job I have wanted to do since I was 18 years old.

Of course, it would have been even greater to have been out there in Canada, in the field, meeting all these fabulous people for real, feeling the energy of the places. Instead, everything was online and I spent my time in front of my computer rather than attending Pow Wows. But! Considering the global world situation, I managed to be close to what I have always wanted to work on! And during these confusing COVID-times, I do appreciate the opportunity this represents.

Reference

Benton-Banai, E. (1979) The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, Indian Country Press & Publication.