When Cuban-born singer Alex Cuba takes the national stage for a performance on Parliament Hill this Canada Day, he'll be showcasing the language of his adopted home — and it isn't English or French.

Instead, the Juno and Grammy-award winning artist will be performing a verse from his song Directo in Wit'suwet'in, an Athabaskan language spoken by First Nations in northwest British Columbia. 

Cuba says the performance is his way of paying tribute to his adopted home, the small town of Smithers in northern B.C.

"I have roots in that part of Canada now," he said. "I made Smithers my home for over 13 years now, and my kids, they are growing in Smithers."

"I'm basically digging into the roots of my adopted land."

From Spanish to English to Wit'suwet'in

Ron Austin

Northwest coast artist Ron Austin (T'sek'ot) translated lyrics from English to Wit'suwet'in. (Northwest Community College)

The lyrics were translated by Ron Austin (T'sek'ot), an artist and hereditary chief living in nearby Moricetown.

First, Cuba had to translate the words from Spanish to English. Then, Austin got to work adapting them to Wit'suwet'in.

"I had to search for some words like 'hopelessness,' because in our language it's said almost like a sentence," the chief said. The closest he could come was the phrase, "My heart is in confusion."

"It's a more expressive language." 

Endangered language takes national stage

It was during this collaboration that Cuba discovered the deeper significance of the project.

Alex Cuba Director lyrics in Wit'suwet'in

The lyrics of Alex Cuba's song 'Directo' translated into Wit'suwet'in, along with handwritten notes. (Alex Cuba/Facebook)

There are only a few fluent Wit'suwet'in speakers left: somewhere between 70 and 200.

Austin says when he was growing up, children spoke nothing but Wit'suwet'in. That changed when he was sent to a Catholic day school.

"We were not allowed to practice our language and not allowed to speak any native language without being disciplined. Now you see our children around the village, all they do is speak English."

Cuba says hearing this reaffirmed his commitment to learning the verse. 

"It became more clear to me, what if I can do this on national television? ... I am honoured to be able to do my little bit to help save this language."

'Am I gonna be able to do this?'

The next step was for Cuba to learn the new words. 

"I gotta be honest, I was like, 'Am I gonna be able to do this?'" the singer remembered. "I was doubting myself a little bit."

To help, Austin made a recording of the lyrics, along with some music, so Cuba would be able to practice.

With a week left to go before the performance, Cuba sang the song over the phone so Austin would be able to make any last-minute corrections. There were none.

Austin praised Cuba's performance.

"After I heard it, I said he was a full-fledged Wit'suwet'in."

Cuba laughs at the memory.

"Yeah, he was so cool. I'm like, 'Wow, man, that's an honour. Thank you.'" 

For the Cuban transplant, the moment also had a deeper meaning.

"It makes me feel that I am comfortable in the country I chose to live in ... Really what it means to me is I have embraced my new home."

Hope for future projects

Austin is hopeful having Cuba showcase Wit'suwet'in on a national stage will help its preservation. 

Alex Cuba sings his song Directo in Wit'suwet'in

The nation is in the process of creating an online dictionary, along with the curriculum to teach it in schools. Austin thinks seeing a high-profile artist sing in Wit'suwet'in will create more interest among young people.

For his part, Cuba hopes the performance will serve as a catalyst for other Canadians to learn more about their local Indigenous cultures.

"It makes me feel that I am helping unify. I'm really happy that I chose to do it, you know? Hopefully it inspires for more things like this to happen."

And, he adds, the cultural exchange could go both ways.

"Before you know it, you're going to get some sort of Latin music coming out of Moricetown in Wit'suwet'in."


Listen to Alex Cuba and Ron Austin tell the story of their collaboration:

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