Sometimes, it takes an outsider to notice the obvious. Such was the case for linguistics professor Marie Odile Junker when she came to Canada from France.

"It struck me you could learn any immigrant language of this land. Chinese, Spanish, but you could not learn those (Indigenous) languages. So, as a linguist, of course, I became interested."

That's when Junker began thinking of a way to study and learn about Indigenous languages. What she came up with, was more than a dictionary or phrase book, it was an interactive, multimedia atlas.

Marie-Odile Junker

Carleton University professor Marie-Odile Junker (Carleton University)

"We started in 2002 with a conversation manual for east Cree and then it went viral. Everybody was asking for it. So, I thought of putting all of this on a map and we've been collaborating with communities and speakers ever since. We today have over 52 languages, 20,000 sound files, on this atlas." 

The atlas, Junker said, is a portal into Indigenous dictionary building.

Here's how it works: 

  • Click on a phrase or word you'd like to hear from a drop-down menu.
  • Click on different points on the map and hear that phrase in a regional Indigenous language.

"Behind it is a big team with 12 participating dictionaries and other colleagues across the country and in the U.S. And we're building a common digital infrastructure for Algonquian languages," she said.

This month, her efforts earned her a Governor General's innovation award. Junker told Ottawa Morning's Hallie Cotnam that it's much more than just an online atlas.

'This is not about working on people or for people. But it's about working with people.' - Marie-Odile Junker

"I think this tool is really important in the context of truth and reconciliation commission recommendations that Canada is going through right now," said Junker. " I think it's important for Aboriginal people but also for us.

"It's a tool right, but behind it is this … way of working collaboratively with people. This is not about working on people or for people. But it's about working with people."

Junker said, in addition to the atlas, there is an oral stories database, online lessons, and online dictionaries. But it won't sustain itself without outside funding.
 
"I hope that eventually the federal government or some kind of entity will step in to maintain the resources. Because the problem we always get funding for new resources. We never get the resources to maintain."

Atlas envy

The east Cree project that started this entire project, according to Junker, enticed other Indigenous people to approach her, hoping to encode their own languages in a way that could be saved, passed on, and improved upon.

"They said, 'We want that kind of resource for our languages.' And today, we don't recruit for the atlas. People volunteer and knock at our door and ask to be recorded," she said.

"(People ask) how come my language and community is not on this? There is the atlas envy I call it," she said.

And most of the people who are volunteering their expertise, according to Junker, are women.

"I think women are the keepers of the language. The majority of cases, they're the ones who care. They aren't necessarily the ones with diplomas and training, formal training. They don't occupy necessarily high administrative positions in Native organizations, but they are the ones who care. And they're the grassroots. They're the ones where the strength is coming from in this area. [That's] been my experience," said Junker.

Listen to Hallie Cotnam's full interview with Junker.