Every week, we get a boatload of tweets, posts and emails at Cross Country Checkup — and we read them all. Last week, we got a funny email from Philip Thompson from Nova Scotia, who asked two questions:
"Who is Jimmy Gwich? And why does Duncan always thank him for listening....but not the rest of us? :)"
It made me laugh out loud, as Philip intended. In order to understand why, you need to know I end every edition of Cross Country Checkup the same way. After reading the credits, I say, "Chi-miigwech... thanks for listening. I'm Duncan McCue. Bye for now."
To the uninitiated, "chi-miigwech" may sound like "Jimmy Gwich," so let me explain what it means and why I say it.
I'm from the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario. Some may be more familiar with the anglicized terms for my people: Ojibway, Ojibwe, Ojibwa or Chippewa. But we refer to ourselves as "Anishinaabe," which translates literally to "the people." Our language is known as Anishinaabemowin.
In Anishinaabemowin, "miigwech" means "thank you."
Adding "chi" makes it literally "big thank you."
I started saying "chi-miigwech" as a sign off when I began guest hosting Checkup, and carried on when I became permanent host this autumn.
Revitalizing Indigenous languages
The reason I say "chi-miigwech" is to respect my ancestors. I'm proud of being Anishinaabe. When I'm amongst my own people, we say "miigwech" to each other. By saying it on air, I want to acknowledge my heritage. I'm also acknowledging Indigenous listeners (in the same way Indigenous people often nod at each other on a busy city street, which we call the "Indian head-nod").
I get that lots of Canadians don't understand me when I say "chi-miigwech." I'm not trying exclude anyone: quite the opposite. CBC listeners are a smart bunch. If a listener doesn't understand me, I expect they'll be curious enough to look up the phrase online, or better yet, ask someone.
In this small way, I hope I'm exposing Canadians to one of many Indigenous languages in this country. According to the 2011 census, there are over 60 Indigenous languages grouped into 12 language families, with more than 215,000 people throughout the country who speak an Indigenous language as their mother tongue.
But let me go one step further: I believe it's critical that Indigenous languages regain their place as vital and essential components of Canadian culture.
There was a time when you couldn't survive in this country without knowing some basics of the language used by the first peoples. That's why so many Indigenous words can be found in the everyday speech of Canadians.
Chipmunk, toboggan, kayak, igloo, caribou — all can be traced to an Indigenous language.
Canada's Indigenous roots are also reflected in hundreds of place names, such as Kamloops (from the Shuswap "Tk'emlups," meaning "where the rivers meet"), Manitoba (from the Cree "manito-wapâw" meaning "the strait of the spirit"), or Canada itself (from the word meaning "village" or "settlement" in St. Lawrence Iroquoian tongue). The origin and meaning of those words may be forgotten or erased, but there's no escaping the names reflect Indigenous understandings of this land.
Unfortunately, in 2016, most of the original languages of this country are barely hanging on. There are many reasons for the steady decline of Indigenous languages, including the government of Canada's official policy of assimilating Indigenous peoples through residential schools by separating children from their families and their mother tongue. When UNESCO surveyed the health of Indigenous languages in 2010, it concluded only a small handful — such as Cree, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Inuktitut and Dene — remain strong and viable. The international language agency rated most Indigenous languages as "endangered."
That's the ironic thing about me using Anishinaabemowin in my sign off: I don't speak the language. My grandparents spoke fluently, but didn't pass it on. In fact, they spoke it around us when they didn't want us to know what they were saying. Not speaking my mother tongue is the hole in my heart, so I recently took steps to change that.
I started taking Anishinaabemowin lessons at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto. Honestly, it's tough to find the time. But I'm starting with baby steps, hoping I'll learn enough words to use in ceremonies. Maybe one day, I'll be able to carry on a conversation.
I'm not alone. My class has several non-Indigenous people in it, and a growing number of Indigenous people across Canada want to learn their languages. It's not easy. Despite the admirable efforts of language keepers and linguists to preserve Indigenous languages, it can be difficult to find a language class. It's even harder to devote the significant amount of time it requires to become fluent.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would soon enact an Indigenous Languages Act. It was a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Indian Residential Schools, which recommended Indigenous languages must be officially recognized as "a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society." The details on this new Act remain vague, but a key question is whether the government will provide sufficient funds for Indigenous language revitalization and preservation, as the TRC envisioned.
As for me, I hope when listeners hear me say "Chi-miigwech" on Cross Country Checkup, or Rosanna Deerchild kick off Unreserved with "Tansi! Boozhoo! Ah-neen!" it's another step in normalizing Indigenous languages in Canada, one word at a time. Just as most Canadians know how to say "hello" and "thank you" in English, or "bonjour" and "merci" in French, I hope to see the day when Canadians once again greet and thank each other using the Indigenous languages where they live.
When I responded to Philip Thompson's "Jimmy Gwich" question, he wrote back, "I'm 12th generation Acadian, brothers to the Mi'kmaq. They saved my ancestors from deportation by hiding them in the woods here on the Eastern Shore of N.S.… in a silly way, my email was meant to point out [that] many listeners would not know what you were saying... I'm grateful for the reply. Mahsi cho."
Chi-miigwech, Philip. And if you're wondering about "mahsi cho," there's a story behind that too.