Voices from the past: CBC North to preserve historic Indigenous language programs

The broadcaster has begun work on a massive project to preserve and catalogue countless hours of historic Indigenous language programming from the North, with the goal of making them available to the public.

Vast archives - 'a record of the history of Canada' - are deteriorating, says managing director

CBC North has a vast archive of old radio programs but a lot of it is physical media prone to deteriorate over time. The broadcaster has begun to digitize all of its Northern Indigenous language programming, for posterity. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

The CBC has begun work on a massive project to preserve and catalogue countless hours of historic Indigenous language programming from the North, with the goal of making it available to the public.

"It's been a dream of the CBC in the North, and certainly of our language broadcasters," said Janice Stein, CBC North's managing director.

"Much of that material exists on reel-to-reel tape and it's deteriorating."

The project will eventually see all of CBC North's archived Indigenous language programming digitized and made available online.

'It's been a dream of the CBC in the North, and certainly of our language broadcasters,' said Janice Stein, CBC North's managing director. (CBC)

It's a massive undertaking — there are "days, years of material, going back to the '50s and '60s," Stein says — and digitizing all of it is expected to take years. The CBC has set aside $500,000 for the project, a portion of the funds re-invested in CBC by the Liberal government.

Some material documents historic moments — the Berger Inquiry, the creation of Nunavut — while the vast majority simply captures day-to-day life in the North.

Digitizing the material "will save it forever. It's a record of the history of Canada," Stein said.

"It could actually spark more conversation about our life in the North, and where it started, and where it's going."

Archivists and librarians have been taking stock of all the available material. Converting it into a digital archive is expected to take years. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Stories and legends

Stein says the CBC will be hiring people, fluent in the various languages, to help catalogue the material in a useable, searchable archive. 

Leitha Kochon, longtime host of CBC North's North Slavey language program Le Got'She Deh, says the project is "really exciting for our people."

North Slavey is an official language in the N.W.T., though it's spoken by just a few hundred people. Kochon says that makes the CBC archives a valuable cultural and linguistic resource — there's currently nothing like it available anywhere. 

Leitha Kochon, host of CBC North's North Slavey language program, Le Got'She Deh, says a digital archive will be a valuable cultural and linguistic resource. (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

"There's a lot of elders that told us stories, legends and it's our history ... Some of the stories were only told once, they were only aired once.

"We'll never get those people back again. A lot of these people are gone, the ones that told us the stories. And there's nobody in this world that would come and tell us those stories."

'The posterity of the language'

Not all of the hard-copy, analogue material is currently held in storage by the broadcaster, so CBC archivists and librarians have already been busy taking an inventory of what's held by other organizations and individuals, with the aim of copying and preserving those, as well.

The Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse has a wall of cassette tapes with every episode of CBC North's long-running Gwich'in language program, dating back to the early 1980s. Those will all be digitized.

Andre Bourcier with the Yukon Native Language Centre's collection of CBC Gwich'in language programs, on cassette. Those too will be added to CBC's digital archive. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Andre Bourcier, the centre's acting director, says the CBC initiative is happening at the right time — he says there's been a lot of discussion about how to preserve historic material "that we really cherish."

"Right now, there is a resurgence of interest in the Gwich'in program, and the Gwich'in language in general. So it is our hope that more and more people will want to use this material as it becomes available," he says.

Bourcier says the Gwich'in programs are valuable because the program's host would typically phone Gwich'in speakers in communities across Yukon, the N.W.T. and Alaska and "just be chatting with them for an hour."

He says often the speakers were elders, who were very fluent in the language.

"That was their everyday language. When they were relating news or discussing the passing of some individuals and doing eulogies the language use was really, really clear and of a very high quality.

"So this is something very important for the posterity of the language — to make sure that people interested will have access to this treasure trove of quality language."

'It's a record of the history of Canada,' in these boxes at CBC Yellowknife. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

With files from Sandi Coleman, Loren McGinnis, Peter Sheldon