Keepers of the Language: Journalist uses radio to 'visit' Nunavummiut in their homes

Selma Eccles, a CBC radio journalist in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, turns on her mic every weekday afternoon for her mother.

Selma Eccles started working for CBC more than 30 years ago

Selma Eccles is a current affairs journalist with Tusaajaksat, CBC North's Inuktitut afternoon show out of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. (Submitted by Selma Eccles)

CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.

Selma Eccles, a CBC radio journalist in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, turns on her mic every weekday afternoon for her mother. 

"I have a mother who's in an elders' facility in Arviat and she has a radio on from morning ... till she falls asleep. Her world is considerably smaller [than it was], but radio still makes her world a little bit bigger," Eccles said. 

Eccles, 53, helps report, host and produce Tusaajaksat with Robert Kabvitok. The two-hour radio show focuses on the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. The first hour and a half are in Inuktitut and the last half hour is in English. 

I could hear from places that I have never been to before.​​​​​

Her mother is with her too, because Eccles imagines her mother's language critique, which she doesn't get as much anymore. 

"[In the past,] if I didn't say something right in Inuktitut or in the right context she was going to call me as soon as I got home."

Now, Eccles still gets some of that advice from her older sister Nellie Kusugak, the commissioner of Nunavut. 

Bridging the gap

Eccles says she spends a lot of time thinking about her audience, which ranges from "hardcore" radio listeners who are unilingual Inuktitut-speakers, to the younger generation, who are less likely to be fluent in Inuktitut. 

She sees herself as a bridge between generations and structures her show that way. 

"There's lots of still unilingual Inuit. They want to say something to the young but they can't. So I'm one of those. I feel I'm a bridge to that gap."

During the Inuktitut programming, she's picturing an older audience, who she doesn't need to explain Inuit culture and history to, but she may need to explain the latest cellphone app. 

When the show switches to English and her younger listeners, she says she'll summarize her main takeaways from Inuktitut-only interviews. 

Selma Eccles, right, with Hannah Muckpa, centre, and her younger sister Sally Kusugak. (Submitted by Selma Eccles)

"My role, I think, is to visit people in their homes every single day," Eccles said.

She says she appreciates the time her listeners are spending with her, so she always wants to be engaged. 

She likes to replay archival CBC interviews as cultural reminders, which include decades worth of Inuktitut interviews. She recently played an interview from an elder from Taloyoak about parenting skills. 

Always interested in radio

In addition to connecting listeners to traditional knowledge, Tusaajaksat connects people to different dialects across the territory. 

"Nunavut is so vast ... I could still hear people from Grise Fiord, from Resolute Bay, from Kugaaruk," Eccles said. "I could hear from places that I have never been to before."

That's one of the reasons Eccles has always been interested in radio — but the most important was that it was in her language. She never went anywhere without a radio when she was young. 

She snagged her first job with CBC at 21 years old in Rankin Inlet. She loved the immediacy of saying what was happening on the radio. 

Eight years ago, she left to try something completely different and went to work with the mining company Agnico Eagle, but radio pulled her back. 

Eccles returned to CBC in 2018. She wanted to share the news in Inuktitut with her mother.