Keepers of the Language: South Slavey is a lifelong gift for host of CBC's Dehcho Dene
English 'snuck into my life,' but Peter Hope says his Indigenous language never left
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.
Peter Hope doesn't know exactly when he started learning English, but says it was around the time he couldn't quite see over the pew at St. David's Anglican Church in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.
At home, South Slavey was all his family spoke, but at church every Sunday, mass was in English.
"I was too young to translate for people," Hope, now 68, says with a chuckle. He's sitting at his desk at CBC North, where he's worked for 25 years. Every weekday, Hope broadcasts his show, Dehcho Dene, in South Slavey to people in the southern portion of the Northwest Territories.
Hope always went to church with his grandmother, Bella Hope, and his mother, Sarah Hope. He says his grandmother — whom he called Ama (mother) — was a devout Anglican. Their Sunday services together meant English hymns and prayers literally became Hope's second language.
"I think it gradually just snuck into my life," Hope says with a laugh.
But that didn't mean he lost his mother tongue.
For many people today, including former N.W.T. senator Nick Sibbeston — who awarded Hope with a Senate Sesquicentennial Medal for his work with the language — Hope is a true keeper of the language. Sibbeston, who also speaks the language, has said when there's an English word that doesn't have a direct translation into the language, Hope always finds a way to say it in a way his listeners will understand.
And even though English became a part of his life — first in church and later at Indian Day School — Hope never forgot how to speak South Slavey. He says it wasn't an option.
"Everybody spoke the language around [Fort] Simpson," he said, now on the other side of the microphone in a radio studio in Yellowknife.
"For me, I had my elders. I had my mother that spoke the language fluently — and that's all she spoke — so, you know, for me, it was a gift. It was there."
Find someone you trust
When people talk about losing the language, Hope says he's glad he hasn't retired yet; he says not only do elders in the communities listen to his radio show, but young people do too — some teachers in the South Slave region have even listened to the show in their classroom.
"There are younger people right now that want to learn their language but they don't have the people there to really communicate with," Hope said.
"It has to be someone that you trust."
And Hope says it's about teamwork too. He recalls what one elder said during a Dehcho assembly a few years ago: "It's not really up to the teachers, it's up to the community to carry on our language and to make it stronger again."