Ruth Carroll, CBC North Gwich'in language broadcaster, retires

Listeners of CBC North are wishing a happy retirement to Ruth Carroll today.

Radio host a champion of language spoken by fewer than 400 people

Carroll describes her Gwich'in programs as letting people know of 'any activities going on. If there's caribou, if there's lots of fish, people know it. Anything to do with medical. If there's a dentist coming in. Maybe the doctor's coming in. If there's any meetings coming up, they know about it. Through the radio.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Listeners of CBC North are wishing a happy retirement to Ruth Carroll today. 

Carroll speaks Gwich'in. The language is considered "severely endangered" by the United Nations' Atlas of the World's Languages. 

One study from UNESCO estimates the total number of Gwich'in speakers in the world: About 150 people in Alaska and about 250 in Canada. 

On the air

Carroll hosts a daily hour-long program called Nantaii and a weekend call-in Voice of the Gwitch'in, both of which are broadcast on CBC North Radio One. 

The early days of aboriginal-language broadcasting in Canada: Ruth Carroll in 1978 in Inuvik. (CBC)
Carroll says they provide a link for people in small communities like Old Crow Yukon and Mackenzie Delta communities of the NWT.

"It's the elders. Especially the elders that can't get out and about anymore. I think about them. When I go home I go to Fort McPherson, or sometimes I meet people from Old Crow, different people come and tell me 'I listen to you,'" she says. 

Carroll says the show is about providing information, weather, news and checking in with community reporters in Gwich'in.

"Any activities going on. If there's caribou, if there's lots of fish, people know it. Anything to do with medical. If there's a dentist coming in. Maybe the doctor's coming in. And if there's any meetings coming up they know about it through the radio."

A traditional childhood

Carroll is the last of a family of 14 children and the first in the family born in a hospital. 

The basement of CBC Whitehorse is a veritable museum of Canadian country vinyl. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Her hometown is Fort McPherson. She remembers a childhood of trapping muskrat, hunting caribou and picking berries. "We were out on the land quite a bit," she says. 

When she was very young she says everyone in the community spoke Gwich'in though English was beginning to encroach. 

"Those were very important times when I was at home. My mother was there. Those were the days, people would work hard during the day and visit during the evenings. All you'd hear is Gwich'in," she says. 

Carroll was sent to residential school for nine years, first in Fort McPherson and later in Inuvik. 

The school's classes were in English but Carroll says she would visit family at Easter, Christmas and for summer vacations. 

"I still spoke Gwich'in. With my mom, my aunties, my grandparents, with any elders. Anyone I spoke with the language I spoke with them," she says.

In later years, Carroll worked as a translator. She listened to elders' stories recorded as part of an academic project in Fort McPherson. 

Today's the day: Retirement day is circled on Carroll's calendar. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
"I listened to them constantly as I was translating. And the next thing I know I find myself at CBC."

Her first job with the public broadcaster was in 1978. She then worked different contracts over the years as her family came to live in different communities and also worked with Northern Native Broadcasting.

Eight years ago, when her family moved to Whitehorse she took over as full-time host of Nantaii and Voice of the Gwich'in. 

Keeping language alive

Andre Bourcier works at the Yukon Native Language Centre in Whitehorse. He says the show's important to language revitalization.

"A lot of people have been listening to this for years, and they are really interested in hearing the program every time it is on the air," he says. 

And while the audience might be small — at least in numbers — Bourcier says Voice of the Gwich'in is "a program that has a lot of impact. We don't hear those languages that often, and this is one of those occasions where people know that at a given time they can hear one of the languages of the Yukon. It would be so wonderful if somebody else were to take the torch and carry it a little bit further so people can keep carrying this beautiful language." 

Call-in shows are part of the charm. Carroll here plays a country song for a listener in Inuvik. (Philppe Morin/CBC)

CBC looking for new host

CBC North says it will pass that torch. The broadcaster is seeking a replacement host for Nantaii and Voice of the Gwich'in.

Managing Director Janice Stein says "we've had some expressions of interest, so we will find somebody. It just may take a bit of time."

Until a replacement is hired, Stein says the Gwich'in time slot in Yukon and northern NWT will temporarily be a Chipewyan broadcast.

Stein says there's been no CBC market research to show how many people listen to Nuntaii and Voice of the Gwich'in.

However she says the show is vital to the public broadcaster's mandate. 

"The program is very valued. We hear that all the time from the listeners. The program is about traditions and it's about communicating world news. The elders appreciate the national news they tell; they explain what it's all about. And the other part of what it does is it encourages the communities to engage in their language," she says. 

In recent months, Carroll had appeared on CBC Yukon's English-language morning show A New Day teaching host Sandi Coleman to say a few words in Gwich'in. 

Carroll says years of broadcasting work have been rewarding. 

"I'm always thankful especially when  a young person comes up to me and says Drin Gwinzii or they say Vahn Gwinzii that means good morning or good evening," she says.