Nova Scotia

Halifax man honoured for efforts to preserve Indigenous languages

A Halifax man, and who is not Indigenous, has been honoured by the Governor General for helping to save Indigenous languages from disappearing.

'It's more of a calling. It's not even a job,' says Mike Parkhill

Mike Parkhill left his job at Microsoft, determined to increase knowledge of Indigenous languages, often using technology. (CBC)

Mike Parkhill is determined to help save Indigenous languages from disappearing.

And last week, he received a meritorious service medal from the Governor General for his efforts.

"It's more of a calling. It's not even a job," the Halifax man said Monday.

"It's something I couldn't turn off."

Endangered languages

For many years, the Canadian government discouraged and suppressed the use of Indigenous languages. 

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Now, those languages are celebrated as vaults of linguistic and cultural knowledge, but many have become endangered.

Parkhill, who is not Indigenous, said he's been inspired to try to counteract this trend through his company called SayITFirst.

He's created books, TV shows and digital tools to inspire self-identity amongst Indigenous youth, and to reverse the language loss in their communities.

Under Canada's residential school program, indigenous children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongue. (Reuters/Library and Archives Canada)

'Onus is on all of us'

He even quit his job at Microsoft, where he worked for 16 years, to pursue his goal full time.

"It's thousands and thousands of years of knowledge, all baked into a language and when the language goes, all that goes with them," Parkhill said.

"The onus is on all of us to fix it."

Mike Parkhill demonstrates his free app Aurasma, which reads the stories out loud, teaching pronunciation. (CBC)

App helps with reading

One of the tools he uses is the free app Aurasma for storytelling in the other languages. 

Readers can hold an iPad over books, and the app will register the title. An audio recording of an elder reading the book will begin to play.

This helps parents read with their kids in Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Ojibwee or Cree, even if the parents themselves aren't fluent in the language.

Connects families

One of the hardest parts about languages is pronunciation, Parkhill said, so the audio recording and phonetic spellings can help.

Also through his company, Parkhill helps create a children's television show to inspire youth to engage with their languages. The shows are produced by First Nations Education Initiative and sponsored by Heritage Canada, and actors are recruited from local Indigenous communities.

An indigenous actor in one of the SayITFirst films. (SayITFirst/First Nations Education Initiative Inc/Corporate Films)

Suicide prevention

Preserving languages is about more than words, Parkhill said.

In fact, a University of Victoria professor told CBC there are two decades of research showing the key to tackling suicides is rooted promoting Indigenous culture and values. The communities with the fewest cultural ties have the most suicides, the research showed.

'I didn't have to suffer'

But when he got word of the award, he wasn't as thrilled as might be expected.

"I don't like getting these in the sense that I didn't have to suffer and it's not my language," Parkhill said. "I grew up a white guy."

Despite not having a personal historical connection, he said everyone will suffer if these languages die, and with them, an important part of Canada's heritage.


Sarah Peterson is a multi-platform journalist at CBC News. Her experience ranges from breaking news coverage to current affairs and long-form documentaries. She recently produced the CBC News documentary Big News.