Indigenous languages to show up on northern grocery shelves

Indigenous customers will soon see their native languages on the store shelves of Canada's largest northern grocery store chain.

Inspired by school pilot project, Northern and Northmart stores expand language labels

Northern and Northmart stores across Canada will see Indigenous language signage in their stores starting this week. (Derek Reimer/Submitted)

Indigenous customers will soon see their native languages on the store shelves of Canada's largest northern grocery store chain.

The North West Company announced this week that they are rolling out an initiative to translate common grocery items and category labels into the local Indigenous language at each community store. 

"We operate in over 120 communities across nothern Canada," said Derek Reimer, director of business development for The North West Company.

"So when we undertook the initiative, one of the first things we had to do was identify the number of Indigenous languages spoken and when we went through each community, we identified approximately 30 different dialects spoken in the communities where we serve.

"It will be in almost every [Northern and Northmart] location where we operate where there is a local indigenous langauge."

For example, the Northwest Territories will see seven different languages and three additional dialects in their stores. 

About 80 different products have been translated. (Derek Reimer/Submitted)

"So we've got Gwich'in, North Slavey, South Slavey, Dene, Cree, and Inuvialuktun, so there's quite a broad list of languages," said Reimer, adding the company worked with a team of translators, elders and community members across Canada to get the translations correct.

In addition to the labels under items, a QR code will be included, so customers who don't know the local language can learn, Reimer added. 

A QR code is a unique square picture that, when scanned with an app on a smartphone, leads to an online link or file.

"Which when you scan [the QR code] with your phone, you'll actually hear an audio translation of the word that you see on your shelf label."

QR codes will also be on shelves, linking to an audio file of the correct way to pronounce the Indigenous language word. (Derek Reimer/Submitted)

The company undertook the language initiative after a smaller program was done through a school division in NWT in 2015.

"We were experimenting with QR codes with different kinds of signage," said Brent Kaulback of the South Slave Divisional Education Council. "One of our schools at the time, Chief Sunrise Education Centre on Hay River First Nation Reserve, the teacher, the aboriginal language instructor was doing a unit on the store, teaching the students all the words that related to products that they'd see in the store.

"So basically working off that interest, we said, 'Why don't we expand this to include the QR codes,' which we did two years ago in that store. Then as it sort of snowballed further we expanded it to all the communities in the South Slave region."

The Northwest Company consulted closely with the school division to help get the signage into their stores, said Kaulback.

"From a standpoint of language revitalization it's really important," said Kaulback. "[People] need to see the language in the community and be motivated to use that language while they're in the stores, or in the community hal,l or in the band office, places like that.

"So this, having the language in the stores is just one step further of making the language visible and then really honouring the language of the communities."

That honouring of local languages is what prompted the chain to undertake the initiative, said Reimer, adding they believe it's the first of its kind for a major retail chain in Canada.

"Speaking with elders and teachers and other members of the community, this is an initiative which they feel is important, that they're able to do their day-to-day activities in aspects that are familiar to them."


Elisha Dacey

Freelance contributor

Elisha Dacey is a writer and former journalist who previously worked with CBC Manitoba. Her favourite place is outside in her backyard hammock with her dog, a good book and a wilting garden.

With files from Mélinda Trochu