Day 6

'It connects me more to who I am,': What Jeremy Dutcher's Polaris Prize means to Wolastoq speakers

Jeremy Dutcher's album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won the Polaris Prize this week. It's performed entirely in the Wolastoq language, which means a lot for multidisciplinary artist Natalie Sappier.

'I just constantly feel love when I hear the language'

Jeremy Dutcher performs during the Polaris Music Prize gala in Toronto on Monday, September 17, 2018. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

When Jeremy Dutcher walked onto the stage to accept his Polaris Music Prize on Monday, artist Natalie Sappier couldn't help but feel proud.

Dutcher's debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is performed entirely in Wolastoq — an Indigenous language spoken by fewer than 100 fluent speakers. It was chosen by an 11-member grand jury of journalists and music industry figures as the Canadian album of the year based on artistic merit.

While she admits she couldn't understand what Dutcher said when he accepted his Polaris Prize on stage, she said hearing him speak in Wolastoq made her feel "joy."

"It's constantly like you're being cradled by your ancestors and reminding us of who we are," Sappier, who like Dutcher is from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, told Day 6.

"I just constantly feel love when I hear the language."

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Canadian opera singer Jeremy Dutcher is honouring his Indigenous roots in his latest album, using recordings he discovered in the Canadian Museum of History. Dutcher's album has been short-listed for the 2018 Polaris Music Prize. 5:34

Reconnecting with the Wolastoq language

As a youth, Sappier learned the Wolastoq language while attending daycare, kindergarten and elementary school. She spoke it with members of her community through conversations, songs and dance.

She lost touch with the language after moving away from Tobique First Nation to attend high school. 

"It was not being spoken in my home. It was not really spoken too much in my community," she said.

It was only in her late teens and early 20s when Sappier started to reconnect with the Wolastoq language while attending the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design in Fredericton.

There, she was reintroduced to the language and teachings by a teacher named Gwen Bear-Sagatay.

Natalie Sappier, also from the Tobique First Nation, said Jeremy Dutcher's Polaris Music Prize win is meaningful to Wolastoq speakers. (submitted by Natalie Sappier)

Sappier said being exposed to it inspired her to express herself through painting.

"That's when things started to awaken in me," she said.

"I was painting stories to remind myself where I come from — who I am. And what I was realizing is that I was not seeing myself in my surroundings."

During her journey of rediscovery, Sappier worked closely with University of New Brunswick elder-in-residence Imelda Perley, who asked her to help with several projects such as illustrating images for language curriculums and books.

"It gave my gift as a visual storyteller purpose, and it deepened my relationship with myself as an Indigenous person and living in a more modern world," she said.

A mural painted by the Mi'kmaq Wolastoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton. A piece of artwork by Natalie Sappier. (submitted by Natalie Sappier )

'Life journey' to learn language

Sappier still has a long way to go when it comes to learning Wolastoq. But Dutcher's Polaris Prize win has reaffirmed its importance — and that it has a potentially wide audience.

"The work that Jeremy Dutcher is doing is super important and I know it's awakening so much with so many of us, not only as Wolastoqey​ people, but people who miss their language whether you're First Nation or not," she said.

Through my art and creating, and creating stories and plays, it connects me more to who I am- Natalie Sappier, multidisciplinary artist 

Sappier adds that learning Wolastoq will take a lot of discipline and patience, but she hopes she can carry the language — whether it's one word or one sentence — through the work she does as an artist.

"Through my art and creating, and creating stories and plays, it connects me more to who I am," she said.

"It's going to be my life journey learning my language."

To hear the full conversation with Natalie Sappier, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.