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Northwest Notes

tyler.mccreary's picture
Northwest Notes focuses on Indigenous-Canadian relations in northern British Columbia, particularly around resource development issues. It is written by Tyler McCreary and Dawn Hoogeveen, with occasional contributions from their friends.

On the failure to consider the 'Native words' presented to the panel reviewing the Enbridge pipeline

| February 8, 2012

I have been reviewing the hearing transcripts of the federally appointed Joint Review Panel (JRP) addressing the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. For the past few weeks the panel has been holding oral evidenciary hearings. These hearings provide an opportunity for people to provide evidence of a character best represented in the oral form. The panel often uses Aboriginal traditional knowledge as an example of the kind of information these sessions are designed for.

Thus, not surprisingly they have seen a great many Aboriginal presenters. Again not surprisingly, many of these presenters have used Aboriginal terms when describing their connections to their territories and traditions, and a few have even presented entirely in their own language.

But while none of this is entirely surprising, it is a little shocking to see how dramatically unprepared the review panel was for this eventuality. At times the transcribers appear dreadfully overwhelmed by the entry of "native words" into their hearing chambers.

In those instances, where witnesses presented in their own language, there is only record of the translation. The original presentation is blanked from the published record entirely.

Just as the insistence of Aboriginal presenters to present their evidence in their own language is a significant political act, the silencing of these presentations on the official record is meaningful. This demonstrates a potent disregard to Indigenous conceptual frameworks. This disrespect found echoes in the panel's failure to record even isolated concepts from Aboriginal languages included in otherwise English language presentations.

For instance, in Fort St. James, when Jim Munroe was presenting on the traditional system of keyoh holdings, a series of Dakelh terms were rendered illegible in the published transcript. "There are laws around that. There's terms in our language it's called (native word) and (native word) and it means they did -- people disappear if they don't respect the land and they don't ask."

Here Munroe is describing the sole and exclusive character of keyoh (or territories) under Dakelh law. Trespass, going on someone else's land without permission, is a serious violation of these laws, traditionally punishable by death.

But while a superficial gloss can be provided in translation, it is important to recognize that these Dakelh words are part of distinct conceptual apparatus through which they render the world meaningful. Understanding traditional Indigenous systems of territoriality also involves engaging with the categories through which these systems are constructed.

A further argument could be made that indeed the conceptual richness of emic (or insider) account of a culture necessarily involves immersion into the language spoken by community members. The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects how the speakers of that language conceptualize their world.

While the strongest versions of this argument, known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, are currently in academic disfavour, a weaker version does appear to have some currency. Thus, language can be understood to influence thought and even certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour (research has particularly focused on perceptions of colour, emotion, movement, time, and space).

Nonetheless, it remains doubtful that the federal government would ever enlist a legion of linguists to ensure a fair representation of Aboriginal conceptualizations of space. They could, however, at least minimally try to transcribe correctly the evidence put before them.

In Burns Lake, a number of Indigenous dignitaries made opening remarks at the beginning of the panel. Addressing the crowd, elected Chief Councillor of the Lake Babine, Wilf Adam, began with the words, "Dinï ze', ts'akë ze'." This traditional address to the male and female hereditary chiefs, however, entered the record as "Denizet, sarkoet."

Later, when Andrew Tom, a member of the Tsayu (Beaver Clan), addressed the panel, similar gross mistranslations occurred. "I'm the eldest son of Richard and Marlene Tom. I'm an active Tayi Clan member of the Wet'suwet'en Nation."

Admittedly, transcription is difficult. I could not easily determine the correct orthography of these terms. Indeed there is substantial debate among linguists about how to spell Dakelh or Wet'suwet'en words.

This is why several First Nations groups brought their own translators to aid the process of correctly transcribing their evidence. However, the panel's transcription, perhaps marked by the stated government aim of speeding this review process, has not fully availed itself of the services of these Indigenous professionals.

When Frank Alec, a Wet'suwet'en trapper, described how he received rights to use particular territories, this was again absented from the official record. "I'm what they refer to as (speaking in Native language). That means, "I am given this piece of land, given this responsibility to manage a piece of land from our Hereditary Chief.""

There was no transcription of the term Alec used despite the fact a trained Wet'suwet'en translator, Ron Austin, was sitting before the panel to aid their work. The transcriber never asked speakers or translators to spell terms in their own language, instead regularly dropping terms from the record and occasionally interjecting seemingly random phonetic attempts to capture concepts.

In a further gross disrespect, when witnesses were sworn onto record, effort was taken only to capture their English titles. This despite the fact many of the witnesses before the panel were hereditary chiefs presenting the knowledge associated with their particular hereditary title and territories.

In fact, the transcriber demonstrated not only a marked contempt for the hereditary system which presenters were explaining, but also the individual nations before the panel. The panel's handling of "native words" disrespects the particularity of the evidence presented at the hearings. People do not speak "native" any more than they speak "European" or "Asian." People speak unique languages. They speak English and French, which likely the panel would recognize, as well as Dakelh and Wet'suwet'en languages, which apparently the panel cannot even recognize as distinct languages.

Even when Jim Munroe prompted the panel in the Fort St James hearing that he was attempting to pronounce a Gitxsan word not a Dakelh term (which would be the native language in Fort St. James), the panel transcriber still applied the blanket appellation of the term "native." "This is in Gitxsan. This is a Gitxsan Court case, (native word) versus British Columbia."

While it would seem appropriate to clarify the case to which Munroe refers, it remains "(native word) versus British Columbia." This is a government document produced by the Canadian courts, surely it is possible to ascertain the names on the court record. Disturbingly this is left uncorrected on the official published transcript.

This is the record the panel will consider in weighing its decision, and is deserving of far greater than this abysmal standard of care in recording the evidence. This failure to provide an accurate account of the evidence presented before them is not only incredibly disrespectful of the traditional knowledge holders presenting to the panel, but also undermines the credibility of panel. If the panel cannot hear the words before them, how can the public believe the panel has considered the message that First Nations brought to the hearings?

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