More Indigenous language and culture needed on Canada's airwaves

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Mary Rose Bearfoot Jones (left) with Gunargie O'Sullivan.

Vancouver Co-op Radio is a hotbed for First Nations cultural programming and a tool for Indigenous language revitalization. Long-time programmer Gunargie O'Sullivan wants the trend to spread to radio stations across country -- by law. And she says the Canadian government has an obligation to make that happen.

"If Canada wants to reconcile with First Nations people in regards to the residential school area, it should be law to include First Nations programs from whichever territory radio stations are broadcasting in," O'Sullivan says.

O'Sullivan first became involved with the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) at its annual conference in 2008. As she was meeting with aboriginal community radio programmers from around Canada for the first time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and apologized for the profound abuses of the Government of Canada's residential school system, which he stated "aimed to kill the Indian in the child."

"They knew without language and culture, they would be breaking our spirits and we wouldn't know really where we came from," explains O'Sullivan, herself a former residential school student, of the system's architects.

She watched the televised apology with native broadcasters, including Mary Rose Bearfoot Jones (on the left in photo), a Mohawk elder who at the time involved native youth in her radio broadcasts on CJAM in Windsor, Ontario because it gave the youth a space to hear their ancestry celebrated. Otherwise, Bearfoot Jones explained, they often didn't want to identify as native out of the shame and embarrassment that's symptomatic of residential school syndrome.

O'Sullivan has been an active member of the NCRA since that experience in 2008, and now serves on the community radio association's board of directors. She has recently begun to insist the CRTC should mandate campus and community radio stations to broadcast the First Nations' languages and cultures from the territories in which the stations broadcast. And she has worked with NCRA staff to seek funding to support programming to that end.

O'Sullivan was first heard on the airwaves of Co-op Radio in Vancouver in the mid-1980s. Her older brother, whom she'd recently met, invited her onto his show When Spirit Whispers. O'Sullivan reflects on her 19-year-old self, in-studio as her brother had her read from Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. "I thought it was rather radical, and I felt a sense of loyalty to my white upbringing."

But before long, O'Sullivan was the new host of When Spirit Whispers and was having aboriginal interviewees referred to her by the radio station's management. Over the decades, she's logged hundreds of hours on-the-air, which have included interviewing local indigenous leaders, artists, organizers - and covering current affairs and music especially relevant to local First Nations.

"I've learned the value of language and culture, and the importance of the revitalization of our languages. I've learned about the struggles of the residential school era," O'Sullivan says, reflecting on the impact radio broadcasting has had on her.

She calls it healing. "History is attached to language and culture," O'Sullivan says. "Stories that are told tell us about where we came from."

Since the mid-1990s, O'Sullivan has helped launch two more radio programs at Co-op -- both including language revitalization in their mandates, and especially focused on three dialects of the Salish language. Children are regularly involved in her programming, and she interviews aboriginal guests from near and far. O'Sullivan draws particular attention to her former co-host of the ongoing show Sne'waylh, Chief Ian Campbell, a local, young and popular hereditary chief.

"The reason I'm [advocating for mandated inclusion] is because I've recognized how the programming has enabled our own community here in Vancouver," O'Sullivan says. After being involved in First Nations programming at Coop Radio, she adds, people have gone back to their communities and other places to spread the language. "They've continued the work, even though they're not on the air."

"I think it has a lot of merit," says Jean LaRose, CEO of Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), when asked about O'Sullivan's initiative. He notes there are 52 aboriginal languages in Canada -- not including dialects -- and it's impossible for APTN to sustain and grow the languages on its own. "An initiative like this would help supplement what we're doing."

LaRose explains that O'Sullivan's idea, if adopted, would help grow the base of journalists working in First Nations languages, and actually help grow and evolve the vocabularies of traditional languages. As an example, he says APTN's journalists covering the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver came up with new language to describe sports like snowboarding, where the existing base of language was limited.

Lorna Roth is a professor in the Communication Studies department at Concordia University and has a a background in indigenous television and media history. She says there's no question there's of a lack of indigenous programming on the airwaves in Canada, and despite her strong doubts the CRTC or the Conservative government is willing to work on a policy that would have indigenous language inclusion mandated, Roth says she thinks O'Sullivan is promoting a great idea.

Roth was part of an unsuccessful movement in the 1980s to have First Nations language programming enshrined in the Broadcast Act. She notes that rather than supporting Indigenous languages, history is supportive of covering aboriginal culture in English or French, from an aboriginal perspective.

The NCRA has applied for funding from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Commemoration Initiative to be able to produce radio documentaries on residential school survivors, and to be able to fund programmers to attend this year's annual community radio conference.

Despite there being little political will to implement her idea, O'Sullivan says the funding support, if granted, will help reach her goals of thriving First Nations languages and cultural programming on community radio stations in Canada.

"It will restore a sense of pride that we don't have. Right now there's a lot of shame in our communities because of the residential schools," says O'Sullivan. "I think language and culture will give us a sense of empowerment, a sense of well-being. It will fill that void that we're feeling in our bloods and our guts."

Canada's Broadcasting Act allows for policy directives from Cabinet, which can effectively direct the CRTC to mandate indigenous language and cultural programming.

Joanne Penhale is a freelance writer, community organizer, innkeeper, artist, gardener and fledgling beekeeper. She lives in Montreal with her husband and two cats. She has a BA in Communication from Simon Fraser University and completed a post-graduate journalism program at Langara College in Vancouver, B.C.

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