Photo: Courtesy of Jen Squires
For a lot of Indigenous parents, the struggle to preserve language is harder than ever in a Paw Patrol world. Which is not a slight on everyone’s favourite dog squad, but rather just one example of how English culture dominates. For Nancy Mike and Andrew Morrison—the husband and wife duo who are part of the five-member band The Jerry Cans—raising three young daughters in a (mostly) Inuktitut household is both a priority and a challenge. She grew up speaking Inuktitut. He moved to Nunavut from Alberta at age two, but only became fluent in the language when he and Nancy started dating. Here, they talk about why language matters and what it’s like to push back against popular culture.
Was it always your plan to raise your children speaking Inuktitut? Nancy: Even before I had planned to have kids, I knew that if I did, I’d raise them speaking my language. It’s the language I express myself best in. And of course it is the language of our culture and our history, and the two things are so linked. For my generation and my mom’s generation, we were told that white culture is cooler than our own. I want do my best to make sure my daughters don’t have that experience.
Learning a language for the person you love is a pretty romantic gesture. Nancy—were you impressed? Nancy: Definitely. I was amazed by Andrew’s commitment, even if I didn’t always show it. I would get frustrated when he would constantly ask me how to say certain words. I would tell him to check his book.
What do you love about the Inuktitut language? Nancy: Inuktitut is a very positive language. When you’re speaking it, you’re feeding off that positivity, and it makes a difference in how you communicate with people and how you express yourself. For example, when we ask, “How are you doing?” we say “Qanuinngilatiit?” which translates to “Are you doing well?” It’s just a small difference, but there is a distinct optimism.
Andrew: For me, I love the connection between language and the people. It’s hard to explain until you experience it. I remember one time after I had caught my first bearded seal. That is a big deal in Inuit culture and Nancy’s dad made me go around and deliver meat to all of the community elders. Having to communicate with so many people who didn’t speak English was sort of an immersion program. I learned so much during those two weeks, both in terms of how to speak, but also about the community.
Andrew, you are a non-Inuk parent raising Inuit kids. What are the biggest challenges? Andrew: It’s a matter of being honest about my influence and countering that in our day-to-day life. I take a very active role in making sure they eat country food like seal and caribou and go out on the land and can speak in Inuktitut. Otherwise, even if I didn’t mean to, I’d be allowing English to dominate, and it’d be some sort of colonial situation that I would not be comfortable with. It’s very challenging and complicated, and there’s a lot of pressure on us as parents to navigate things. We don’t currently get a lot of support from the school system. Southern culture is just so strong—if you are not actively fighting it, it will dominate.
What does being vigilant against English influence look like in day-to-day life? Andrew: We are raising our children bilingually, so it’s not like we hit the panic button every time they speak English, but it is becoming more and more their language of choice as they meet other kids in daycare, and that’s tough. At home we speak as much Inuktitut as possible. It’s funny because I’m actually a little bit stricter. Nancy says we don’t want it to be something that they resent. It’s like getting kids to eat vegetables—you’ll do better if your kids see you enjoying vegetables than trying to force them.
Nancy: I have a very strict belief that I don’t say ‘don’t’ in my language. So instead of saying don’t speak English, I will just repeat what they said in Inuktitut and then get them to repeat it. We don’t restrict what they are exposed to in at school or with friends, but we definitely work hard at providing balance in our home. It’s definitely getting harder the older they get. Our middle daughter currently loves Paw Patrol. I will sometimes give the characters Inuktitut names. We have Inuktitut books and native colouring books and we’ve found a couple of iPad apps that are in Inuktitut.
Andrew: It can be hard to find books and entertainment. There is stuff from the eighties but it feels totally dated. That’s one of the reasons that the band is coming out with a children’s album.
Do you worry about having teenagers who will rebel against what you are teaching them? Andrew: Our strategy is to just plant as many seeds as we can, so that when the girls are teenagers, the more seeds they have in their soul, the more they’ll be able to access that and be able to understand the complicated dynamics of language.
The Jerry Cans are part of a growing wave of Indigenous bands and artists performing in their native languages. How does that feel? Nancy: It’s very encouraging. It’s something that my mom’s generation never experienced, and I’m so honoured to be a part of it. When we’re playing for big crowds and everyone is singing, or sometimes screaming, along, it makes me want to tear up. I know most of them probably don’t know what they’re what they’re saying, but it feels like it’s helping to keep these languages alive. And we have an opportunity to share stories about day-to-day life in Nunavut—it’s shocking how many people think we live in igloos!
Andrew: There’s an idea out there that these languages are dead or dying. When they say a language is disappearing, that’s totally inaccurate. Languages don’t disappear, they get taken away. People learning a little bit of an indigenous language, even just a few lyrics, becomes a powerful statement.