The first NHL game to air in a Cree language was the network’s most watched non-English broadcast ever

It took the better part of a decade to bring to life but the nation’s first Cree language sports broadcast aired on March 24 on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

“Surreal,” “overwhelming” and “electrifying” was how musician Earl Wood described his experience co-hosting the NHL broadcast in Plains Cree, which turned out to be most watched non-English broadcast in APTN’s history, with nearly 500,000 people tuning in.

APTN partnered with Sportsnet to bring together four hosts to provide commentary and analysis on a hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Carolina Hurricanes, the first sports broadcast done entirely in a Cree language on mainstream Canadian television.

“For me, it’s very hard to describe the spirit of it all, the intention and the vibratory energy that was emitted and present on that night. The ripple effects are so profound and the response has been overwhelming,” said Wood, who is one of the founders of the award-winning Northern Cree Singers.

“I never could have imagined that in one night so much could be done towards the reclamation, retention and reinvigorating interest in the language, particularly from the young people.”

The panel included Wood, Saskatchewan broadcaster Clarence Iron, musician Jason Chamakese and NHL alumnus John Chabot, whose analysis was translated live from English into Cree by Chamakese during the broadcast.

The game was featured on Rogers Hometown Hockey, a televised festival that makes 24 stops in different communities around Canada to celebrate local hockey stories.

This broadcast was nine years in the making, APTN CEO Jean La Rose told J-Source, adding that the network has wanted to have more sports broadcasts in Indigenous languages since the Olympics in 2010, when it did 14 to 15 hours a day of Olympic coverage in Indigenous languages, as well as in English and French. However, logistical issues and a lack of money prohibited the network from doing it more often.

Jean La Rose on what it means for APTN and its audience

(Courtesy of APTN)

“There’s not only an interest from our audience but it is also a great opportunity for us to use a sporting event as a way to highlight our languages, cultures and the regional interests of all the communities,” said La Rose.

Though the network regularly broadcasts in 15 to 20 Indigenous languages, including Inuktitut, Cree, Innu, Ojibwe and Mi’kmaq, La Rose said it has not had many opportunities to offer sports coverage in Indigenous languages.

La Rose said he often hears from Indigenous youth that they don’t feel comfortable speaking their languages outside of Indigenous circles, and hopes that the more that young people hear their language used on major media, the more the younger generation will be encouraged to learn and revive these languages.

Jean La Rose on the United Nations Year for Indigenous Languages and APTN’s role 

(Courtesy of APTN)

“To hear the languages used in a major event makes that language all the more relevant and much more present, vibrant and alive to them,” said La Rose. “Doing it this way, all of the sudden, half a million Canadians tuned in to listen to it. It just generated a whole new level of interest in the language.”

Wood also noted the importance of having more mainstream media presented in Indigenous languages, saying it is an important step toward reconciliation and helping bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous speakers in Canada.

A 2011 National Household Survey found that about one in six Indigenous people are able to conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, with the Cree languages, Inuktitut and Ojibwe being the most commonly spoken. However, about 14,000 Indigenous people who reported having an Indigenous mother tongue said they lost their ability to speak their language.

Groups at the community and government level are working to revitalize languages and tackle the intergenerational impacts of the legacy of colonization that has led to the reduction in the prevalence of Indigenous languages.

The Onaman Collective, for example, is a small group of Indigenous artists who have formed a community-based social arts and justice organization at the grassroots level. Much of their work is targeted at younger generations, with the goal of helping communities reclaim their heritage through art, as well as teaching youth about traditional knowledge and languages through a variety of outreach programs.

There are also language learning classes at universities, such as the Ojibwe intensive language classes that are part of a two-week summer program offered by the University of Winnipeg. It teaches beginner and intermediate Ojibwe, as well as traditional teachings on medicine, beading and drumming. In November, the Department of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism announced it will be supporting 16 community-based Indigenous language projects in Manitoba, providing them with $1.8 million over two years to “preserve, promote and revitalize Indigenous languages,” according to a Canadian Heritage news release.

In February, Pablo Rodriguez, the minister of Canadian heritage and multiculturalism, introduced Bill C-91, otherwise known as the Indigenous Languages Act. It also will  focus on reclaiming and revitalizing Indigenous languages throughout Canada by implementing Calls to Action 13, 14, and 15 from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, as well as aspects from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As for APTN, the network regularly has broadcasts in a variety of Indigenous languages and La Rose hopes to show sports broadcasts in Indigenous languages more often. Though they do not have any concrete plans for more Indigenous language broadcasts, La Rose said this is definitely something they hope to have more on the network.

Other media outlets are also making an effort to create more content in Indigenous languages, like Wawatay News, which has stories in syllabics, the language writing system used for a number of different Indigenous languages, and In Eeyou Istchee, a Cree language podcast hosted by multimedia journalist Nick Wapachee.

The impacts of the residential school system and other government programs aimed at eliminating Indigenous culture have affected many generations, said Wood, urging the younger population to make an effort to re-learn these languages.

“Even if you don’t understand those words, you still connect with that vibratory energy,” said Wood. “I still look forward to learning more because the more I learn, the more I understand who I am and my relationship to creation and everything that’s around — I have a better appreciation for it.”

Disclosure: The host of In Eeyou Istchee and the author of this piece were both on the Ryersonian masthead in 2018.