The pressing need to learn from Indigenous elders

CBC Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the North examined how the role of elders is evolving in today’s society


A generations-long legacy of colonialism has left many young Inuit struggling to connect with their culture. But in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a group of grandmothers is fighting to link their people’s past to their future. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Elders are storytellers, teachers, protectors, healers and pivotal members of Indigenous communities in Canada.

Many grew up speaking an Indigenous language, learning ceremony and living off the land. Several are also survivors of residential school or the Sixties Scoop.

As the current generation of elders ages — some particularly respected elders have died in recent years — some people worry about the knowledge lost and the voids left in their communities.

While the essentials of elders’ roles haven’t changed, the world they’re living in today presents a new set of challenges.

Much of the younger Indigenous population across the country is growing up separate from their culture and language, often in urban settings. This disconnect, exacerbated by the intergenerational effects of colonization, has ignited an urgent movement to maintain Indigenous culture.

CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, elders-in-training and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they’re more critical than ever before.

Margaret Leishman is an elder living in Kakisa, N.W.T. She describes in her own words what being an elder means to her.

In high demand

The role of the elder has expanded beyond Indigenous communities and what some would consider traditional. This emotional and physical work can be taxing. With that comes the risk of burnout.

Elder J. Archie Weenie, who lives in Regina, is approached for help daily. He doesn’t say no.

Youth is the priority

A common thread across the conversations with elders was the importance of connecting with youth and how it is proving increasingly difficult.

One grandfather lamented how time with elders is being replaced by screen time.

You must have that drive within yourself — to replace screens with trees, headphones with drums.– Joachim Bonnetrouge, elder from Fort Providence, N.W.T.

For instance, a legacy of colonialism has left many young Inuit struggling to retain their culture. In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a group of grandmothers is fighting to change that at Annana’s Camp.

In Cambridge Bay, as with everywhere, fewer and fewer kids are growing up learning Indigenous languages.

That’s why a group of Cree elders on Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in Manitoba is attempting to create a syllabic dictionary.

“They need to be educated in their language and their culture,” said Elvis Thomas, from Nisichawayasihk. “Unfortunately for us, it’s been dominated by the British and French versions, but we’re beginning to make inroads, and the language and culture program is part of that.” MORE

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