The Walrus Talks Conversations About Canada: We Desire a Better Country stopped in Yellowknife on its national tour on March 6. Among the esteemed lineup of speakers, Dene Nahjo Founding Member Kyla Kakfwi Scott was asked to deliver her vision for how to make a better Canada. The following is the full text of her speech, as delivered.
I’m Kyla Kakfwi Scott and I’m here to talk about interpretation.
My great aunt Mary Wilson was an expert in her Dene language. She worked for years as an interpreter. As a little girl I spent a lot of time in meetings and assemblies around the North, listening to the important conversations of the day and hearing them simultaneously repeated in the Indigenous languages of our people. Making sense, making meaning… making a lot of noise, frankly, with all of those voices speaking at once so the whole room could emerge with shared understanding.
I once referred to my aunty as a translator, and my mom was quick to correct me. Translators take words or text from one language to another, interpreters explain the meaning of something. Effective interpretation is not only the explanation but also the way of explaining; it requires a commitment from the speaker and the audience to hear more than words, more than ideas; to question the assumptions that feed the place you are listening from and push yourself towards understanding the place from which they are spoken.
I don’t speak my Dene language, but I have still spent my life interpreting. It’s not just about language; the need to interpret expectation, or social norms, exists for anyone who finds themselves living in a new place, or surrounded by a culture that is not their own. It’s an experience shared by many people of mixed heritage; carrying two cultures within you means that the need to bridge between them is inescapable. That need for interpretation inevitably is carried by the minority.
In this era or capital ‘R’ reconciliation, Canada has expressed a desire for better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Relationships must be built on understanding, and the burden of interpretation required to achieve that cannot be carried by Indigenous people alone.
We desire a better country. It’s a bold statement; one full of possibility and begging for interpretation. The beauty of it is that it can mean something different to every one of us. The challenge is that if we can’t arrive at some shared understandings we’re not likely to achieve any of those visions.
As an adult, my practice as an interpreter has been something I’ve carried into my work. It’s a useful skill and it has served me well as a public servant to be able to work from multiple perspectives. My most challenging application though, and the source of some of the work I am most proud of, is through my involvement with Dene Nahjo – an Indigenous innovation collective based in the Northwest Territories.
Emerging from the Idle No More movement, Dene Nahjo began as a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists grappling with the challenge of “what next?”. We saw a need for change within our communities, which even here in the North had become far too divided, between indigenous groups, between the indigenous and non-indigenous population, and between urban and rural communities. We saw disconnect between generations, interruptions in cultural continuity, and a lack of innovation in popular discourse. Collectively, we agreed to tackle not just the question of what to do to address these challenges, but perhaps more importantly to make conscious and deliberate decisions about how we would do it.
Our vision is land, language, culture. Forever. On a daily basis we individually and collectively interpret and reinterpret what contemporary survival means for Indigenous people. What implications does it have for our cultures that we live in increasingly urban environments? Through our projects Dene Nahjo works to bring culture into unexpected places, create safe spaces for dialogue and innovation, build relationships, and challenge the status quo. Whether it’s tanning moose and caribou hides in downtown Yellowknife, making tools, or hosting circumpolar women’s gatherings, we’re defining for ourselves what it means to be Indigenous.
The reality is that we do not exist as depicted in museums, or books, or archeological sites, and that is fine. We continue to carry that history, that knowledge, that way of life, but our culture also lives where we do; sometimes in cities. Sometimes in rooms like these. My indigeneity, my culture, is defined and redefined by my daily practice and application in all things; in how I speak to you, in how I hear you, in how i work, and in how I learn. For Indigenous people the master class is always on the land, but the practical exam is wherever we’re standing.
Dene Nahjo has become for me what those assemblies of my childhood were; rooms full of people with a relatively common purpose, doing the hard work of figuring out how to get there and how to support each other on the journey. But these rooms don’t come with interpreters, and these conversations can easily go off track, or lose engagement, as meanings are misinterpreted, or the challenge of finding shared understanding becomes too great.
My aunty was a great interpreter, but also an Elder in the truest sense of the word with all of the wisdom that carries. My favourite story about her is the time that my dad, as a young leader, addressed a community meeting in our hometown of Fort Good Hope. He gave what I’m told was a great speech, in English, relying on the skills of my aunty to convey his meaning to the unilingual Dene in the room. She didn’t. She waited until he was done speaking and then told him to interpret for himself, to tell people in his own words and in his own language whatever it was that he thought they needed to hear. A challenge to his own responsibility for understanding the importance of interpretation, to his accountability to his community, to the importance of grounding himself in his own language and culture if he wanted to lead. He did the speech himself a second time, and she never interpreted for him again.
Here is what I understand that story to mean: the burden of transformational change cannot be shouldered by “leaders” alone. Nor should it be. Becoming our best selves depends on our personal integrity and commitment to improvement, but it also requires the support and insistence of our families and communities to carry us through the discomfort of growth, challenge, and the uncertainty of innovation.
Striving for a better country won’t be simple or easy. It will require a lot of interpretation to move beyond understanding what better means to you, or to me. Being better demands that we come to appreciate what better means to each other, and how and why those understandings are meaningful. This is hard work and it’s okay for it to feel that way. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t be disheartened by the magnitude of the challenge. But know that gentleness is not the same as complacency, and complacency is not an option.
What I love about the idea of a better country is the liberation and challenge that comes with working towards something without an end point, something that infinitely calls for more. This work demands tolerance, patience, and deep personal commitment. It asks us to bring our best selves, to hold each other up, and to embrace the discomfort of real transformation. It is a recognition that a better country is what we collectively make it to be, and that our work as interpreters is to seek understanding, not as an accomplishment but as a practice and commitment and way of being through every step of that journey.