Yellowknifers: The Language Learner

Two years ago, Jacey Firth-Hagen got a Facebook message from CKLB host Lawrence Nayally; he was developing a show about northern youth and looking for interesting people in the Beaufort Delta to feature. Happy to be of assistance, Jacey sent him the names of some youth in the region. Then came a second message: how would she like to be the host of the show?

“I honestly didn’t think anything was going to happen. Then the next thing you know I’m in the recording studio in CKLB practicing for an upcoming radio show called Feel Real Radio,” says the 21-year-old from Inuvik, now living in Yellowknife. For the next two years, she was the voice of the show (part of the GNWT-funded anti-drug campaign MY Voice MY Choice). It aired every Thursday and highlighted youth across the territory and beyond who were “making productive choices” – from an Inuk musician mixing beatboxing and throat singing to a Navajo clothing designer.

By her own admission, Firth-Hagen was “super shy and quiet… totally this little mouse, low self-esteem,” before the show. But after 51 episodes on air: “Now I feel like I could do anything,” she said confidently during the show’s final episode, which aired in March.

Firth-Hagen grew up just outside of Inuvik on Shell Lake, where her dad had a floatplane camp. It was an idyllic childhood spent fishing, snowmobiling, and flying out to her dad’s hunting camp on the Kugalik River.

“I was pretty fortunate to learn how life was back then for Gwich’in people, and I grew up learning about my ancestors and their stories, and about animals, what food they like.”

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These early experiences led to an abiding interest in Gwich’in culture and language. She’s not fluent herself, but she’s learning. And she’s become something of a one-woman language revitalization campaign, using social media to publicize language-learning materials and even creating her own resources – matching Gwich’in words with photos she has taken, and pushing it out on Facebook. She’s also developing a podcast that will focus on Gwich’in language and culture.

“It’s a huge part of our identity as Gwich’in people, or people in general. And it’s very empowering to know about yourself and where you come from. Getting more involved in your culture and who you are is a step towards healing.”

Firth-Hagen moved to Yellowknife in 2011 to attend Aurora College’s Social Work Access program. After one year, she opted to work rather than continue with the full program, landing a job at the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Review Board and then at Northland Utilities, where she works today. Her main passion, however, is volunteering; most recently she was the communications lead and youth outreach person for Walking With Our Sisters when it came to Yellowknife.

“I’m at a crossroads right now, I’d love to work with in environment or language and culture. I love science as well. I’d love to incorporate something like community outreach officer with language and culture something, being out to the land, I’m trying to figure how I can do all that.”

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

My favourite thing about Yellowknife is the arts and volunteering community. I’ve got to meet a lot of great people these past few years. We have the farmers market, and every weekend there’s something cool going on; the music and acting scene is up and coming. I volunteer at NACC. First I was ushering, because I was a new volunteer. Now I’m usually working the ticket counter, so I’ve shadowed doing that and I’ve sold tickets. You volunteer there, you get a free cupcake or cookie. And you get to see the shows afterwards.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Definitely the apartment renting prices. It’s so expensive. Honestly, Whitehorse and Inuvik is so much cheaper to rent.

How do you spend your winters?

A lot of travelling and a lot of commuting. This year I was really fortunate to have the chance to go to a language conference in Ottawa and a Gwich’in trip to Newfoundland, and I’ve been to Edmonton a lot. The trip to Ottawa was an Artic language symposium. People came from all over the circumpolar countries; I was one of the youth delegates and I talked about the process to the language act and the work that they’ve been doing. Newfoundland was educational university trip for ten days at Memorial University. We took different classes, went to lectures, all different things; basically experiencing life as a university student. It was great because I haven’t been to university yet, and I never ever thought I’d be on that side of Canada.

How do you spend your summers?

I usually like to go to the Long Lake Beach at least once every summer and go cliff jumping. It’s about a 20-minute walk – there’s a fence, sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s not, you go through there and you just keep going. I guess you have to go with someone who knows where the cliffs are; it’s kind of on the backside of the lake in the middle. There’s three different ledges, three different heights you can jump off. I also do a lot of walking in the trails; my favourite is the other half of Frame Lake, behind the museum. There are so many great bedrock cliffs there, it’s so beautiful and you can see the whole city.

I go home every summer to Inuvik usually for a week or two. I just relax and visit family. Before I moved to Yellowknife though, I’d always go berry-picking on the highway. And this July, I’m going to be a volunteer at the Pan American 2015 Games in Toronto with the Northern Youth Ambassador Program.

What kind of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

Up in Inuvik, I couldn’t get a job. When I moved to Yellowknife, it was hard to get a job too, but I got the job as a secretary at the MVLRB, I got trained as secretary and that opened a lot of doors for me. And definitely nowhere else in the North would I be able to get trained to be a radio host just out of the blue.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

I’m scared of that. I know if I leave I’ll definitely come back and visit, and possibly I’ll settle here in the years to come. But I’m still young, I still have to explore the world. I’ve done pretty good at travelling Canada this year so I’d like to do more of that and I’d like to check out other countries. But I know I’ll always come back to the North. I’ll never live anywhere else unless I’m going to school.


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