Q+A: Carleton prof on winning GG award

Carleton linguistics professor Marie-Odile Junker was honoured with the Governor General’s Innovation Award on May 24 in recognition of her work in preserving Algonquian languages and developing linguistic resources for communities across Canada.

The Charlatan interviewed Junker on her award, the appeal of Algonquian languages, and her current projects in development.

The Charlatan (TC): What does it mean for you to have your work recognized among 130 candidates for the Governor General’s Innovation Award?

Marie-Odile Junker (MOJ): It was a great surprise! I hope that it’s a sign that Canada is really engaged in reconciliation, and that the needs and contributions that Aboriginal peoples can give to our society are going to be recognized. For me as a linguist, I hope that Aboriginal languages can be valued. It is important for a lot of Aboriginal people to have their language be visible, heard, and spoken, so I hope that this award shows a new era in Canada.

TC: How did you become fascinated with Indigenous languages?

MOJ: I came from France as an immigrant, and I was already a linguist, but what struck me was that you could not learn these native languages. When I could, I took an Ojibway course in the 90s and I was struck by the lack of resources to teach these languages. Even if you wanted to learn, there was very little to teach. This pricked my curiosity, since you can learn any immigrant language like Chinese or Spanish but could not learn the languages of the land. I felt that was really unfair to the people and a great injustice. I felt that language was key to healing and reconciliation, and then as I started getting interested in those languages, I also became more and more fascinated by their structure and the worldview they encode. I guess when you’re a newcomer, you see things that other people don’t question.

TC: What do you notice when you interact with people who speak the languages you study?

MOJ: As a linguist, I started doing work in language documentation . . . I find that you should have this awareness and focus on the process rather than just the results. The synergy of our research with Aboriginal women across the country who care about their language, who are not necessarily in high positions of power, show that they are the champions of their language. A language is like a car—you can have lots of people who know how to drive, but who have no idea how the engine works. We are people who are interested in looking under the hood of the car and seeing how the engine works. I had a real pleasure meeting people from other cultures and discovering who they are. It’s something I think I was born with.

TC: You have created an interactive Algonquian linguistic atlas, supported by technicians and other researchers. How are you looking to further develop this tool and other new projects?

MOJ: When you go to the atlas, you have an interactive phrasebook, and the participation in that is completely open. We do get requests from communities and people who want to be a part of that, but I don’t have many resources at this point to do that. The big project I’m working on right now is a common digital infrastructure for Algonquian languages with twelve participating dictionaries . . . We’re developing infrastructure so that communities who are disseminated across the country, divided by provincial boundaries—as education is funded provincially—can share resources and expertise in linguistics to do quality documentation work and to provide speakers with good quality dictionaries, and also resources like lessons and databases.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Photos provided