As a child, Willis Janvier remembers pretending to be a radio commentator for hockey tournaments. He was taking after his father, who was himself a broadcaster.
But he didn’t expect he would later become a broadcaster himself, let alone in his mother tongue.
Now, Janvier is the host of a Dene-language podcast, Dene Yati.
Growing up in Clearwater River Dene Nation in Northern Saskatchewan, Janvier didn’t speak English until he started kindergarten. “Whenever I call home till this day, I speak Dene with my family,” he says. He’s even passing the language on to his daughter. “I wish I had someone to speak with a lot more at home, but she’s learning and she’s understanding more, which is something I’m very proud to pass along.”
The seed for the podcast was planted during Janvier’s studies at First Nations University of Canada when, on a whim, he recorded a conversation with a friend between classes. “I hit the record button as I was talking to him. And I did this radio voice thing, and it was a funny moment. I posted that, and that’s kind of how it all started.”
The podcast then took off against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. It now has more than 100 episodes and more than 300 subscribers on YouTube.
In the most recent episode of the podcast, Janvier presents recordings from La Loche Trapping School. In an earlier episode, posted in May, he speaks to Betty Ann Adam, a Sixties Scoop survivor from Fond Du Lac, Saskatchewan.
But the podcast is about more than just language: Janvier also uses his platform to discuss mental health, including his own experiences with addiction and mental illness, even if it’s just during a casual live stream while cooking breakfast. “So I create that space to have those conversations we don’t normally have, and so I’ve been able to travel and share my story and the importance of language and culture as well.”
“My sister said, ‘It’s bigger than us.’ I didn’t know what that meant at the time. Now I understand what she meant: How I’ve been able to connect with people and give people access to the Dene language.”
Often, Janvier has thought about giving up the podcast and going back to work in the oil sands. “Anytime something like that would come up, someone would message me, someone who was in foster care, that said, ‘Hey, thank you for your language, or your podcasts, I’m trying to find my language, I was in foster care, or a residential school survivor,’ and all that stuff. So it’s kept me going, and over the past few years, I’ve learned that maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.”
“My grandmother was a Dene teacher, my dad was a public broadcaster. So, you know, someone else is leading me down this journey,” he says. “I’m just the vessel for them to pass on to anybody that’s willing to learn or listen.”
The Dene Yati Podcast is available on YouTube and wherever podcasts are streamed.