Mervin Brass, a storyteller focused on language
- Kelsey Wiks | January 30, 2023
Mervin Brass, a journalist turned senior managing director, currently holds the highest title of any Indigenous person in CBC history.
Today he’s using that position to help promote the revitalization of Indigenous languages.
Originally from Treaty 4 Territory, Brass is Anishinaabe and Cree from the the Key First Nation.
Like many Indigenous children, Brass was affected by the loss of language in his home due to residential schools.
“My mom and my dad attended residential schools and both my parents spoke their languages beautifully and fluently” he said.
But Brass’ parents, like many others, were taught to be ashamed of their language. As a result, it was not passed down to their children.
“They never taught the children how to speak (their languages) every day in the house,” he said.
Because of this, Brass is committed to the growth of Indigenous languages.
From a young age, Brass had an interest in current events and began exploring journalism. He knew he’d found his true passion. After studying Indigenous Communication Arts (INCA) and journalism, he graduated from the First Nations University of Canada in 1997 and started his career.
From there, he worked in many areas such as a reporter for CBC Regina, in private radio as a senior reporter and host, and even started his own newspaper called Treaty 4 News.
He was managing editor at CBC North for four years before moving to senior managing director in 2020, overseeing eight bureaus across the northern territories.
Brass loves the work CBC has been doing to revitalize Indigenous languages. In 2017, CBC launched the Indigenous languages archives project. The goal is to digitize all the audio tapes in the broadcaster’s Indigenous language programming archives.
“What we hope to do is to get those languages into the communities, so that the communities can have access to those stories and listen to the Elders speak,” said Brass.
He believes hearing voices from the past will help energize future voices.
“What we are hoping is that it will help to revitalize the language and bring back some of the phrases and words and storytellers that you know for generations, people have not heard,” said Brass. “So, we are hoping in result of that, it will help to make the languages stronger.”
As senior managing director, Brass is focused on hiring more northern Indigenous people as journalists, producers and hosts.
However, there have been some challenges. Many potential journalists come from remote communities and would like to stay in their homes with their families, he said.
Finding ways to employ people, so they can stay in their communities, is all about being flexible, explained Brass.
Another challenge is the decline of Indigenous language speakers.
In the last Canadian census, only 13 per cent of Indigenous people said they speak an Indigenous language. This total percentage includes fluent and semi-fluent speakers, and many of those 13 per cent are aging.
Brass remains hopeful more young speakers will speak their language around their communities and revitalize their Indigenous languages.
Language immersion needs to happen, so people become comfortable speaking their language, he said.
Currently, Brass is very excited about CBC’s Indigenous language podcasts he’s been working on. So far, one podcast in Inuktitut has been aired and he says it is very popular around the communities that speak the language.
Brass is excited to see what the future holds.