Tireless Anishinabeg culture and language promoter appointed to United Nations committee on Indigenous languages

Richard Kistabish, shown in this undated handout image, former Pikogan chief who has been selected on a UNESCO task force for the preservation of Native languages. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Minwashin

Very active for several years in maintaining the Anishinabeg culture and language, the former chief of the community of Pikogan, in Abitibi, Richard Kistabish, saw his efforts rewarded by the United Nations.

Kistabish is one of three members from Turtle Island (North America) on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Task Force for a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages.

"I'm a little surprised by this appointment," said Kistabish. "People around me applied for this group and it was successful."

Kistabish currently works with an organization called Minwashin, which aims to revive the Anishinabeg language and culture in Abitibi-Temiscamingue.

He was particularly active in 2019, during the International Year of Indigenous Languages.


The UNESCO task force plans to expand its work between 2022 and 2032.

"Several Indigenous communities in Canada are isolated. They don't have the resources to keep their language and culture alive," says Kistabish. "Quickly, the younger generations are losing their language. And this is all the more serious as several Indigenous languages are on the verge of disappearing. It would be an inestimable loss."

Kistabish will be on the first cycle of the working group's steering committee, a term of approximately three and a half years. He wants to testify to the experience of the Indigenous populations of Canada in residential schools. "I want to be authentic," he said. "I will go and testify to what I have experienced, to what we have experienced, to demonstrate the extent of the damage. I will share my thoughts on what to do now to restore, revitalize our language, the one that defines us."


In recent years, we have seen the return of Indigenous language courses in the various communities in Quebec. This is particularly the case in Lac-Simon, a small community of about 2,000 inhabitants, located 35 km south of Val-d'Or.

Almost half of its members are under 25, and the residential school break-up has also caused a cultural leak that Kistabish is trying to plug. He is also delighted to see the return of these language courses which he generically calls Anishinabemowin (the Anishinabeg language).

"It is an important testament to the resilience of our peoples," he said. "We operate in a context where, to preserve our culture, we have to work twice as hard. We try to stimulate young people by exposing them to the language, it is also a question of preserving our identity. The opportunity is there, it must be seized. In residential schools, we were forbidden to speak our language. The proof of our resilience is that we are still working on speaking it."

Kistabish's appointment to the UNESCO working group is a source of pride for the entire Anishinabe nation.

It is also an opportunity not only to revive the language, but also, to affirm the presence of his people on its territory.

"There is no longer any question of calling us invisible people," he said, referring to the documentary of the same name made a few years ago by Richard Desjardins.

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2021. 


Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters