Editing Modernism in Canada


Author Archive

June 5, 2014

Visualizing the Landscape of Aboriginal Languages

I have spent the last few days in Scott Weingart’s class (scottbot.net) on Data, Math, Visualization, and Interpretation of Networks. We’ve been working on the basics of network analysis and learning some new lingo around networks and visualizations, such as nodes, vertexes, degrees, directed and undirected, weighted and unweighted edges. The tools we have being using, and the questions and discussions that have arisen in the class have been both practical and critical of the concept of network analysis, possible data bias, and semantic generalization. Nevertheless, we’ve forged on in our quest to create the most beautiful, eye-catching visualizations, and have I been able to see the possibilities in reading data differently through network visualization, and have a wider perspective on the concept of networks in general.

I came to the class without a particular project in mind, so once we started working on NodeXL, and I needed to insert data sets into the program, I sought out some data on the statscan site that I thought might be useful to interpret in relation to networks. I found some data related to Aboriginal languages in Canada from a study produced in 2011 and published in 2013: Aboriginal Languages in Canada. As the title of the table suggests, the data represents three main “nodes” – language, province, and concentration of population with regards to peoples with Aboriginal languages as a mother tongue. Although incomplete, the table does offer the possibility to map the data as a network across geopolitical borders to see where language groups could possibly meet at the edges. Here is the graph that was produced using the data from the survey:    


The main nodes on the graph are the different Aboriginal languages, and the provinces in which they can be found as of 2011. It is a directed graph, which simply means that the language nodes point to the different provinces to which they are connected by an arrow pointing in the direction of their presence. Some of the languages only point to one province, while others point to multiple provinces. The edges of the graph, the arrows themselves, indicate the population size of those that speak the language in relation to their concentration in the particular province to which the edge points. The graph offers a few possible readings, and a number of problems. It cannot really tell us anything about the historical relationship between the different languages because it is based on data compiled in 2011 about people living with a particular nation-state constructed through colonial practices. It tells us nothing about the linguistic  relationship between or amongst the various languages, although it is possible to see that the concentration of Cree and Algonquian-speaking peoples could possibly have linguistic similarities due to their proximity (which is true, but not expressed by the graph specifically).

What the graph does tell us, which might not be made clear simply by reading the data table, is that there are in fact three networks of Aboriginal languages as expressed in the data. The largest network stretches geographically from Quebec to Alberta to the Northwest Territories. On either side, we get two distinct networks of Aboriginal languages that are isolated along the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is possible to read this visualization of the data beyond the numbers – or at least ask some questions about what it is showing us. Why exactly do the coastal nations exist in isolated spaces? Is it possible to argue that coastal dwellers had different social practices that made them less likely to travel far from the coast, and thus have less interaction with other groups? Does the topography of the landscape have an effect on the fact that Northwest Coast First Nations languages do not cross over into Alberta as of 2011? Or is it simply that the data is insufficient, and we are only able to see how colonial practices produced these isolated networks of linguistic speakers through forced assimilation and the reservation system? I’d be interested to hear what anyone thinks about the visualization, and if there are others questions that could be asked by looking at the networks of Aboriginal languages in Canada. Happy DHSI to all!


January 31, 2012

Canadian Writers’ Conference – 1955

In July of 1955, a few literary folks showed up in Kingston, Ontario to discuss the state of affairs in literature in Canada. Here is a small sampling of the attendees at the Canadian Writers’ Conference:

Desmond Pacey, Eli Mandel, Anne Wilkinson, Dorothy Livesay, Hugh Garner, L. N. Cohen, James Reaney, Marjory Whitelaw, Earle Birney, Phyllis Webb, Adele Wiseman, Ralph Gustafson, Douglas Spettigue, Miriam Waddington, Irving Layton, Jay Macpherson, F. R Scott, Louis Dudek, A. J. M. Smith, Morley Callaghan.

As Margaret Atwood would say – “Kaboom!”

Despite George Whalley’s excellent collection surrounding the conference, there is a major gap that exists in the proceedings. It is well known that Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton pulled off some controversial poetry readings that charged the more intellectual affairs of the conference, and led to major disputes among attendees. Despite the fact that there were representatives from the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and the CBC, there is no audio, film, or photos that I can find of such excellent historical events. Thus, I call on EMiCers to seek out possible evidence in individual authors’ archives. Can I please ask, if you get the opportunity, to see if there is anything associated with the 1955 Canadian Writers’ Conference at Queen’s University in relation to any research you may be undertaking with specific authors’ fonds. Anything you find would be appreciated. And catching a photo of the whole troupe together will earn you one-hundred times the Glory


May 16, 2011

Dictionaries, Translations, and the Indigenous Archive

I have spent a good part of the last two years thinking about, seeking out, and infiltrating archives. It would be pretty futile to produce an edition of Marius Barbeau’s The Downfall of Temlaham without stepping into at least one physical archive, or two, or three … well, you get the point – the process has been far more intensive than just searching through Barbeau’s papers to look at earlier manuscripts of the text. I have had to negotiate an immense amount of information spread across many dozens of archival sites (both physical and digital) in order to even begin charting the production of the novel and the resources that surround it. In having spent so much time working within and considering the nature of the archive I have become fascinated with a problem related to archival resources in relation to First Nations cultures in Canada. Specifically, in attempting to translate the words Barbeau uses to express the Gitxsan language, I have noticed the gap in the historical and cultural archives of Canadian First Nations communities.  After spending most of my time thinking about large-scale problems of linking massive amounts of information in online digital archives, I have turned towards the issues of language, translation, and what the archive means for cultural groups in which there are no archival resources. In thinking this through, I have been negotiating the problematic representation of language groups and their presence, or absence, in archives based on settler-driven desires for preservation, and anthropologically based projects of language recording. In the end, the problem of looking back at First Nations languages in Canada, especially in regards to having stories recorded in a particular cultural group’s own language, is that one typically has to look back to representations of such languages and stories through translated accounts filled with lacunae, where there is no access to “original” documents, and where they are typically filtered through political, colonial, and anthropological lenses.

Apparently the first transcription of the Gitxsan language by a settler was published in 1881 by The Colonist Steam Presses in Victoria. Bishop William Ridley, one of the first missionaries to ascend the Skeena, produced A Selection of Prayers Translated from The Book of Common Prayer in the Giatikshan Language for Use at the Public Services. A “Zimshian” version (Tsimshian or, more likely, Sm’algyax) was published in 1882 by Ridley through the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. As an example of the first phonetic dictation of these two closely related languages, one can see the beginnings of the mapping of the historical lexical changes within the dialects of two distinct cultural communities that shared a common language system that had never been recorded before. One can also chart the cultural and political forces that marked the symbolic growth of these two languages, as one can imagine from the fact that these languages were recorded for the first time for the purposes of Christian missionary work.

Because Pacific Northwest Coast communities such as the Gitxsan were colonized late in the nineteenth century (compared to other communities in contact zones throughout the Americas), things begin to blur very quickly from the first recordings of the languages and their present-day use. Franz Boas, and then Marius Barbeau, arrived shortly after Ridley’s transcription, and both produced different phonetic and graphic interpretations of the languages. In The Downfall of Temlaham, it seems that Barbeau mostly used a Sm’algyax lexicon, even though the principle figures in the novel are Gitxsan. Despite the fact that I have access to about a dozen resources from which to translate the novel, there is simply no individual resource which would allow me to discover closer connections to the words Barbeau used.  Searching for the exact spelling of Barbeau’s translations in online Gitxsan and Sm’algyax dictionaries suggests to me that Barbeau was confusing Gitxsan with Sm’algyax, but, of course, the lexical interpretations of these languages have changed since Barbeau wrote his novel, which could mean that he was simply producing his own interpretation of what he perceived as a general Tsimshianic language group. In some cases, I have found more than a dozen variants of a single word or name, often similar, but in some cases the graphemes are completely different despite similar phonemes. Searching through newspapers, maps, books, and recordings, both online and offline, produces various frustrating results when a suggested spelling using the phoneme “K’” is later changed to a hard “G.” Entire words have been changed to more fully represent the languages as they are seen by their users today, which effectively erased most of Ridley and Barbeau’s interpretations of the Gitxsan and Sm’algyax.

It becomes even more confusing when these words take on political and cultural significance. Of course all words are political and cultural, but for the Gitxsan and the Tsimshian words are a part of an inherited ability to map geographical boundaries, kin relationships, and an individual’s history across multiple living bodies. Recording such a language takes on a different cultural significance than if it is passed down orally, or told through a totem pole, marking a distinction between the cultural heritage of the communities that use it and the ethnologists that attempt to preserve it. Barbeau most likely was sincere in his desire to understand and record the Gitxsan language, but his work forces us to ask questions about how and why we produce archives, what we can do with them, and what they tell us about the past, present, and future.  I need to reconsider the issue of indigenous modernity in regards to the role of linguistic archival preservation, and what role ethnology plays in the politics of indigenous rights in relation to the archiving of cultures, and as I will be talking about this at the MLA conference this coming January, I would appreciate hearing back from anyone who has any thoughts about the role of textual and archival materialism in relation to indigenous cultures.

May 12, 2011

Social Networking and Academia: Your Opinion Requested

In a few weeks I will be participating in a roundtable discussion on social networking and its impact on academic collaboration and networking, with questions relating to what has changed, what has been added, and what has been lost in the digital environment. This is for the ESC Roundtable at the ACCUTE conference in Fredericton, where I will be participating as a graduate student discussing the concerns and issues related to all of us interested in the digital humanities. I thought it would be a good idea, considering the theme of the discussion, to ask you all what you think about this, and for you to offer some feedback so that I can approach this with a more engaged (and networked) perspective. Here is the question I was asked to deal with:

“Humanities researchers and educators have long recognized the value of social networking: conferences, disciplinary associations, and face-to-face collaborative enterprise of all sorts have given shape to a field of knowledge production and dissemination that relies heavily on forms of exchange that exceed the limited boundaries of the journal article or monograph. Sociability, furthermore, is recognized as an important counterpoint to the often solitary life of scholarly endeavour. In recent years, digital technologies have made way for a new range of practices (such as blogs, wikis, crowd-sourced review, open access journals, self-archiving, podcasting, remote conferencing, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Academia.edu, Linkedin, and more localized online research consortiums) that might be seen to have dramatically altered the dynamics of intellectual activity in the humanities. For better or for worse, the social parameters of scholarship have shifted, and that shift invites us to consider not only the personal and professional benefits and costs of such technological innovations, but also the fundamental principles that inform how we interact with each other and to what end. How do digital technologies re-imagine the social dimension of academic relationships, and how do conventional practices find their analogues in an online environment? What have we gained, and what might we happily anticipate? What have we lost, and what are we in danger of losing?”

I would be great to hear back from as many of you as possible to get an idea of what the general consensus is from the point of view of graduate students who are actively engaged in a project that is founded on social networking and the digital humanities. Hopefully you will all be able to make it out to the discussion in Fredericton as well. Thanks in advance!

Marc Fortin