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God’s Word in Northern Canada

Twenty Minutes with Bill Jancewicz

Bill & Norma Jean Jancewicz

Canada’s official French-English bilingualism is apparent to any visitor, but the country is also home to almost 100 First Nations languages. In Quebec, some 20 percent of census participants identify an Aboriginal language — mainly Cree, Innu/Montagnais, or Atikamekw — as their mother tongue. One of the smallest but most robust of these languages is Naskapi, spoken by just over 1,000 persons in the majority Anglican community of Kawawachikamach near the Quebec-Labrador border.

The Naskapi were traditionally nomadic caribou hunters who first experienced contact with French, English, and Moravians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1830 and 1950 they were coerced into relocating repeatedly by the trading practices of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1956 the community was asked to move to the iron ore mining settlement of Schefferville, Quebec. The Naskapi themselves later chose the current site of Kawawachikamach in 1980 and constructed a village there over the next three years. Almost all Naskapi are Protestant Christians who are bilingual in English, while their cousins of the much larger Montagnais community are bilingual in French and identify today as Roman Catholics.

Until 2007, Naskapi was one of the last North American languages without a translation of the New Testament. Publication that year was the culmination of 25 years of work by church warden Joseph Guanish, lay reader (now deacon) Silas Nabinicaboo, and Bill Jancewicz, an American linguist from New England. Translation continues with a wide array of religious and non-religious materials now in print in Naskapi, all using the Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics system developed in the 1840s: a conversation manual, the three-year liturgical lectionary, portions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, children’s books, calendars, hymnals, and much of the Old Testament. Jancewicz and his wife Norma Jean are sponsored in their work by Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and by the Anglican Diocese of Quebec.

Kawawachikamach parishioners at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Quebec City

Could you say something about how you and Norma Jean ended up in Kawawachikamach? What was it like for your children to grow up in northern Canada?

We met when we were teenagers, and we were committed to cross-cultural ministry and Bible translation since before we married in 1981. We both completed linguistic and Bible Institute training soon after that, and we were accepted as members of Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1984. Our first child, Benjamin, was then 1 year old. The opportunity to serve the Naskapi language community came in the form of an invitation from local leaders in 1986. I made a brief visit to the new community of Kawawachikamach in 1987 and received confirmation from the Naskapi that they desired assistance with a Bible translation program. We moved to the Naskapi community just after our daughter Elizabeth was born. We shared a home with a widowed elder.

We spent the first three and a half years living in the community, learning to speak Naskapi and building friendships. The children attended school with Naskapi children and learned the language even faster than we did. We welcomed our third child, Nicodemus, in November of 1990.

In the spring of 1991, we moved to the nearby town of Schefferville, but continued to be part of Naskapi community life. Because of the level of second-language education at the Naskapi school, our children were also home-schooled by Norma Jean from time to time to augment their education. The children opened the door for their family into Naskapi community life, being a part of the school and church; Norma Jean taught Sunday school at the Naskapi church, and was also the leader of the Girl Guides for several years. Each of the Jancewicz children were welcomed into the homes of surrogate Naskapi grandparents, which served to strengthen their relationships within the community. Even as adults, each of the three children maintain lifelong ties with the Naskapi.

What changes have you observed in Naskapi life over the last 25 years?

In the early 1990s, we began to be involved in the Naskapi language education program at the local school. In partnership with some of the teachers and other educators, a decision was made to begin to teach Naskapi as the language of instruction in the early years. This practice has grown and flourished with the effect that upon the publication of the New Testament, Naskapi children were already fluent readers of the Naskapi language, and increased interest and capacity in Naskapi reading and writing has continued through the years. This subtle shift, which includes the ongoing work of the Naskapi Development Corporation in translation and language development work, has begun to improve the outlook for ongoing transmission of the Naskapi language to the next generations.

Naskapi people have always embraced technology, and the Naskapi language has kept pace with this. There are more and more Naskapi adults and children who are beginning to use Naskapi language materials in digital form. The Naskapi language still remains the connection to their culture, history and lifestyle. Even with new facilities, such as a medical center, sports arena, community center, store, school and community swimming pool, the Naskapi language can continue to be used and to thrive in each of these venues as the Naskapi people themselves keep this a priority.

What is parish life like at St. John’s in Kawawachikamach?

There has been a huge shift since the days when St. John’s Church was a mission of the diocese. Ordained, stipendiary, non-indigenous clergy served as priest-in-charge. In the old days, the congregation often had a selfless priest with a servant heart who could provide spiritual guidance and pastoral care, along with a vision for Naskapi cultural and linguistic content in the Christian life. Father David Phillips was such a one. But other times clergy would just come and serve out their term out of duty. We knew all kinds during our time in Kawawachikamach.

Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a move toward indigenous clergy, beginning with the Rev. Martha Spence from Split Lake, Manitoba. Since her time of service, there is now a trend toward non-stipendiary indigenous clergy — Deacon Silas Nabinicaboo currently fills this role at St. John’s Church. While this ensures more Naskapi cultural and linguistic content, there is a somewhat reduced level of theological education that could be addressed. The deacon-in-charge is necessarily a part-time position, and thus the parish often lacks the services that could be provided by a full-time priest.

Still, there is a good level of lay leadership and community involvement in the parish. St. John’s Church has contemporary Naskapi language biblical and liturgical materials. Church life in Naskapi is still the norm, unlike in many other First Nations communities who do not have the liturgy in their vernacular. Deacon Silas tries his best to serve the spiritual needs of the community in ways that they are accustomed to.

What is the greatest challenge for Bible translation into Naskapi?

It has always been human resources. Even from the early days of working one-on-one at the kitchen table with elder Joseph Guanish, it takes a great deal of personal commitment of time and energy to accomplish a Bible translation. It was brilliant foresight of the leaders of the Naskapi Nation and the Naskapi Development Corporation to make language development work a priority for the community, even creating full-time paid positions for Naskapi speakers to be trained to become designated Naskapi Language Specialists in their community. The persons who fill these positions are the real ones who carry the day-in, day-out load of long-term translation work and developing Naskapi materials.

A commitment of financial resources is sometimes scanty due to a lack of vision, and so many times after a Naskapi individual is trained in language work and translation skills, they may move on to other careers which value these skills and where they can receive more generous compensation. Naskapi speakers can and do acquire the exegetical and linguistic skills to do an excellent translation job. But having the spiritual “call” to service and a long-term commitment which the Bible translation task requires is rare. The answer may simply be “more money for translator salaries,” but it is more complex and intangible than that. Faithfulness, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit of God in the lives of the translation team is often what is needed most.

How long do you think it will take to complete the Old Testament in Naskapi?

Compared to the New Testament, the Old Testament is a significant project. Still, the Naskapi community has committed themselves to seeing it through, and that commitment goes a long way. With a good team of four full-time translators working, it could be completed within the next five to 10 years. But there are always things that can prolong the process. It is a tedious and recursive project that will require ongoing recruitment and training of additional staff. Still, the end result is so much more than a book. The translators themselves are transformed by their work on the task, and the work also augments the ongoing language development work, refining the Naskapi language curriculum, growing the Naskapi lexicon, adding to the biblical and non-biblical literature base, and building the capacity of more adults to carry on the transmission of the language and culture to the next generation. We remain committed to providing ongoing support and linguistic services to the Naskapi translation team at Kawawachikamach.

What’s next for you and your family?

Since 2014, God has expanded our own vision and responsibility for First Nations Bible translation in Canada, beginning with the First Nations Bible Translation Capacity-Building Gathering in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. At that time, representatives from the Bible agencies (Wycliffe, SIL, and the Canadian Bible Society) along with indigenous and non-indigenous church representatives connected with First Nations communities where the languages are still used in worship and parish life, met together to see how God was directing work for Bible translation and language development in other First Nations related to the Naskapi.

The Anglican National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald helped to verbalize the vision of the gathering when he said, “The development of an indigenous theology needs indigenous language, and so all over the world, but particularly here in Canada, we are realizing that even when people are fluent — especially when people are fluent in English — it’s critical for the spiritual well-being of those people to be able to use the Scriptures in their own language.”

What is your current work?

As part of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL, we are currently involved in additional translation initiatives. Wycliffe Canada has officially established a Cree Initiative Project, which involves a new translation for the Oji-Cree language at Kingfisher Lake, for the Western Swampy Cree language in northern Manitoba, for an Old Testament in James Bay Cree languages in Quebec, for a new translation for Mushuau Innu speakers in Labrador, for possible new work in Eastern Swampy Cree in Ontario, for ongoing work in Plains and Woods Cree if requested, and for a determination of translation needs in Northern Plains Cree in Alberta.

To these ends, the Naskapi project is hosting linguistic internships and training paths for full-time linguists who will work alongside speakers of these languages to help them realize their translation and language development goals. Two new teams have been established in Kingfisher Lake, Ontario (for Oji-Cree) and northern Manitoba (for Western Swampy Cree). Our task is to coordinate the Cree Initiative language projects, facilitate training workshops for First Nations translators, and to support all these translation efforts.

We will continue to serve the local communities who use First Nations languages as long the Lord provides us strength.


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