Oct. 30, 2023Print | PDF
When Brent Kaulback (BA ’75) left Toronto and moved to the Northwest Territories, it was only supposed to be for a year or two. He was a teacher looking for adventure and excited to see other parts of Canada. Almost 40 years later, he’s still there – and he has made profound contributions to life in the North.
Kaulback was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) by Governor General Mary Simon during a ceremony held at Rideau Hall on June 21, 2023, National Indigenous People’s Day. Kaulback was recognized for his work amplifying Indigenous storytelling and revitalizing Indigenous languages by publishing more than 300 children’s books and a series of dictionaries incorporated into school curriculum.
“I don't have roots in the Northwest Territories, but came to really appreciate the culture, the heritage and the people,” says Kaulback. “As a teacher, I wanted to do things that would really promote and celebrate that culture, even though I am not Indigenous myself.”
As the assistant superintendent of the South Slave Divisional Education Council, Kaulback was tasked with enhancing Indigenous language curriculum, so he met with language instructors and asked simply, “What do you want?” The instructors’ response? “We want books.”
“We want stories about ourselves, about our communities, about our culture, about our traditions and in our languages that we can share with our students,” Kaulback recalls the instructors telling him.
Following that meeting, Kaulback set up writers' workshops for Indigenous language instructors and began generating stories in Cree, Dene Yatie and Chipewyan. With the concept proven and utilizing the excitement of instructors, he expanded the program to include community elders whose traditional oral storytelling had not been captured in print.
“When an elder came into the school to talk with students, occasionally they would tell a story and consent to having it printed,” says Kaulback. “I was the one that would collect the stories, get the layout done, get the publishing done and get the books distributed.”
Some students also became storytellers. Kaulback organized a writing contest that allowed students across the Northwest Territories to submit stories for potential publication. Some of the books Kaulback has helped create have been translated into as many as 13 different languages across several provinces.
“Many school divisions in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and Manitoba saw the collection of books that we created and wanted their languages represented as well,” he says.
As the program grew, Kaulback was able to attract well-known authors including Richard Van Camp and David Bouchard to contribute stories. Van Camp’s story Three Feathers was adapted into a film that was shot in four languages simultaneously: Cree, Dene Yatie, Chipewyan and English.
The impact of Kaulback’s work is reflected in feedback from parents. By centering the languages and experiences of students, he has been able to forge a vital relationship with community members, many of whom lost a connection to their languages when placed in residential schools.
“Parents have said, ‘When my child comes home and is speaking the language to me, they are helping me rediscover my own language,’” says Kaulback. “It’s a really emotional thing for people to regain something that they thought they had lost.
“Although I may have received the award, I am standing on the shoulders of so many people who have worked with me and celebrating the impact that we have all had together on Indigenous language learning and teaching in our region of the Northwest Territories.”
The Governor General’s Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division) were established to recognize remarkable contributions in fields of endeavour from advocacy initiatives and health care services to research and humanitarian efforts.