Connection and Curiosity: Willis Janvier Shares Language and Culture on the Dene Yati Podcast
Driven by curiosity, Willis Janvier found a new way to bring his passion for his language and culture to life and share it with the world. Janvier is from La Loche, Saskatchewan, a member of Clearwater River Dene Nation and now lives in treaty 4 territory. His first language is Dene and he was raised by a single mother. While he had six sisters and one brother, he only lived with two of them. His childhood was busy with sports, but he especially loved hockey.
Hockey wasn’t his only dream. In high school, he wanted to be a firefighter and his sister suggested he apply to the armed forces. Nothing came of his application and after graduation, he went to Saskatoon, then Calgary, before moving home to work and save up for new goalie gear. Soon after, he landed a job in Fort McMurray, which he did for fourteen years between two companies. Working hard and playing harder, Janvier got into drugs and alcohol and had to seek treatment a few times. That experience helped him see he might be meant to do something else.
He was tired of being so far from his children when he was working. After his father passed away, his sister encouraged him to apply to university as a mature student. He got in and now, he’s studying to become a social worker like his sister. Janvier spent the first two years during the pandemic taking classes online, struggling most with focusing and being on time for assignments. While he was busy learning social work, he also learned about podcasting.
During his first year of university, he made a few videos, first posting a call with a friend he recorded. He made more videos by phoning people he knew, tricking them into answering his calls from an unknown number. After about ten of those calls, he made Christmas and New Years specials and a friend convinced him to continue and fundraise for equipment. He saw a gap in how few Dene videos were available and started his show, The Dene Yati Podcast, which has been running since 2020.
Available on Youtube and Facebook, it’s been a source of inspiration and joy for Janvier. “It's cool that I’ve been able to share so many stories of people everywhere, and learn about myself, too. Dene is my first language, but a lot of the time I'm still learning and it's pretty cool a lot of the history that I've been able to learn,” he reflects.
When he thinks about youth considering leaving their home community to pursue education or work opportunities, he suggests “Find what you love.” He’s still figuring out what he’s meant to do, but he found something he really enjoys and hopes young Indigenous people do too. “Experiment or try something new. If it doesn't work, then go and move on,” he encourages. After 14 years of doing the same job and being driven by money, he’s found more purpose and joy in new pursuits.
“I really enjoy what I get to do. I get to talk to people every week and learn more stuff. I want people to know: don't be scared to because it can steer you in a bad direction or [keep you from moving forward]. Don't let anybody put out that little light of curiosity,” Janvier shares. He recalls how he once felt discouraged by a counsellor at his second treatment center. “It was my curiosity that he tried to blow out. I didn't let him and today, that little bit of curiosity continues to burn and I’m clean another day, but I also get to pass along all these people's stories for everybody to enjoy now,” he continues.
Beyond his podcast, he also visits communities to speak in schools. “I'll share about … my addiction story. Then I always end about the importance of language and having culture as your roots, whether you’ve got to find it, go back to it, or whether you’ve got it or you’ve got to make it stronger,” he explains. Janvier is inspired by a Dene prophet who said “If we don't know our language or culture, we're going to struggle.” That’s why he loves to share his culture and all that he’s learned.
While he loves speaking and podcasting, it is a lot of work, but there are moments that make it all worth it. At a youth conference, when he was an emcee, a young lady wanted to say something in Dene but she was afraid he would laugh at her. He assured her he wouldn’t but he tells that story hoping one day young people won’t have that fear.
He deals with fear living one day at a time, though raising two children can be financially difficult. Janvier is sometimes tempted to go back to Fort McMurray to be more financially comfortable, but knows his body can’t keep doing that kind of work anymore. Messages from listeners and viewers who appreciate what he does keep him going. “You never know who you're gonna give life to another day,” he smiles.
To manage stress and relax, Janvier likes to golf. When he first got clean, he was angry, but golf was something he enjoyed and wanted to get better at. He also likes to take time for himself being alone. That rest and quiet helps him find strength for the next day to come.
After fourteen years of working away, he’s come home to his culture. As a child, he wanted to be a firefighter, but now he’s fanning the flames of language revitalization. In the classroom, he’s found purpose, both as a social work student and in speaking to inspire youth so they can learn from his journey. Celebrating the Denesuline language with guests from Denesuline communities, he’s getting social on social media and bringing people together with his traditional language in non-traditional ways. Driven by curiosity, Willis Janvier is connecting with people and listening to their stories so others can too.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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