'Our culture is still vibrant': How language helps ATB team members preserve a part of themselves

Indigenous team members share their stories of language

By Aminah Syed 21 June 2019 3 min read

Naomie Atagooyuk’s name alone is often enough to spark a conversation with curious ATB customers at the Stettler Branch.

Originally from Iqaluit, Nunavut, the personal banking specialist moved to Alberta six years ago and has been with ATB for the last four.

“I think I might be the only Inuit ATB team member there is,” said Atagooyuk with a wide smile and a sense of pride. “Customers will walk by my office and see my name and are always so intrigued because they’ve literally never met an Inuk before.”

Conversations range from the northern lights, the weather, milk sold in bags, and how to pronounce words and phrases. Sometimes these encounters turn into mini language lessons and that’s what makes Atagooyuk even more special. She’s fluent in Inuktitut (and French, too).

The language is extremely rare to encounter in Alberta. She learned it from her mother and grandmother who spoke it at home growing up.

Atagooyuk admits Inutituk was hard to learn and that she probably doesn’t fully speak the language as well as she could because her education was in English. There were no Inuktitut teachers in school. Her mom will often still correct her grammar but being able to speak Inuktitut is something that is very important for Atagooyuk.

“I want my children to know where I’m from and what the language is and how to say things. It’s becoming less and less common to be able to speak it,” said Atagooyuk. “I try to speak to my children in Inuktitut as often as I can. It’s harder when you don’t have the resources around you but I try to make do with what I have.”

Atagooyuk and her family’s story isn’t uncommon but the fact that her family was able to retain their language after her mother and family survived the residential school system is.

This is something Levi Kiriachuk knows all too well.

Kiriachuk works in ATB’s Banking Operations in Calgary. His family’s language ended after his grandmother also survived the residential school system.

“My grandma is from the Kainai First Nations in southern Alberta. My grandpa is actually an immigrant from Hungary so I always refer to them as the original ‘odd couple’. So for both of them English was a second language,” laughed Kiriachuk.

Kiriachuk is very close with his grandmother and his connection to his First Nations heritage but has always felt something was missing.

“I was always kind of bothered by not knowing my own language,” explained Kiriachuk. “My grandma was forced to learn English and then forced not to speak her own language. She was taught that her language was savage so it was never passed down to my mom or the rest of our family.”

Kiriachuk believes that the history of exclusion and feelings of sadness and loss might prevent other people from Indigenous backgrounds from being open and outspoken. Which is why both Kiriachuk and Atagooyuk believe the creation of ATB’s Indigenous Network is more important and valuable than people may understand.

The ATB Indigenous Network is a group of ATB team members who gather online. It was formed just over a year ago, and is open to both indigenous and non-indigenous team members. Since its inception, its numbers have increased steadily.

“I thought it was absolutely amazing. I have never worked for a company that even puts a focus on indigenous peoples, except for the companies that are up north themselves,” said Atagooyuk. “I jumped on it as soon as I saw it.”

The group provides members with opportunities to share stories, family photos, and even the odd language lesson here and there. It has become a safe place for open discussion among team members. Senior leadership has also become heavily active in the group which astounds Kiriachuk with just how important reconciliation and inclusion are at ATB.

“Despite all that we’ve been through, our culture is still around and vibrant. It hasn’t all been forgotten,” said Kiriachuk. “This is something to give us pride in and to encourage other indigenous people to see what we’re doing here at ATB and maybe want to come work here, too.”​​

Photo by Dana Hudson

The United Nations has declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Language. ATB Financial will be hosting a number of National Indigenous Peoples Day events in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. Don't miss the opportunity to celebrate and learn more about the cultural diversity of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

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