Bonding Beaver Media’s Language van hits the road

You might have seen the recent Pique cover story, The drive to preserve the Lil’wat language.
A little while before it ran, we had a chance to check in with Bonding Beaver Media about their new van.
Calling Mountains Productions has been working with the Lil’wat Nation, documenting culture and language, for the past few years, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to share some of founder, Valerie St-Arnaud’s, photography and celebrations of culture, here.
Her most recent venture has been to outfit a Sprinter van and turn it into a mobile recording studio, to be able to travel to elders and language speakers and create a soundproof suitable venue to capture their voices, their words, their wisdom. We dug in with Bonding Beaver Media recently by email Q+A, to find out all the dirt on this great initiative to support language revitalisation. Follow to stay appraised of their adventures.
1. You’ve built a wedding photography business in Pemberton over the last four years. Can you connect the dots between that business and Bonding Beaver Media? (I mean, How does a wedding photographer end up driving a mobile recording studio into remote First Nations communities?)
Calling Mountains Productions was launched in 2016 with the intent to make videography a side gig, do a few projects on the side and make a little bit of money that would pay for new equipment so I could keep doing what I enjoyed as a side gig. I never thought I would find so many wonderful local loyal clients in the Sea to Sky corridor that wanted to see me succeed. I was different – you rarely see a woman lead in the film industry and instead of concentrating my effort on capturing the typical outdoor and extreme sports, I had an eye for visionaries. I wanted to share local stories and get creative in the way they told their stories. I find everyone that moves to Whistler or Pemberton has a story to tell, we’re all special and usually come with baggage… usually longing for a community. I was lucky enough to find mine, initially when I first started I decided to volunteer a lot of my time to non-profit organizations where I would acquire more skills but more importantly more « connections »… It’s all about those connections.
Through this work I met Lois Joseph, Culture manager of Lil’wat Nation. She approached me about doing a project with them. They had 200 hours of footage of the elders picking cedar bark and making cedar baskets, and they wanted this footage compiled into 1 hour with subtitles in Ucwalmicwts. At the time I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was from the east coast with no real knowledge of their culture. I didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge, I started working with the elders and created this beautiful piece for their community, they could learn a new skill through videography and learn their language at the same time.
From that point on, more work became available. The Nation realized that those types of resources were beneficial to the community. I took on a few contracts until last year I realized it was more than just creating resources, it was about building capacity and teaching indigenous youth and young adults how to do the work themselves. So I’ve been working with the Nation in building skills and mentoring youth and young adults who are looking to start their careers and understand the importance of technology and the best ways to preserve culture and language.
2. Tell us about yourself – where you’re from, how you came to Pemberton, what got you behind the camera? (ie Who are you? And whose the guy in the photo?!)
I’m originally from Quebec and I’ve been in Pemberton for almost 8 years now. I came up to snowboard 8 years ago and met David (guy in the photo), we hit it off during my trip and once the trip was over I went back to the east coast.
When I got back something was missing, I wasn’t sure at first… was it David? was it the mountains? the potential? the community? but I made a decision to pack up and drive out West. When I got back I realized moving across the country wasn’t going to be a piece of cake. I had just finished my degree at the University of Ottawa and I was looking to start my career, only to find part time jobs and no real opportunity offering growth. My employers were good to me but something was missing in my life. I contemplated moving back home in Quebec multiple times before deciding to take a leap of faith and trying and starting my business and eventually trying to work full time. I’m very grateful I chose to take that risk, I have met wonderful people through all my work experiences so far and I can’t wait to learn more. Ps. David is now my husband! and also part of Bonding Beaver Media as a recorder and mentor. 
3. Tell us about Bonding Beaver Media. What is it all about? Why did you start this business? What do you hope it will achieve?
One of our main job with the Nation is recording the Language and Culture with the elders and knowledge keepers.
Currently, fewer than three per cent of Lilwat Nation’s people are fluent speakers.
Getting quality audio is important so they can pass it on to the next generations.
This year I realized that this process was an arduous task, not only for me but also the elders. I’d go pick up the elders in the reserve, bring them to the community, try to find a quiet room and hope the fans we’re turned off (which they almost never were), make sure there was no construction around the building – dozens of other factors making the process so challenging and really affecting the quality of the audio.
You have to understand that Ucwalmicwts, although a very fluid language, has specific pronunciation techniques. You have to pay attention to the sounds you make with your mouth. Phonetics have to be captured right and doing this at the Learning Centre it was almost impossible.
I sat down with a colleague Dawn Johnson, and she remembered Verna Stager (Education Director, Xit’olacw Community School) had suggested in jest that they should get a van that would meet the elders to record. She suggested I reach out to Verna and that I keep the idea in mind for the future.
Something that day sparked in me. There’s vans for everything nowadays – you can get physiotherapist on wheels, doctors on wheels, so why not a mobile recording studio dedicated in recording First Nations languages and cultural content.
Two weeks later I emailed Verna to get her blessing and went on with the idea!
We found the van in Ontario and drove it back in March right before Covid hit. We took the past few weeks to convert the van and dream of better days ahead.
Bonding Beaver Media came with the van idea. We thought if we are able to help one Nation build capacity, help revive and preserve language and culture then we would love to help other Nations in BC. Our vision is to eventually create employment for First Nations young adults who thrive in creating digital resources and want to learn more technical skills.
4. What has inspired you to work with indigenous cultural and language revitalisation? The mainstream media story for decades has been that these languages are practically extinct and no-one speaks them anyway… How do you respond to that?
For the past 5 years I’ve been working with Lil’wat Nation on preserving and reviving Language and Culture. Through this work I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the best storytellers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
I found myself grasping the concept of living in the moment and really listening to what these knowledge keepers had to say. The passion in their voice and stories they shared with me has inspired me to want to do more with them.
You might call me a little old-school but I saw the potential in their way of living. In such a fast-paced world, I saw the beauty in being able to slow it down, to connect with people, to admire the respect each member has not only to their community but to their land. This deep connection between them and the food they cultivate, the ground-breaking ceremonies, the songs they sing – all of these raw moments, have forced me to take a step back in the way I live my life, the way I eat my food and the way I treat the land I am so fortunate to stand on.
Language is so huge a part of their culture. Through everything they went through in past, I feel a sense of responsibility in wanting to help them revive the language. As I said earlier, only 3% of the community are fluent speakers. If I can help get that percentage up just a little, I feel fulfilled by that work.
If life long learners know who they are, and where they came from, then they will know where they are going.
5. You took Ucwalmictws language classes this winter. Can you share something you learned from that process? Any favourite learnings, words or phrases?
I was a little shy when I started the class. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I wanted to bring more value to the work I as doing with the elders. Plus, when you record for hours during the week, it’s kind of nice to have an idea what they are saying.
My goal by joining the class was to see how Martina Pierre taught her language. I wanted to practice her strategies and apply them to my work. Even with some of the resources I had created I was lacking context and I found that after listening to Martina explain the basics even for just 10 minutes, I understood more about their language then hours of watching my own initial online resources. I knew I had to shift things around and really understand the root words, phonetics and listen to their retention strategies.
Ucwalmicwts is a language with root words. One root word is found in multiple other words, helping us make sense of the word. It is also a very fluid language which allows them to create new words or phrases for some that might of not existed back then.
I find mastering the phonetics the hardest part although being French has helped me pronounce some of the sound of the language.
6. What is a preconception or misconception you had, before you began working closely with the Lil’wat Nation, that you’ve come to understand differently now? (The topic of race and white privilege is so alive right now, and I feel as though a big part of this is white people making some honest accounting and inquiry of ourselves and our assumptions and how our assumptions perpetuate an oppressive system.) How has that journey of inquiry been for you?
It’s hard to answer this question in all honesty, because I sometimes feels embarrassed about the lack of information out there.
Before working with the Nation and taking the time to educate myself, listening to stories and trying to put myself in their shoes, and move through my own discomfort was a slow process.
At one of the first events I went to help film, someone came up to me, yelling, telling me I didn’t belong and I shouldn’t be there. This happened about 2 years ago and I remember being really sensitive towards her judgment. I had to take a real step back and educate myself on everything that had happened in the past to understand some of the preconceptions or fear they had toward me.
I had a choice to make – I could feel victimized myself or understand their pain and past. I chose that path of acceptance, but through this it made me stronger and made me realize the value in the work I was doing for the Nation. Seeing how my community at Lil’wat Nation backed me up and made me feel a part of the family, I felt accepted and it was truly a privilege. I hold this trust dearly and I work hard everyday to make a difference. Although I was lucky enough to live in a community who accepted race and gender I feel a sense of joy knowing that I chose to educate myself, it made me more open-minded to everyone and everything around me.
7. How has COVID19 affected you as a small business owner, how have you had to adapt to respond to it, and what opportunities do you see at a larger level coming out of this pandemic?
COVID-19… Initially I was concerned because we had just gotten the van in Ontario on March 15th and the next day everything was shutting down across the whole planet. I was stuck in Ontario wondering if 1. I would be able to get back to BC and 2. if I had made the right move by getting this van in the first place…
Driving back through Canada with this unknown feeling in my gut, I was worried about my family’s health, the planet and my new business. If you own a business, then you can appreciate when I say that nothing is certain, it’s like a roller coaster, one day « I’m the best and I can have it all » and the next day I’m crashing and wondering why I got in this in the first place, then up you go again: « this isn’t so bad, I got this » and well you understand what’s next…
I had a choice, I could either return the van or trust that eventually this would benefit our business and help the communities we envisioned would benefit from this service.
We took a few months during COVID-19 to convert the van. Everything we ordered came in late and since Dave couldn’t invite any of his friends over to help due to social distancing. We had to figure it out together. It was a real test and I can proudly say that we make the best team and I can’t wait to see us do business together.
I think for my line of work, the pandemic will benefit me, because most people now understand the value of technology and using resources, and the value of being able to learn from online platforms and using the resources to teach. We are all very excited to get back out on the land with elders and community members but until then we invite everyone to use these resources created for them, to learn their culture and language with their families.
8. How would someone who has seen you evolve over the past few years, describe you?  
A friend recently said, “Val is a woman of passion, strength, and determination and as one of her close friends it’s been a privilege to watch her grow personally and professionally. She is not one to shy away from challenges or let anything hold her back, humbly building her business in Whistler and Pemberton, I really see the joy Val takes in her craft and creating valuable content for local entrepreneurs. She is always looking for an outlet to get creative or help others and her involvement with Lilwat First Nations language and culture preservation is something I know she feels strongly connected to. When Val has an idea, I think there is almost nothing that can stop it from becoming reality and Bonding Beaver was no exception. She and her partner Dave worked non stop to breathe life into the mobile recording studio, and create a new business that will bring a new level of quality, comfort, and education to everyone she works with. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her future projects!” ~ Zoë Lomoro

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