Hold on, good things ahead..

FNEF and Six Factor announce new Indigenous language app: secure, instantly available, and customizable

We have some great news to report about the work we’ve been doing over the past several months with Six Factor, our FNEF technology partner. Six Factor is western Canada’s Leading Google Cloud Partner, and together we are ready to field test the first generation of our FNEF Indigenous language app for smartphone, tablet, and desktop learning.

There are some key differences between our FNEF language app – which was built from the ground up to be secure and instantly available on a global level – and other language apps currently being used to curate and revitalize at-risk First Nations languages. For example, it has a “record and compare” feature that provides learners with a visual reference whereby the sound wave produced by their pronunciation of a word or words can be directly compared to the sound wave produced by a fluent speaker for enhanced pronunciation accuracy.

Likewise, content curation for our app is built around high quality video recording in tandem with audio recording – including individual words and alphabet pronunciations. Video offers a substantial improvement over merely recording high quality audio and adds a significant cultural benefit for future generations who will actually be able to see – as well as hear – Elders speaking the language they are learning (studies have shown that people learn faster, more effectively, and are more engaged when video is incorporated into learning).

In tech circles, our FNEF app is already turning heads with what it can do and how quickly it can do it (see the current technical specifications and cloud technology / security software used by our FNEF language app below at the bottom or skip directly to it here).

The technological sophistication of our FNEF app is based on our adoption of the significant, exponential advances in Google’s machine learning and “Deep Learning” technologies in recent years. Our goal is to fully harness this advanced learning power and bring it to bear on the challenge of revitalizing at-risk First Nation languages. Six Factor is continuing to work on ways to accomplish this for us while we field test this first generation of our app, which supplements the vitally important language nest, immersion, and mentoring work already underway in many First Nations communities.

Needless to say, security and instant global availability were high on our list of requirements for the FNEF app. Six Factor was able to achieve this for us by embracing Google’s Cloud Compute Engine technologies which allow for rapid scaling to meet instant demand without sacrificing performance or requiring the reworking of an app. The software architecture used to build our FNEF Language app is also framework based which means it is easily expandable to support multiple language sets.

So: What does this mean in practical terms? It means that the user interface for our desktop and mobile language app versions is easily customizable and personalized to the specific requirements of any First Nations language community; and new features such as learning environments based on virtual reality can be added in the future as various technologies advance.

There is an important bit of background to the language technology Six Factor is bringing to our app and to the goal of saving and revitalizing at-risk First Nations languages. The current state of Deep Learning (machine learning) technology makes it possible to “ingest” a thriving living language in just 30 days. Six Factor is looking to embed this same advanced machine learning technology into our FNEF app such that, with a sufficiently robust Indigenous language corpus, it will soon be possible for at-risk Indigenous languages to be machine-learned using our app simply by recording and absorbing the normal, everyday speech of fluent Elders. The implications for rapidly curating an at-risk First Nations language, and creating the conditions for a successful revitalization of that language, are profound.

In terms of the user-friendliness of our FNEF language app: Our app can access the microphone, camera, and photo library of a smartphone to record speech in HD. This allows a user to practice and participate in a game-like learning environment built into the app’s workflow experience. To protect end-user privacy, the practice sessions of each individual learner are stored in a randomly-named file folder structure. And before any public submissions – or uploaded recordings – are accepted into the application’s language dataset and made available to end users, they are stored in an encrypted staging folder for review and validation by a trainer or admin person. The use of each First Nation’s data is protected by a highly secure privacy policy whereby each user is granted role-based access and function permissions; e.g. user, trainer, Admin at the First Nation Government level.

For the tech folks – and without going too deeply into the technology – our FNEF language app is a cloud application written in PHP using the latest version of the Laravel framework. It serves HTML, Javascript and CSS to desktop users while delivering results to mobile users over RESTful API using a bearer or authorization token within the request. The mobile application of our FNEF app was developed in Angular, a powerful language that drives many of Google’s own services.

Application data is backed up nightly and stored in a secure Drive bucket for no less than thirty (30) days. Users can log in with a username and password, or by using Single sign on via their Google, Twitter, or Facebook accounts over oAuth.

All login and data upload requests require authorization, and CSRF tokens are used to protect against cross-server forgery attacks and cross-site scripting attacks. Using a rigid Content Security Policy, the HTML webpage serving the app’s front-end denies the loading of scripts from third party domains, and all libraries are stored locally. In other words, the data in our FNEF language app is heavily protected and very safe and secure.

Our FNEF language app and its environment are also penetration tested by a qualified cybersecurity firm on a regular schedule. The application inspects uploaded images/audio and validates content. Uploads are renamed using a randomized hash and stored in an isolated environment without the ability to execute code or access data on the server. The server and software are hardened to store the application in isolation, prohibiting access or visibility to non-essential memory or other sessions. The complete environment is resource/performance/process monitored and access/firewall logs are inspected by a cyber security specialist for suspicious activity with real time data streamed to a secure bucket.

As noted above, it is the significant advances that have been occurring almost monthly in Deep Learning and machine learning technologies in recent years that have made it possible to accomplish what we have accomplished with the first generation of our FNEF language app; and the rate at which these technologies are advancing is increasing exponentially every day. If we use the analogy of dog-years for the purpose of comparison (because everyone knows that seven dog-years equal one human-year), one human-year is currently the tech equivalent of roughly fifteen “application-years.” That’s how fast machine learning technology is changing and advancing.

There is no question that an urgent response is required to document and curate the language and knowledge held by fluent Elder speakers of Indigenous languages as rapidly as possible while they are still with us. Likewise, it’s no secret that this population grows smaller every day. Tapping into the exponential power of technology innovation is the key that will unlock our collective ability to meet this great challenge.

We want to thank Six Factor for partnering with us on this vitally important project and allowing us to achieve the key differences we were looking for with respect to the language apps currently being used to rescue at-risk First Nations languages. Six Factor shares our passion for saving these languages as well as our belief that an enormous technology boost is urgently needed – and right now – to preserve at-risk First Nations languages in a way that will allow future generations to successfully learn and revitalize these languages (and for all to learn from them and the unique knowledge, history, and wisdom they carry).

We are very proud of the language app we’ve created with Six Factor as our technology partner, but we’re not stopping there. Our ambition is to support First Nations communities and language champions in their language revitalization efforts by delivering the best in class technology innovation for language curation and revitalization on an ongoing basis.

Thank you again to Andy Parkins and everyone at Six Factor for joining us on this important journey. We are eternally grateful to all of you for what you have accomplished for us and for getting us closer to the goal of saving and revitalizing all at-risk First Nations languages.


Current Technical Specifications and Cloud Technology / Security Software used by our FNEF language app:

  • Hardware: Scalable Google Compute Engine instances with Load Balancing
  • Operating System: Cloudlinux 7 with AtomicSecure Linux kernel/operating system hardening
  • Webserver Applications: Apache2 and PHP 7.2, with AtomicSecure Linux mod_security2 WAF rules enabled
  • Networking: Cloudflare (DDoS protection/performance), server inaccessible to internet directly, management processes (SSH/SFTP) available over the internet only via whitelisted IP and VPN, Google’s network firewall and a server side stateful inspection firewall
  • Malware Detection: Linux Malware Detect, Config Server’s CXS real-time malware scanner with mod_security2 hooks, rkhunter, chkrootkit and administrative inspection of processes

Six Factor is constantly evolving the Conceptual Technological Platform used to support our FNEF language application and they are fully embracing Google’s deep learning technologies

  • Six Factor is working to integrate Google’s TensorFlow NLP to provide real time translation to help students master the language through everyday examples
  • Six Factor is prototyping with ImmerseMe Virtual Reality to provide real engagement (see: https://immerseme.co/#explore and https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1272636489423125/ and https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1129567930394285/)
  • Six Factor is adding in the Google Speech API with NLP to create interactive learning sessions that learn the style of the student not just the living language structure to help them find the best and easiest way to blend their personal learning style with the teaching style of the app
  • Six Factor is also having a lot of fun building a Group Augmented Reality/VR/gamified experience to allow students or study groups to see the same translations in the environment around them and hear the words/letters spoken (broken into specific sounds & the sentence or word as a whole) to learn together – Identify objects or surfaces dynamically and translate them (see: https://experiments.withgoogle.com/ai/thing-translator and https://experiments.withgoogle.com/ai/giorgio-cam)
  • Six Factor is also big into making learning fun by bringing video game experiences into the app to deliver an engaging and interactive exploration of mythos, legends, and oral history (see: http://neveralonegame.com/). Six Factor’s goal is allow the student to explore by learning as a game in the First Nation language with English translations that allows the child and/or adult to learn the culture through an enjoyable game experience



It’s 2018: Let’s not let the gift of Indigenous languages slip through our hands

As the new year of 2018 begins, it’s worth noting from the start that we continue to face a stark, ongoing reality: No Indigenous language in Canada is considered safe. This is the reality that drives our work and our FNEF language revitalization approach; namely, to develop language revitalization programs for at-risk Indigenous languages and dialects using contemporary educational practices and innovative, interactive technology.

Our FNEF approach is a 21st century approach; one that seeks to make contemporary learning strategies feasible for small communities using an open-ended digital platform and a comprehensive archive tool for systematic language curation. It’s an approach that offers real, achievable hope for Indigenous language revitalization – here in Canada and around the world.

A prime example of an endangered Indigenous language that looms large for us in 2018 at FNEF is the Barkley dialect of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth language. At last count, there were only seven Elder speakers of this dialect remaining in Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ. This Indigenous language will become extinct without immediate action to preserve it.

It’s clear to us that if this language – or any other Indigenous language – were allowed to die, the intangible cultural concepts embedded within it would also be lost, as would the opportunity to ever again benefit from the deeper understanding of our place in relation to the world around us; a unique understanding embedded in every one of the world’s languages.

“Language is everything that we are. If you don’t know your language, then it is difficult to understand in a profound way who you are.” – Phil Fontaine, FNEF National Spokesperson

As Métis author Chelsea Vowel noted in an article late last year, three-quarters of the Indigenous languages in Canada are currently considered endangered. Even more disturbing is the fact that twenty-four of the Indigenous languages listed in Canada’s 2016 Census have fewer than 200 speakers – a number Vowel believes is inflated (see our blog post from last November for more on Chelsea Vowel’s article).

Globally, the United Nations estimates there are 7,000 languages in the world representing 5,000 different cultures. The overwhelming majority of these 7,000 languages are spoken by the world’s estimated 370 million Indigenous people, living across 90 countries. And the majority of these languages are endangered.

The magnitude and urgency of the efforts needed to save and revitalize Indigenous languages – locally, nationally, and globally – is truly staggering. However, these efforts are a crucial step toward reconciliation with the world’s Indigenous peoples.

Fortunately, the 21st century has provided us with the technology and the tools to successfully save and then revitalize our planet’s rich legacy of languages; languages that thousands of years of human culture have gifted to us in the present day.

As we embark upon a new year, let’s not let the gift of Indigenous languages slip through our hands. Let’s make this new year a year of action.



Canada’s Residential School Story Launches on Google Earth Voyager

Google Earth recently made a wonderful new learning tool available to the public; one that helps tell the story of Canada’s residential schools and the devastating impacts the schools had on Indigenous people.

The new tool is part of Google Earth’s Voyager series and it takes full advantage of the powerful storytelling functionality Voyager brings to Google Earth’s popular mapping service. The result is a much needed primer on residential schools for elementary and secondary school students; told through a unique geographic lens.

The project was spearheaded by Canadian Geographic Education (Can Geo Education). They are the first Canadian organization to produce content for Google Earth Voyager. They join a growing number of prestigious Google partners such as NASA and the BBC.

Can Geo Education worked closely with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) of the University of Manitoba to create this new educational tool, one that helps students learn about the dark chapter of residential schools in Canadian history.

Google Earth Voyager shows students where each residential school is located on a map of Canada and explains why the schools were built, what attending a residential school was like for Indigenous children, the effects of the system on students, and how residential school survivors are working to move forward.

There are four modules for students and the general public to explore:

As Ellen Curtis, Director of Can Geo Education, states, the residential school system is a harrowing part of Canadian history, but a part of our history that is required learning on the journey toward reconciliation. We couldn’t agree more and we encourage everyone to explore this new resource.

Many thanks to Google and Can Geo Education for developing this 21st century learning tool, one that adds to the reconciliation journey by telling the story of Canada’s residential schools in a unique new way.





Why Indigenous languages should be taught alongside French and English

“Without immediate, robust, and heartfelt intervention, language decline will be irreversible.”

– Chelsea Vowel / âpihtawikosisân –

If you haven’t read Métis author Chelsea Vowel’s recent article, which argues for the teaching of Indigenous languages alongside French and English (the article was posted on the Maclean’s website last week), we highly recommend it. Vowel, who is also known as âpihtawikosisân, is someone who has fought hard to access and reclaim her Cree language, and she articulates the case for Indigenous language preservation and revitalization compellingly and with great passion.

In the article, Vowel systematically lays out why each province and territory in Canada should pass an Official Languages Act: one that recognizes the Indigenous languages that originate in each of those provinces and territories.

Along with this official recognition, she argues, must come funding that ensures language transmission can continue in schools, workplaces, and government.

The impetus for Vowel’s article, not surprisingly, is the 2016 census data released at the end of October. On the surface, the 2016 census data seems to suggest that the health of Indigenous languages has improved over the past 10 years, with the number of people speaking one of 70 Indigenous languages in Canada having grown by 3.1 percent since 2006. Some news headlines even went so far as to state that Indigenous languages are “surging” or “enduring.”

But as Vowel points out, the stark reality here is that no Indigenous language in Canada is considered safe, and three-quarters are endangered. In fact, twenty-four of the Indigenous languages listed in the 2016 census each have fewer than 200 speakers – a number of speakers Vowel believes is inflated, which underscores the seriousness of the language extinction issue we face. (more…)

Prime Minister delivers apology to former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized today, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, to former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools. He also apologized to the families, loved ones, and communities for the painful and tragic legacy the residential schools left behind.

As the Prime Minister’s media release states: “We need to acknowledge our past – including its most dark and shameful chapters – to address the historical wrongs and ongoing intergenerational trauma that affect so many Indigenous Peoples.”

Here is a link to the media release issued by the Prime Minister’s office: Prime Minister delivers apology to former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools

Here is the Prime Minister’s key quote from the media release:

“For every Innu, Inuit, and NunatuKavut child in Newfoundland and Labrador who suffered discrimination, mistreatment, abuse, and neglect in residential schools – we are sorry. While this long overdue apology will not undo the harm done, we offer it as a sign that we as a government and as a country accept responsibility for our failings. It is our shared hope that we can learn from this past and continue to advance our journey of reconciliation and healing. We have the power to be better and to do better.”

—The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada


Concerns expressed over drop in use of Aboriginal languages in N.W.T.

An online CBC news item caught our eye yesterday morning. The CBC article noted that the use of Aboriginal languages is on the decline in the Northwest Territories, bucking an optimistic national trend that some feel is apparent.

The article indicates that there was a 15 per cent decline in the number of people in the North West Territories “who primarily speak an Aboriginal language at home, as well as the number of people who consider one of these languages their mother tongue.” This is definitely concerning.

The information comes from a comparison of data contained in the 2011 and 2016 national censuses. As the CBC article states:

Compared to 2011, the number of people who speak Gwich’in as a primary language at home dropped 43 per cent, from 35 speakers to 20. The other languages in the N.W.T. that saw the greatest decline in primary language usage at home were Tlicho at 15 per cent, North and South Slavey at 10 per cent, and the Inuit languages of Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun and Inuktitut, which saw a 52 per cent decline in use as a primary language at home.

Commenting on the situation, retired language specialist Andy Norwegian (quoted in the CBC article) states that it is important for these Indigenous languages to be passed down from generation to generation.

He attributes the decline to the lack of Elders who can teach these languages and points to the shortage of fluent speakers as a significant challenge, one that must be overcome if we are to revitalize Indigenous languages:

“We all know that for a language to be a thriving language, there has to be an intergenerational transmission of language, starting with the very young, and right to the old…. I think we’ve lost a lot of those elders and fluent speakers and they aren’t being replaced with fluent speakers at the bottom level.”

However, Norwegian also points to a much deeper issue that Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action seek to correct; namely, the fact that “many people are still apprehensive to speak Aboriginal languages because they were punished for it in residential schools.”

As Norwegian goes on to state:

“You meet anybody in a restaurant, you know, they would start off by talking in English at a normal voice level. But you get them into talking the [Aboriginal] language, you know that they will lower their voice. I attribute that to the effects of residential schools.”

Former N.W.T. languages commissioner Sarah Jerome, who is also a retired educator, is likewise quoted in the CBC article. She says “we need to be radical and we need to start speaking our languages” to these young children. We wholeheartedly agree.

Language revitalization is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s key recommendations, and it’s one that the Federal government has committed to implementing and funding; most recently, with the Budget 2017 announcement of $89.9 million over the next three years to preserve, protect, and revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his December 6, 2016, Address to the Assembly of First Nations: “The Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples of Canada have begun our own new walk together. And together we’ve taken the first steps in what we all know is going to be a multi-generational journey.”



Marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It’s also been ten years since the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples making this year’s observances a major reconciliation milestone.

Read the UN’s press release and their backgrounder marking the day: On International Day, United Nations marks 10th anniversary of Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And please use the hashtags #WeAreIndigenous and #IndigenousDay on social media.



Did you know?
  • The world’s estimated 370 million Indigenous people, living across 90 countries, speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.
  • The international community has come to recognize that special measures are required to protect the rights of Indigenous people and their distinct cultures and ways of life. 2017 is the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007.
  • UNDRIP is the most comprehensive international instrument relating to the rights of Indigenous peoples. It embodies a global consensus on the rights of Indigenous peoples and establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being.



We intend to play a part in this reconciliation

“We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it.” These are words that stood out for me in a recent blog post by UBC President Santa J. Ono, in which he expresses how “honoured and humbled” he was to participate in the raising of Reconciliation Pole at UBC’s Vancouver campus.

Reconciliation Pole is a work by 7idansuu (Edenshaw), James Hart, a Haida master carver and hereditary chief, and it symbolizes the experiences of residential school students and the path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it. As the scales fall from our eyes, we can see clearly what we did not see before.”

– UBC President Santa J. Ono

For me, these words pretty much sum up how I feel now that the scales have fallen from my eyes. As a middle aged white guy from an entrepreneurial background, I can honestly say that I had no idea at all what the residential school system was about until I was in my forties.

I graduated from high school in 1984. And the last residential school was finally closed in 1996. So how, you may ask, did I not know about this stuff? Quick Answer (IMO of course) – Willful ignorance and by the design of our education system at the time. I can say this because when I was a kid, Aboriginal studies amounted to learning that a Potlatch was a kind of large community picnic, and that everybody brought some food to share… Seriously! Many who are my age and grew up in communities like mine probably remember it the same way.

What we did not learn about was the Indian Act of 1876, which paved the way for colonization, aggressive cultural assimilation, and the residential school system. And nobody mentioned that a potlatch was a ceremony integral to the culture of coastal First Nations; a ceremony that was targeted and then banned by law (the Potlatch Law) in 1880, along with every other culturally significant practice of Indigenous people.

“As the scales fall from our eyes, we can see clearly what we did not see before.”

About 10 years ago, the Government of Canada offered an apology to former residential school students and their families. That’s when I first started hunting down any and all information I could find on residential schools. I started reading; a lot. One jaw dropping story after another.

Now, the material is out there more broadly. And through the Truth and Reconciliation process, a great many more personal accounts, and personal testimony, have been heard and documented such that we can all see clearly now what we did not see before.

Not long ago, Phil Fontaine, our National Spokesperson, and the lead for adoption of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, told me that the residential schools were not just his history – First Nations people’s history – but that it was Canada’s history, my history. That’s why I, personally, and the whole First Nations Education Foundation team, intend to play an active part in this reconciliation. As Santa J. Ono said: “We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it.”

Scott Jeary, FNEF Executive Director


Thank you to the family of Art Thompson for allowing us to use Thunderbird as our FNEF logo

Thunderbird logo by Art Thompson, with permission
Thunderbird, by Art Thompson, Nuu-chah-nulth (Ditidaht) artist (AT1994-01)

We would like to thank the family of the late Art (Arthur) Thompson, a Nuu-chah-nulth (Ditidaht) artist, for granting us permission to use Thunderbird as our First Nations Education Foundation logo. Thompson was a fierce advocate for the rights of residential school victims and survivors. We are deeply honoured by this gesture and eternally grateful.

– First Nations Education Foundation –

About Art Thompson

Art Thompson was born in 1948 in the village of Whyac, on the western end of Nitinaht Lake on Vancouver Island. He was a renowned artist and a fierce advocate for survivors of residential school abuse. He was also one of the first survivors to have his case heard in court and to then receive acknowledgement of what had happened to him.

Thompson’s ancestral roots are in the Coast Salish (Cowichan) and Nuu-chah-nulth (Ditidaht) nations. His father and grandfather were also artists; known for their ceremonial pieces such as masks and regalia, as well as totem poles and canoes.

Thompson spent much of his childhood away from his family and his cultural traditions. At the age of two, he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized for three years. Shortly thereafter he was able to return to his family, but was then sent away to residential school in Port Alberni. He ran away several times before finally securing employment in the logging industry at the age of thirteen.

Just before his twelfth birthday, Thompson was initiated into the Tlu-Kwalla (Wolf Society) along with his brothers and sister – an ancient custom that is still very active today. This event was an important connection between Thompson and his cultural heritage and it influenced his later decision to become an artist.

In 1967, he enrolled in the Commercial Art program at Camosun College in Victoria, where he worked primarily in two dimensional mediums such as paint and pastels. During this time he began to explore a narrative style with traditional Nuu-chah-nulth design. His advanced understanding of traditional Nuu-chah-nulth design came at a time when this style had been virtually overlooked in the scholastic studies that were shaping the growing interest in Northwest Coast art.

Thompson’s personal contribution to Northwest Coast art includes the use of strong contemporary and traditional design shapes with a narrative approach to myth and legend. He brought new colors and original subject matter to his work. These early serigraph prints are now considered to be a turning point in establishing Art Thompson, Nuu-chah-nulth design, and the print medium as a whole, in the contemporary art market.

You can learn more about Art Thompson’s life and his art at the following sources: