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Taking culture online

St. Albert company honoured for work with aboriginals

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Oct 13, 2012 06:00 am

ON GUARD FOR CULTURE — Jaro Malanowski, president of Avatar Media, shares a moment with former senator Thelma Chalifoux after receiving the 2012 Thelma Chalifoux Award on his company's behalf Thursday afternoon. The St. Albert company is working to create a virtual museum to help preserve the Michif language.
ON GUARD FOR CULTURE — Jaro Malanowski, president of Avatar Media, shares a moment with former senator Thelma Chalifoux after receiving the 2012 Thelma Chalifoux Award on his company's behalf Thursday afternoon. The St. Albert company is working to create a virtual museum to help preserve the Michif language.
APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette

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It all started with a kid and a knot, says Jaro Malanowski.

Malanowski, president of St. Albert’s Avatar Media, says he was up in the Yukon as a young man trying to learn how to tie a knot. “It was really complicated, and I could never figure it out.”

Then a seven-year-old Inuit kid showed him. “It made me realize that we have so much to learn from our aboriginal people.” He went on to found Avatar Media, a company that has done extensive work promoting aboriginal culture and education.

Avatar Media received the Senator Thelma Chalifoux Award Thursday from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). The award, presented by former senator Chalifoux herself at the college’s downtown campus, recognizes the company’s commitment to aboriginal student success.

Malanowski says he formed Avatar about 14 years ago — way before director James Cameron finished the film of that name, he points out — after spending time working as a photojournalist in various communities. “I wanted to spend more time and be able to give back to those communities (I photographed).”

Avatar has since worked on several aboriginal-related projects, including the Health Warriors website, which shows First Nations students how they can get into medicine, and the Our Culture, Our People DVDs, which introduce teachers to aboriginal traditions.

Chalifoux, who is a Métis elder at NAIT, says she first heard of Malanowski’s company many years ago through the novaNAIT office in St. Albert. She’s since teamed up with Avatar to build a virtual museum for the Michif Institute.

There are centuries of Métis history in St. Albert, Chalifoux says, but not everyone can come to town to learn about it. “It’s time we started telling our story.”

Malanowski and his team are now digitizing everything in the Michif Institute, including the museum’s extensive library. When they’re done in a few years, visitors will be able to get 360-degree views of the museum’s artifacts and learn about the stories behind them — even if they can’t get to St. Albert.

Going digital should also help the museum expand its collection, Malanowski continues. “Everyone has pictures and stories and pieces at home that they might not be ready to share with a museum.” By taking pictures and recordings of these items, families can add them to the virtual museum without giving them up.

The company is also working with St. Albert resident Judy Iseke to study the Michif language, which is the traditional tongue of the Métis.

Less than a thousand people in the world still speak Michif, says Iseke, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Research at Lakehead University, and maybe 50 of them are in Alberta. None of them are under 60. “It’s vital that we record this language and work to rejuvenate it.”

As part of a five-year, $500,000 research project, Iseke and Avatar went to Lac Ste. Anne in September to film Métis elders speaking Michif.

It was an incredible experience, Malanowski says. “I learned so much about myself and about the area we live in.” This research may be incorporated into the Michif Institute’s virtual museum, he adds.

An avatar is a person who comes to a community and inspires others, Malanowski says, and that’s what his company tries to do. “Every day we can do a little something to make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.

“I hope to continue to have the energy and strength and the health to work with wonderful partners and continue to do this kind of work.”


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