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The way the environment affects our activities and moods is felt implicitly by most Canadians, but is articulated in Inuktitut.Illustration by the globe and mail

Emily Waugh is a Toronto-based writer and past lecturer in landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is the author of Experimenting Landscapes and Recycling Spaces: Curating Urban Evolution.

At the Juno Awards in May, Canadian action superstar Simu Liu received an emphatic ovation for his updated riff on the classic Molson “I Am Canadian” rant. In the original early 2000s commercial, a young man in a plaid shirt modestly takes the stage to introduce himself as Joe. He says he is not a lumberjack, or a fur trader, and he doesn’t live in an igloo, but he is definitely Canadian. As his rant progresses through the pronunciation of “about” (“not aboot”) and the two official languages (“I speak English and French, not American!”), Joe works his way up to a screaming celebration of Canada’s idiosyncratic vocabulary: “A tuque is a hat!” he yells. “A chesterfield is a couch! And it is pronounced ‘zed.’ Not zee. Zed!” Mr. Liu’s version makes a nod to other “Canadianisms” including the contested regional variations of “cottage,” “camp” or “cabin” – a relevant debate on this Canada Day long weekend.

Canadians often point to language – think double-doubles, two-fours and hosers – to mark ourselves as different from our British ancestors and American neighbours. Sort of a starting point to get to the core of what it means to be Canadian. “Language,” says Henry Davis, who researches critically endangered Indigenous languages in B.C., “is how we connect to who we are.”

In a country whose diverse landscapes and extreme climates both define and threaten the existence of its people, the words we use also connect us to where we are (and who and what was here before us). Anyone who has paid a hydro bill or felt the warm relief of a chinook wind implicitly knows how connected daily life is to the natural environment in Canada. Here, each of the languages and dialects formed on Canadian soil (or rock or sea ice) reflects the landscape that shaped it.

We saw this during the Inuktitut coverage of the Olympic hockey games in Beijing, when the play-by-play commentators from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, didn’t always have the specific words available to describe what was happening on the ice.

While the lexicon of hockey has been developing on frozen ponds and artificial rinks since the 19th century – producing well-known Canadianisms “dekes,” “rink rats” and “shinny” – Inuktitut was born more than 1,000 years ago on the remote tundra and polar deserts of the Canadian Arctic. The Indigenous language has nearly a dozen terms for scraping animal skins, but no word for “offside,” “icing” or “hockey net.” In 2010, during the first NHL broadcast in Inuktitut, listeners chuckled to hear the announcers use the word for fishing net instead.

From Acadian French, Cape Breton and Newfoundland English, to the more than 60 Indigenous languages spoken across the country, Canada’s true language can be found in the landscape.

The Dictionary of Cape Breton English, for example, is dominated by coal mining and fishing terms revealing the basis of the local economy and culture. Here, “thick-a-fog,” or the more widely used “thick,” describes a fog so dense it prevents travel by sea.

In logging-rich B.C., “not the sharpest tool in the shed” becomes “a few logs short of a full load.” And skid row, a term generically applied to a seedy area of town, was in 19th-century Vancouver literally a skid road, paved with greased logs to “skid” unprocessed timber toward waterfront sawmills.

While many of these industries have been extinguished by overexploitation or threatened by climate change, a simple command or greeting might still betray a former economy or culture.

Acadian French was brought in the early 1600s by colonists from southern France who used the ocean’s abundant resources to establish colonies and commercial fisheries throughout New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. To this day in some Maritime communities, a parent rushing a child out the door for school might holler “Grée-toi,” meaning “rig your boat.” A sailor’s version of “get ready.”

At a party in Quebec, the host may invite you to “tire-toi une bûche” (pull yourself a log) – asking you to take a seat in the manner of a 19th-century lumberjack.

If the vocabulary brought and adapted by early settlers points to an exploitative relationship to the natural environment, the Indigenous languages born on the land now known as Canada suggest a mutually respectful kinship. As Cree professor, author and language keeper Randy Morin puts it, “The language arose from the land.”

Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada, with nearly 100,000 speakers. Its dialects – Woodland Cree, Swampy Cree, Plains Cree and so on – signal how intimately the language is tied to the land. Indigenous educator Belinda Daniels points out that the Cree word for “blue” (sīpihkwāw) has the same root as “river” (sīpiy). And “green” (askihtakwâw) comes from “land” (askiy) and that the 13 Cree moons, which roughly coincide with the Gregorian calendar, are attuned to regional environmental cycles and mirror what is happening on the land. May (Sâkipakâwipîsim) is the budding moon; June (Opâskahopîsim) is the egg-hatching moon and July (Opaskowipîsim) is the moulting moon.

In the critically endangered Tlingit language, spoken by about 200 people in southern Yukon, northwestern British Columbia and the Alaskan Panhandle, the names of these same months, as recorded in the Interior Tlingit Noun Dictionary, are Kayàni Dísi (the month of green plants); At Gadaxhít Dísi (the month where animals give birth); and Ghàt Dísi (the month of Cohoe, or salmon).

Anthropologist and Inuktitut linguistics teacher Louis-Jacques Dorais writes in Words of the Inuit that the environment in the Canadian Arctic is “a domain that forms the very basis of Inuit life.” Here, according to Mr. Dorais, when you ask someone how old they are (Qatsinik ukiuqalirqit?), you are asking, “how many winters do you have?”

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq put a sharper point on the Indigenous connection between land and language in May after Quebec Premier François Legault criticized Governor-General Mary Simon for not speaking French. Ms. Tagaq tweeted: “How’s your Inuktitut Francois? The only 2 ‘official’ languages are colonizer languages. We speak the languages of the land you are standing on. Our bodies and minds created syllables, sounds and structures THROUGH the land.”

It’s not just land that figures into the national lexicon, but water too. In Canada, which has the longest total coastline and the most lakes in the world, plus more than 8,500 named rivers, both Indigenous and settler populations rely on water and its frozen cousin, ice, for life-sustaining transportation of people, supplies and materials.

In Cape Breton, where travel by sea was key for livelihood, the dictionary has more than 15 entries for different types of ice, each with its own implications for travel and safety: glitter ice, glib ice, slob ice, lollie ice, running ice, red ice, shell ice, ice-cake, clamper and more.

Woodland Cree, a language developed in a semi-nomadic culture across Northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, has words for two additional seasons: Minoskamin (breakup) and Migiskāw (freeze-up), marking the times of year when movement by lake and river is restricted.

Many of these critical transportation routes, however, are being threatened by climate change as unpredictable winters and later freeze-ups compromise crucial ice-road links to remote First Nations communities. In the Arctic, these delays are pushing hunting seasons into the coldest and darkest parts of the year and affecting migration routes and timing of key Inuit “country food” staples such as caribou and arctic char.

Perhaps the uncontested common element of “Canadianness” is the weather. Or, more accurately, our ability to endure it.

In a nation that is nearly as tall as it is wide, we have recorded temperatures from 49.6 C in Lytton, B.C., to -63.0 C in Snag, Yukon. We put up with cow storms, glitter storms, fairy squalls, lambkillers, mossers and the great white combine. In Newfoundland alone, a day could be mauzy, logy, heavy, dirty, close or weatherish, but is most often described by the regional shorthand RDF: rain, drizzle, fog.

According to the Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English, “nosey weather” is cold and windy enough to make the nose run. In Inuktitut, when the weather is qiujanartuq, it doesn’t simply mean the temperature is cold, but “makes one cold.” The weather affects us.

The way the environment affects our activities and moods is felt implicitly by most Canadians, but is articulated in Inuktitut, whose speakers have lived together for thousands of years with one of the most extreme environments on planet Earth. The word Sila is described variously as air, atmosphere, sky, intellect, reason, consciousness and “the natural forces which push and pull a person through life.”

When I ask Inuk storyteller Michael Kusugak about this complex term over Zoom, he holds up the Inuktitut dictionary that his father Thomas Kusugak co-authored with Alex Spalding. He runs his hand over one full page, flips it and continues halfway down the next. “That’s all to describe Sila,” he says.

At its most basic, Mr. Kusugak explains, Sila means “outside” and as such is used to modify a number of pragmatic terms such as Silattiavak (beautiful weather) and Silaluktuq (bad weather) or Silapaaq, the outer layer of pants or parka one wears to fight against the cold.

But Sila also means something that Mr. Kusugak describes as “closer to intelligence or reason.” Silattuq, for example, is the ability to think constructively or solve complex problems, and Silattuqsarvik is the place one goes to learn these skills, a university. A person who is smart or wise is someone “who has much Sila” (silatujuq), or as Mr. Kusugak puts it, “a lot of outside.”

When my face betrays a mixture of confusion at this all-encompassing word, Mr. Kusugak chuckles and says the Inuit use it so much that they automatically understand.

I think most Canadians automatically understand how tied up they are with the climate and natural environment, but don’t spend as much time explicitly thinking about the relationship.

Wherever you find yourself this Canada Day long weekend – by the campfire in a plaid “bush jacket,” “storm-stayed” by rough weather, or feeding “loonies” into a small-town arcade game – take a second to think about the surrounding landscape, how Canadians have shaped it and how it has shaped us.

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