FirstVoices Fact Sheet


LAST UPDATED: 01/10/2024


General Information

What is FirstVoices? is an online space for Indigenous communities to share and promote their language, oral culture and linguistic history. Language champions in communities collaborate with elders to create and share audio recordings, words, phrases, songs and stories. These language resources are uploaded to secure interactive sites, and are made available to learners, teachers and community members no matter where they are.

In addition to the online platform, FirstVoices encompasses keyboards, offline apps, and a language revitalization help desk.

FirstVoices is an initiative of the First Peoples' Cultural Council and is funded by the First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.

When and How did FirstVoices start?

The idea for FirstVoices originated in the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ TRIBAL SCHOOL on W̱SÁNEĆ territory around 1999, when two teachers Peter Brand and J,SIṈTEN (Dr. John Elliott) where looking into ways to digitize and revitalize the SENĆOŦEN language online.

J,SIṈTEN is a respected Elder of the Tsartlip First Nation and has taught at ȽÁU,WELṈEW Tribal School in Saanich for over 30 years. His dedication to the revitalization of First Nations languages was inspired by the work of his father, David Elliott, to preserve the SENĆOŦEN language. Peter Brand had joined the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ TRIBAL SCHOOL from Tasmania, Australia, where he had taught Indigenous students in the Northern Territory of Australia.

J,SIṈTEN's early innovative experimentations with digital video and computers as Indigenous teaching tools led to a collaboration with teaching colleague Peter Brand, and resulted in the development of multimedia tools specifically designed for Indigenous language instruction. This had evolved to be the first version of FirstVoices, officially shared with the world in 2003, and now an important tool for many more communities.

Further Reading

How many languages are represented on FirstVoices?

33 out of 35 BC-based languages are represented on FirstVoices. In addition, FirstVoices includes languages from other places around North America and Australia.

How many sites are on FirstVoices?

  • 65 publicly-accessible sites

  • 17 private sites, available only to authorized community members

Given the diversity of spoken language in B.C., sites on FirstVoices can represent a specific dialect or community language revitalization initiative.

How does information get on FirstVoices?

Any language or media content available on FirstVoices is collected, uploaded, and curated by teams of people from that language community. These teams work to record language interviews with fluent speakers, edit the audio for use in FirstVoices entries, upload the information to FirstVoices, collect and document meta-data, and manage their language sites long-term.

Who owns and manages the language data?

Ownership and copyright of all language content on FirstVoices, including audio and video recordings, is maintained by the contributing community. Information about who has contributed the available media can be found alongside the entry.

Who runs the language sites?

Teams are made up of youth, language teachers, language champions, fluent elders, technical staff, and other roles - depending on the community's capacity. Members of the team will contribute in one or more roles such as approving entries, data entry, recording elders, audio editing, managing the language site, etc.

What type of information can go on FirstVoices?

Any information in Indigenous languages that is valuable to communities or learners. Dictionary content includes words and phrases, images, audio, video, songs and stories, and all associated metadata.

Is content public or private on FirstVoices?

Content can be publicly accessible or private to community members only, depending on the level of access designated by the language team who manages the language site. It is important to note that while a language site can be public, not all material on that site is shared with everyone.

Who is the target audience for FirstVoices?

The target audience for FirstVoices are Indigenous communities who want to share, promote and learn their languages. We are also a resource for non-Indigenous allies who are interested in learning more about the languages of the land they are on. Content uploaded to FirstVoices is available to learners no matter where they live, which is especially important considering that over three-quarters of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in B.C. live off-reserve and are not as likely to have access to language and cultural programming as those on reserve.

How does FirstVoices support communities?

Outside of providing free, open-source technology (including the FirstVoices website, keyboards and apps), FirstVoices also offers:

  • Annual group training on how to use the FirstVoices platform and associated technology such as audio recording hardware and software

  • Ongoing training such as monthly webinars on language documentation and technology topics

  • On-demand support through an online Help Desk that handles hundreds of tickets per year

  • Grants through the Language Technology Program, a First Peoples' Cultural Council initiative

Who develops and manages FirstVoices as a platform?

FirstVoices is developed and managed by the FirstVoices Development Team within the First Peoples' Cultural Council. The development team is comprised of technology, design and language experts who work on improving the platform by releasing new features, maintaining technology, and addressing bugs.

Decisions on how FirstVoices should be designed and updated are driven by constant consultation and collaboration with language teams.

How often is FirstVoices updated?

Since all language data is managed by communities, the frequency of updates on FirstVoices depends on the language site. Some teams will update the site daily - adding audio recordings, revising spellings, or adding new sample sentences. Other teams will choose to conduct their knowledge gathering work offline, or privately, and then update their sites once every few months. Some sites may leave their dictionaries mostly untouched, either due to resourcing issues, or because it already represents the data they want to share with the world.

FirstVoices technology is updated on an on-going basis as well. We average at least 1 or 2 new versions (releases) of FirstVoices every month, with a mixture of bug fixes, improvements, and changes that reflect community requests. These are documented on our blog. In the course of a year FirstVoices will be updated with hundreds of tasks, representing changes of various sizes (major/minor).


Statistics and Demographics on FirstVoices

How much language data is on FirstVoices?

172,209 words

116,783 phrases

229,395 audio recordings

1,113 songs and stories

84,728 photos

4,680 videos

These data points represent content created by teams to support language revitalization.

How many people use FirstVoices?

  • Our website attracts more than 350,000 visits every year

  • Our apps, including the keyboards, are installed and active on more than 4,500 devices

Who uses FirstVoices?

  • FirstVoices is used by Indigenous communities, language learners, educators, and the general public. It is also used by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals, institutions and organizations.

  • The majority of users are between the ages of 27-66. About 10% of our users are under the age of 25, and about 13% are over the age of 50

  • Most of our registered users have identified themselves as: learning their own language (~45%), teachers/educators (26%), students / learners (14%). A small percentage is interested in learning a different language (5%).


Background Information on Indigenous Languages

How many Indigenous languages are there in BC?

B.C. is unique in Canada for its Indigenous language diversity. There are 7 Indigenous language families and 35 languages in B.C., representing 60% of the First Nations languages in Canada. View the Language Revitalization Fact Sheet for more in-depth information.

Why are initiatives like FirstVoices important?

  • There is an urgent need to document languages with the loss of fluent speakers. Data shared on FirstVoices can be passed on to future generations and work can be handed over to future language teams, creating resiliency over time.

  • Intergenerational transmission of language, culture and knowledge has been severely interrupted due to historic processes of government-directed assimilation such as residential schools. Many families were forced to give up their mother tongue and switch to English. Language revitalization initiatives such as FirstVoices, alongside important non-technological initiatives, are a crucial step in strengthening language and culture amongst Indigenous people. Language has a vital role in the mental, physical and emotional health of First Nations communities.

  • FirstVoices provides a platform that communities can use free-of-charge, and free of attached-strings, to capture the history, culture, values, knowledge and identities embedded in languages and embodied in the knowledge of Elders. It is an important solution to counter-act a long history of language and cultural data belonging to Indigenous Peoples being taken.

  • FirstVoices is based on a shared investment model: we bring together diverse communities to collaborate, work together and build internal tech capacity. Communities bring ideas to the platform and strengthen it over time. We consider that every language is of equal importance, and so create tools that communities can use regardless of their internal capacity.

  • Our work is one of many ways of acting on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

  • Our work is innovative and deals with extremely unique technology needs that are unfortunately often overlooked by commercial products. It directly and indirectly supports youth employment, creating resources for teachers (formal and informal) and empowering  communities. In many ways, FirstVoices contributes to bridging the digital inequity gap.

  • For many non-Indigenous people, FirstVoices is a unique opportunity to learn the language of the land they live on.

What makes FirstVoices unique?

From an initiative perspective:

  • We work with a large number of communities in B.C. and have a mandate to help revitalize languages in the region.

  • We provide communities with everything from funding to technical support .

  • Our initiative is one-of-a-kind and based in years of research, collaboration and listening to needs of communities.

From a technical perspective:

  • Our platform and services address issues that directly impact Indigenous communities' abilities to revitalize language. For example by developing features around unique orthographies and use-cases (search, alphabetization, etc.).

  • Our search functionality is highly-tailored to work well with Indigenous languages and return results even if "typos" are present.

  • Our systems provides the ability to work online as a Language team, or to upload dictionary data in an offline way via batch.

  • We provide users with multiple free networks of support, including webinars, a help desk, and in-person training.

  • We are driven by community engagement. There are few organizations who have such a direct line to communities, and organizationally have an impact on Indigenous language, arts, culture, heritage and technology.

What is data sovereignty and how does FirstVoices support data sovereignty?

Data sovereignty in an Indigenous context refers to the concept that data that comes from an Indigenous community should be owned and controlled by that community. Data sovereignty includes the right of a nation to govern the collection, ownership, and application of its own language data. Technology can complicate this, and that is why FirstVoices takes data sovereignty seriously from both a legal and technical standpoint.

From a legal standpoint, data sovereignty is built into our copyright terms:

"All materials on this site are protected by copyright laws and are owned by the individual Indigenous language communities who created the archival content. Language and multimedia data available on this site is intended for private, non-commercial use by individuals. Any commercial use of the language data or multimedia data in whole or in part, directly or indirectly, is specifically forbidden except with the prior written authority of the owner of the copyright. Users may, subject to these Terms and Conditions, print or otherwise save individual pages for private use. However, language and/or multimedia data may not be modified or altered in any respect, merged with other data or published in any form, in whole or in part. The prohibited uses include "screen scraping," "database scraping" and any other activity intended to collect, store, reorganize or manipulate data on the pages produced by, or displayed on the FirstVoices websites."

From a technology standpoint, we ensure data sovereignty by hosting all FirstVoices content on Canadian servers which protects all data with Canadian data privacy laws. Canadian data privacy laws provide a higher level of protection than laws in the United States, since there is no unifying law governing data privacy generally across the United States.

Other principals or mandates that FirstVoices follows:


Information on Supplemental FirstVoices Technology

What are the FirstVoices keyboards?

The FirstVoices keyboards have been developed for both desktop and mobile devices, with 91 keyboards currently available through the Keyman software platform. The FirstVoices Keyboard App for both iPhone/iPad and Android mobile devices contains keyboard software for over 100 languages and includes First Nations languages in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus many languages in the USA.

When the FirstVoices Keyboard app is installed on a mobile phone or tablet, any of the 100+ custom keyboards can be activated in any application on the device. Users are able to select their keyboard(s) of choice within their email, social media, word processing or other apps, enabling unlimited communication in their mother language.

What are the FirstVoices apps?

The wealth of language data uploaded by Indigenous communities onto their FirstVoices language sites can now also be accessed through mobile apps. The app pulls content directly from entries on FirstVoices and functions with offline capabilities. The apps are updated throughout the year in order to ensure that the latest content that has been added to a language site also appears on the app. There are currently 18 FirstVoices language apps available.

How does FirstVoices render alphabets for different Indigenous languages?

FirstVoices uses Unicode and the BC Sans font to render characters for all Indigenous alphabets properly and accurately across the platform. Additionally, the development team has built a number of tools to ensure functionality like search and custom alphabetization work across all alphabets, including:

  • A custom search system that prioritizes exact matches, but can also discern diacritic errors and other mistakes in both English as well as the Indigenous language

  • Built-in functionality that automatically normalizes incorrect Unicode (confusable characters), based on the specific needs of each alphabet 

  • Built-in functionality that can detect and ignore characters in words/phrases that aren't in that language alphabet

What is the difference between a font and a keyboard? Why do I (potentially) need both to type in an Indigenous language?

A font is the exact style of characters on a screen or page. Some commons fonts are "Times New Roman", "Helvetica", and "Arial". A keyboard is a piece of software that lets you type in a language – your standard keyboard is likely an English one, but you can install another keyboard on your computer that changes what is output when you type. As an example, if you install the Nłeʔkepmxcín keyboard, when you press the "9" key on your keyboard, it will type "ł" instead. 

During early digital language revitalization efforts, certain communities developed language-specific fonts, often referred to as font-encoded orthographies. These fonts ignore typical encoding in order to represent Indigenous characters in place of non-Indigenous characters. An example of this is the Heiltsuk Doulos and Heiltsuk Times fonts, which when downloaded and used renders “©” as “ǧ”. The issue with this is that unless that specific font is installed on a device, the “ǧ” will continue to render as “©”, meaning that the Indigenous language cannot be represented properly online, on social media, or via text messages. However, when using the Haiɫzaqvla (Heiltsuk) keyboard, the "ǧ" will display properly everywhere.

Certain fonts will render Indigenous characters better than others. For example, a font like BC Sans is designed specifically to ensure characters from BC Indigenous languages are all rendered properly. Other fonts may not show characters as accurately.

Different fonts display special characters at different levels of accuracy

What technology is FirstVoices built in, and where is it hosted?

FirstVoices is built using a combination of technologies. Our back-end API is built using Django. Our code is open source and available online on Github. Our front-end is built using ReactJS. Our code is open source and available online on Github.

Our Keyboards are built using Keyman technology, and our apps using Mother Tongues. FirstVoices has partnered with these two organizations to deliver these technologies to B.C. users for many years.

We maintain multiple environments for hosting FirstVoices: A development, pre-production and production environment, as well as temporary environments as needed. FPCC maintains full control of FirstVoices servers, and acknowledges that ownership of the data remains with the community. The infrastructure for the servers are provided by cloud provider AWS (Amazon Web Services). The servers and the data are physically located in Canada and not in the United States. In addition, Amazon Web Services cannot and will not access or own the data under any circumstances.