Ancestral languages are essential to Indigenous identities in Canada

Recent protests against the federal government’s approach to Indigenous language legislation is the latest manifestation of concern regarding the maintenance and flourishing of Indigenous languages and culture.

Although these latest protests are centred around jurisdiction and funding, the fundamental issue for Indigenous peoples is support for an essential part of their identity.

My work in the area of Indigenous education and languages leads me to believe what is core to the concern for language support is the meanings and narratives that are reflected in language.

The breadth of issues and potential initiatives reflected in the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) cover many areas that are germane to the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

The general aim of reconciliation that has emerged from the activities of the TRC is the development of a new relationship amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Such a new relationship must acknowledge harms of the past and their impact into present.

It is now clear that the reconciliatory journey must recognize, affirm and follow up on prescriptions for change that aim to rectify many wrongs affecting many areas of the Indigenous peoples’ experience.

One of those areas that is of particular interest to educators at numerous levels is that of language and culture.

Read more: The Conversation

Alberta teacher races to save dying Indigenous language before time runs out

A teacher in northern Alberta is racing to piece together a dying Indigenous language before the last few people who speak it are gone.

For the past two years, Victoria Wanihadie has travelled the Peace River area to find people who remember the Beaver culture and language.

She jots down their memories and records the sounds of words that might otherwise be forgotten.

“I think this is my purpose,” said Wanihadie, a part-time high school teacher and Indigenous educator in Grande Prairie, Alta.

“Our stories haven’t been told, and I want to share our history with others.”

Eighty people in Alberta reported they can speak Beaver, according to 2016 census data released in October by Statistics Canada.

Fewer than 50 identified the language as their mother tongue.

“We have to find a way to bring the language back to this area,” Wanihadie said. “So that we can all heal from the past.”

Wanihadie grew up in the hamlet of Grovedale, Alta., believing she was Cree. Her parents rarely spoke about their Indigenous roots.

“My parents moved away from the reserve and they did not share their Beaver history with us,” she said. “I think that my parents wanted to protect us from being hurt, and from being discriminated against.”

Two years ago, Wanihadie decided to learn more about her heritage. That’s when she discovered her family was Beaver, not Cree.

Her grandparents had been cut off from their Beaver language and culture at residential school.

After returning to the community, they adopted the Cree dialect spoken by members of the nearby Horse Lake First Nation, Wanihadie said.

Read more: CBC News

With fewer fluent speakers, demand for teachers of Indigenous languages is on the rise

A trend toward “Indigenizing” programming in schools by bringing Indigenous culture and languages into the classroom has led to a demand for teachers who are fluent in Indigenous languages. But with the number of Indigenous language speakers on the decline, school divisions have had a hard time finding qualified and certified teachers.

“We had some difficulty, looking for Dakota language teachers. Not a lot of people are seeing that as a career,” said Kevin Tacan.

Tacan, is a Dakota knowledge keeper, and has been working with the Brandon School Division in Manitoba for 21 years. The school division is in its second year of offering high school courses on Indigenous languages, but they’ve had a hard time filling the Dakota language position in time for the new year.

“We’re trying to bring that self-esteem and confidence back to our youth, because at that age — just a little bit behind puberty — our young people are supposed to be doing their vision quests and ceremonies. Their language is important for those types of things,” said Tacan.

“If they don’t have those, they’re not going to understand the importance of them.”

Read more: CBC News

Saving languages

An entire community had cause to celebrate when 11 Six Nations Polytechnic students graduated with the first bachelor of arts degree in Ogwehoweh languages.

“It’s been a long road to get here, involving countless people over many years of hard work, long hours of curriculum development, and not to mention weeks of studying by each student, but we finally made it,” Rebecca Jamieson, CEO and president of Six Nations Polytechnic, told about 100 people gathered this week in the Ohsweken school’s main hall.

In front of family, community elders and school faculty, seven students were conferred with degrees in Cayuga and four with degrees in Mohawk during a ceremony conducted in Mohawk, Cayuga and English.

Also present were Six Nations elected Chief Ava Hill and several Six Nations councillors, and Brantford councillors John Utley and Richard Carpenter.

Jamieson traced the path from 2012 when the school began work to mount the unique degree program to 2015 when it was accepted by the provincial government. Then she lauded the students for taking their places in the frontlines in effort reclaim the traditional six languages of the Ogwehoweh people. Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca are the other four.

They are languages that a report by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says are critically endangered and could be lost.

Read more: The Brantford Expositor

Reconciliation Is Canada Embracing Its Many Indigenous Languages

“I was angry at my grandparents for a long time.”

Onowa McIvor grew up in northern Saskatchewan, where her grandparents feared prejudice against indigenous peoples and did everything they could to bury their Cree roots. They refused to teach the language to their children and grandchildren. McIvor felt robbed of her heritage.

As McIvor learned more about the history of residential schools and the discrimination indigenous peoples faced, she understood the fear that drove them. Now, as director of indigenous education at the University of Victoria, she works to revitalize Canada’s indigenous tongues. As Canadians mark 150 years since Confederation and reflect on our complicated history, it’s a goal all Canadians should share.

“If you are Canadian, indigenous languages are part of your heritage, and it should matter to you if they survive,” says McIvor.

Language trees like Algonquian, Athapaskan and Inuktitut drove their roots into this country millennia before a word of English or French was spoken here. Today, there are more than 60 distinct indigenous languages in Canada. Tens of thousands still speak Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut. Other languages are on the brink of extinction. The 2011 census (the most recent data available) recorded just 45 Mohawk speakers in all of Canada.

Read more: Huffington Post Canada

Looking for new ways to revitalize Yukon’s Indigenous languages

Organizers at a gathering this week in Whitehorse say it’s time to find new ways to preserve First Nation languages.

Yukon’s Indigenous languages are in critical decline and the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is looking for different approaches to a long-standing concern — how to ensure those languages survive.

About 60 people gathered at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse over two days to share their ideas at the “Voices For Change” gathering.

Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations says the Southern Tutchone language is in decline. He says simply learning the language is different from hearing it and using it in daily life.

It’s a small group of individuals who actually have Southern Tutchone as a first language, and those who actually grew up in the language — that’s a big difference from speaking it from a more learned-type approach.” he said.

Read more: CBC News

The fight is on to save Toronto’s endangered languages

From Harari, spoken in eastern Ethiopia, to Bukhori, spoken by Bukharan Jews in central Asia, an organization is looking to record Toronto’s linguistic diversity before it’s too late.

Anastasia Riehl, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, spoke on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning about the race against time to capture and preserve the languages of small communities.

“About 6000 to 7000 languages are spoken today, and we expect about half of those will be lost in the next 100 years,” she said. “Many of these languages have never been documented.”

Riehl said that by working in Toronto, they have a natural advantage.

“While linguists are scrambling to get to these remote parts of the world and do documentation, we can do a number of recordings right here in Toronto,” she said.

Read more: CBC News

University of Toronto professors fight to save dying Indigenous languages

The Indigenous language Ryan DeCaire is fighting to save isn’t one he spoke regularly — or fluently — while growing up on Wahta Mohawk territory.

“People [with Mohawk ancestry] are saying words like, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, 1,2,3′ but is that all there is?,” DeCaire asked himself.

The questions spurred him to realize that the only people who spoke fluent Mohawk were elders in the community and that time is running out to preserve the language.

“If we don’t do something about that, we’re probably going to witness [the language’s] death in my own lifetime.”

DeCaire is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies. The faculty focuses on teaching Indigenous history, language and customs to students.

Read more: CBC News

Justin Trudeau’s proposed Indigenous languages act will need teeth to succeed

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act.

Few details are yet available about what this act might look like, but the Northwest Territories can perhaps shed some light on such language legislation because we have had an Official Languages Act here since 1984 that grants official status, not only to English and French, but also to nine Indigenous languages.

The act creates certain rights for citizens as well as obligations for the N.W.T. legislature and its government offices, schools, courts, health centres, election officials, boards and agencies. A person can choose the language in which they want to communicate with and participate in these institutions, subject to certain regulations.

A head office, for example, must provide services in all official languages, while community offices must do so in the local languages. Municipalities, however, are not obligated by the act to do so, nor are Indigenous organizations or the federal government.

Read more: CBC News

Revival of endangered aboriginal language empowers speakers in Yukon

Riley Vance is perched on a wooden horse in his Whitehorse-area daycare when he starts singing about tidying up in Southern Tutchone, an aboriginal language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers left.

The three-year-old’s ditty is the fruit of an effort in Yukon’s Kwanlin Dun First Nation to teach dozens of children words and phrases in the endangered language daily at a local head-start program. They now have the first ever children’s book in the language.

“We’re at a critical stage with our language with only a few fluent speakers left, so it’s been exciting to have them singing nursery rhymes,” said Erin Pauls, who runs the Dusk’a Head Start program.

The Kwanlin Dun’s work has received royal attention. Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sat down in Whitehorse in late September with 25 children, an elder and the Southern Tutchone children’s book, which tells the story of William the moose searching for his son George. (The characters were named in honour of the royal visit.)

It is all part of an unprecedented effort by First Nations across Canada to save their struggling languages as fluent elders die off, the legacy of the residential school system’s attempt to suppress indigenous culture. First Nations leaders say that with forecasts that half of their elders will be gone within six years, the added sense of urgency has been channelled into children’s books, grade-school programs, smartphone apps and other initiatives.

Read more: The Globe and Mail

Native Montreal seeks teachers to revive Indigenous languages

An organization dedicated to providing services to the Aboriginal community of Montreal is looking for language teachers.

Starting this fall, Native Montreal plans to provide language classes in Innu, Cree, Mohawk, Abenaquis, Anishnabe and Inuktitut.

Philippe Meilleur, the executive director for Native Montreal, said enrolment and interest is booming — with nearly 300 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students of all ages signing up for classes.

“The main difficulty is the fact there is so little fluent speakers,” Meilleur said. “There is a limited amount of teachers out there.”

The goal is not only for students to learn the language in the classroom but to connect with culture through song, cooking lessons and shared activities in a way that is suitable for all ages.

Read more: CBC News

Indigenous languages are dying in Canada. Here’s how people are trying to save them

Melissa Daniels can remember the day she decided to ditch “colonial law” and return to her hometown in the North.

It was early 2015 and the Harvard-educated nurse-turned-lawyer was working for one of the top Aboriginal law firms in Canada, on a case for her Indigenous community, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, that would have slowed oil sands development on their traditional territory, but appeared to be losing.

Daniels was also working on a project with her First Nation, in the northern reaches of Alberta, that documented traditional laws by interviewing Elders to collect creation stories.

“Some people call them stories, some people call them myths, but really it’s about our laws and how they came to exist,” said Daniels, who relied on the help of translators. But she realized the picture she was getting was superficial.

“I was missing key pieces, and the reason why was that I didn’t know my language,” she recalled. “After that, I realized I needed to come home and learn my language to understand our laws and see how we apply them.”

Now back in her home community of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, Daniels is focused on learning Denesuline — a set of dialects spoken by Dene across northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and up to the east arm of Great Slave Lake. (Because most websites, including this one, cannot handle the characters found in Denesuline, all characters from that language have been anglicized.)

She represents a growing push towards revitalizing Indigenous languages in Canada — which although recognized in certain parts of the country and deemed “a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society”, are largely in decline. It’s something that has the ear of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earlier this month said that restoring Indigenous languages is key to preventing youth suicides that have plagued some First Nations communities — though he stopped short of pledging to grant official federal status to those languages, like English and French.

Read more: Vice News