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Rights + Justice

The Life-Saving Movement to Reclaim Indigenous Language

A settler's reflection on potent words not taught in Canadian schools.

Katherine Palmer Gordon 4 Feb

Katherine Palmer Gordon is a former treaty negotiator for the province of British Columbia. She continues to work with First Nations on strategic and policy issues. Her last book We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us (Harbour, September 2013) profiles young First Nations men and women on the importance of cultural connection.

[Editor's note: As Indigenous language activists meet in Vancouver tonight, we present this excerpt of 'Mother Tongues' from Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail's In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation, due out in April 2016. Pre-order it here.]

Let's say your first language is English. It could be French, if you prefer. This is Canada, after all. Either way, English or French: it's your first language, part of who you are.

You learned it as an infant; it's the fundamental way you express yourself as an adult. You understand every nuance of meaning in each word and phrase, everything written between the lines. When you hear it and speak it -- something you get to do every day in this officially bilingual country -- your connection to your nationhood and culture is nourished, and thrives.

That's easy to take for granted here. Press one for English, tapez deux pour le français -- we all know what that means. It's part of the national identity, about as Canadian as it gets. That's what language does for us: it identifies us, anchors us to place and heritage and culture, and allows us to communicate effortlessly with our fellow speakers so they understand us with no need to divine further meaning or intent.

For the one and a half million Canadian Indigenous people whose mother tongues aren't officially recognized in this country, however -- whose languages aren't taught in schools, or celebrated in spelling bees and crossword puzzles and board games and writing contests, or used in hospitals and dental offices and government services -- it's a different matter. What number do you press to speak in Hulqˈuminˈum, or Cree, or Miˈkmaq?

The likelihood today of a First Nations person in Canada hearing their language spoken on a daily basis is small. The 2011 census reported that only fifteen per cent of Indigenous people in Canada still regularly use their original languages. In British Columbia, home to more than half the country's original languages, six have become permanently silent. The remaining 32, spoken by just five per cent of the First Nations population of the province, are at serious risk of joining them.

Does that matter in a country where the languages of government, commerce, education, entertainment and society in general are English and French? Why pay any attention to dialects that are all but forgotten save by a small fraction of the population? Why on earth should we care?

Because it does matter, and it matters deeply. We must pay attention, because as a country we cannot afford to lose any more original languages. If the peoples of Canada are ever to achieve understanding and reconciliation between each other, no matter which language we speak, then we must care about the full revival of these languages, and the right of all First Nations people in the country to learn and speak them fluently: the languages of the Mi'kmaq, the Miliseet, the Algonquin, Seneca, Cree, Mohawk, Anishinaabe, Dene, Innu, Ojibway, Métis, Ktunaxa, Haida, and Hulq'umin'um Nations, and all of the other peoples whose names illuminated the map of Canada long before the country existed, aeons before the English and French came.

Saving language, saving life

In 2007, University of Victoria associate professor of psychology Christopher Lalonde co-published a report starkly titled "Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide." Lalonde and his colleagues studied 150 First Nations communities in British Columbia. They discovered that language had more predictive power in anticipating suicide rates than any other standard socio-economic indicator like poverty or unemployment.

The results of the research were arresting: "Rates dropped to zero in communities in which at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their language," wrote Lalonde. By contrast, where there was little or no connection to language, the child suicide rate rose to six times higher than the national average.

That statistic bears repeating. In First Nations communities where the original language has effectively vanished, six times as many children are killing themselves as in other communities across the country where the kids are able to speak their mother tongue. In a country where youth suicide accounts for one quarter of all suicides, that means hundreds of First Nations children are dying at their own hands every year. The link to a lack of connection to their culture, writes Lalonde, is irrefutable: "Loss of language is the canary in the coal mine of cultural distress."

Renée Sampson, a young SENĆOŦEN language teacher from SELILIYE's community of Tsartlip, is an aunt acutely aware of the importance of this issue to her nieces and nephews: "All our social problems stem from the disconnection of our young people to our culture because they don't know our language," she explains. "Without that sense of cultural identity, they just don't know who they are." Mike Willie, who has worked extensively in the field of cultural preservation and revitalization on northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, agrees fervently: "If you don't have the language, if you don't know who you are, you're just roaming this world, lost. You're not grounded anywhere."

But the converse, as the Lalonde report so poignantly emphasizes, is also true. Mike was born in 1977 in the remote community of Kingcome Inlet on British Columbia's central coast, and grew up hearing his Musgamakw Dzawada'enuxw language and songs at his Elders' knees. But Kingcome Inlet is isolated, and after Grade 7, families have to send their children away to complete their education. "I was sent to Victoria," he says. "No one there spoke my language, and I really struggled. It was a huge culture shock." Mike believes what saved him was his upbringing, steeped in his mother tongue: "Having been taught in my language as a young child totally helped me survive the experience."

But the language was also far more than a safety blanket to cling to in an alien environment. Mike says it unquestionably helped him do better at school in general: "I have no doubt that knowing the language and the songs helped me with my self-confidence and getting through school and university. That's true of many kids from Kingcome Inlet," he adds. "There is a really high success rate amongst our youth in post-secondary education, and I attribute it directly to being grounded in the language."

People like Mike and Renée, and the children they both work with, are living proof that learning their language pays off for First Nations youth in terms of cultural and general well-being. One Thanksgiving a few years ago, Renée watched her then 16-year-old niece lead her cousins in performing a SENĆOŦEN drum song. "I was watching her and the others," she recalls, "and thinking, here are these teenagers -- they are at the point where they could be out drinking, dropping out of school, getting pregnant -- and they're not! They've embraced the language instead, and they're proud and they're healthy."

Learning words of their own

The evidence goes well beyond the anecdotal. After decades of research and pilot language programs in various countries, it is now well established that children versed in their mother-tongue language, as well as the dominant cultural language, do well in all areas of education. Papua New Guinea has provided mother-tongue education to all of its children since 1993. Dr. Andrea Bear Nicholas, former chair of native studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, observes: "The results are striking. Children become literate more quickly and learn English faster than children who went through the old unilingual system, and score higher in all subjects. The dropout rate has also decreased."

The same results have emerged in Canada. Tracey Herbert, executive director in 2015 of British Columbia's First Peoples' Cultural Council, notes the success of Mohawk and Cree immersion schools founded in Ontario in the mid-1980s: "Their kids have higher high school graduation rates than national averages, and some of the highest rates of follow-through into post-secondary education of any First Nations in Canada." In British Columbia, the N'kmaplqs i Snma'mayat'tn klSqilxwet (Okanagan Indian Band Cultural Immersion School) is the region's first school with Okanagan language and knowledge as its foundation. Dr. Bill Cohen, a band councillor and former associate professor of Indigenous Studies at Okanagan University College, helped establish the K–7 school in 2008.

"The community has two fundamental goals it wants to achieve with the school," says Dr. Cohen. "They want the kids to be fluent in their language -- to speak, think, and dream in it. Equally importantly, they want the children to be successful in the provincial school curriculum and in gaining world knowledge. We're well on the way to meeting both those goals," he adds with satisfaction.

Cohen says that most of the children going through the program shine when they enter the mainstream high school system, getting onto honour rolls, principals' lists, and school sports teams. "There's a real difference in these kids," he observes. "They're more confident in public. They are healthy, happy young people who are succeeding in the public school system with ease." Kathy Michel, cofounder of the Chief Atahm immersion school in Chase in central British Columbia, has had the same experience: "When my children entered the public school system at Grade 11, they opened up their science book and said, 'Oh, this is easy stuff. We were taught this way back in Grade 5.'"

What immense hope these stories signify for every First Nations child in this country, and for Canada. After all, First Nations are the fastest-growing segment of the population. That statistic represents hugely exciting potential for this country. Imagine a Canada where millions of First Nations youth and adults speak their languages every day as well as English or French, and are healthy, happy, and doing well in their lives. Don't these children deserve that chance? Shouldn't we all care about that?

Excerpt and cover art courtesy of Brindle & Glass.  [Tyee]

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