Is Ontario doing enough to preserve its Aboriginal languages?

By Chantal Braganza - Published on September 16, 2015
hand erasing blackboard
More than 60 indigenous languages are declining in use across Canada. Immersion schools like Kiizhik Gakendaasowin aim to fix that.

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In early September, as teachers across the province said good morning, the faculty at one central Kenora primary school greeted their classes with aanii. For 22 kindergarten to Grade 2 students at Kiizhik Gakendaasowin school, the first day of class this year was in the Ojibway language of Anishinaabemowin. The school is the first of its kind in Ontario: an off-reserve, First Nations-run primary with full-time immersion in an indigenous language.

“We have more instruction in Anishinaabemowin than in English, though literacy and numeracy is taught in English. We’re bringing in a lot of Anishnaabe materials at the school,” says Andy Graham, director of education at Bimose Tribal Council, which oversees the school’s administration. “We’re putting in a library that will have a teepee and a lodge in there. We’ve brought in symbols, pictures, and educational material on the walls that will reflect who our students are.”

The school is currently 22 students large and has a waiting list of 50 more from Dalles, Washagamis Bay and Rat Portage First Nations. The school administrators plan to add a new class to the roster each year until they offer education for kids up to Grade 6.

Kiizhik Gakendaasowin – Anishnaabemowin for “knowledge centre” – is an effort by the tribal council to address a gap in the education system for Aboriginal students in the area, whose graduation rates are lower and whose curriculums often include their heritage simply as a subject of study, rather than a framework for their education to begin with.

“Our language is strong with our elders, then there’s a fairly big gap in that mid-adult and young-adult generation,” says Graham. “You start seeing some language retention at the school levels, but then it starts to disappear as students leave school.”

What First Nations communities in the Kenora area have been experiencing is part of a wide-spread phenomenon for indigenous languages across the country: a massive decline in the use of more than 60 languages that once formed the basis of human communication in this part of the world.

As of the 2011 census, 213,490 people listed an Aboriginal language as their first (or mother) tongue – about 15 per cent of the Aboriginal-identified population in Canada at the time. By comparison, just over 72 per cent of Canada’s foreign-born population at the time claimed a non-official language as their mother tongue, whether alone or in addition to French or English.

“Because of residential schooling, people have been taught that our languages are of no use,” says Bonnie Jane Maracle, a learning strategist at the University of Toronto’s First Nations House and previously a lecturer in Mohawk language courses at Queen’s University and the University of Victoria. “That’s ingrained in so many people today: the message that your languages are not important.”

In July, the Assembly of First Nations called on the federal government to give Canada’s indigenous languages official status in the country, something advocates have called for since the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. Some tenets of the Official Languages Act — such as producing multiple translations of official documents — would make such a proposition an expensive and complex move. However, experts say making legislative space for such languages would also guarantee increased funding for revitalization initiatives and, ideally, encourage regionally-specific language policy, similar to Nunavut’s Official Languages Act.

A number of the calls-to-action listed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report also address Aboriginal language preservation, from language rights, to calling on post-secondary institutions to develop more degree and diploma programs in aboriginal languages.

“I do think universities should be more involved in teaching indigenous languages,” says Alana Johns, a linguistics professor and Inuktitut researcher at the University of Toronto. “I think it would set a tone if we offered them more.”

“Inuktitut, Ojibway and Cree are generally considered to be the stronger [languages],” Johns says. “But you can’t really take that for granted, because all it takes is one generation in a community to not speak it, and then their children don’t learn – and it’s harder to get back.”

Declining use also risks the loss of culturally specific concepts and identities that aren’t translatable.

“In each language there’s different ways of how speakers interact with each other. In English we go back and forth a lot,” says Johns. “In Inuktitut, each person speaks for a longer time and there’s little interrupting.”

But there are legislative and cultural obstacles to operation for initiatives like Kiizzhik Gakendaasowin that are currently engaged in the work of language revitalization through schooling.

In Ontario, there’s the policy issue about immersion language programs. The province’s Education Act allows publicly funded schools to only teach full-time immersion in French or English, so Kiizzhik Gakendaasowin must operate as a private school, similar to the way on-reserve schools not operated by school boards do. In both cases, such schools could enter into what’s called reverse tuition agreements with local school boards whose students would otherwise attend their schools, but as Graham puts it: “The boards don’t have to go into these agreements,” which makes what would otherwise be a significant stream of their funding uncertain. “It’s not a shall, but a may: that word throws everything off.”

Fewer fluent speakers also means a harder time finding staff to develop and teach the languages themselves. While growing up in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Callie Hill rarely heard Mohawk spoken as a child, save for when her grandfather said prayers or her father would tell her to hanuska – to hurry up.

“In the early nineties we realized we were losing our mother tongue speakers really quickly,” she says. “There were only a handful, and even then they were using it only in a very limited way.”

In the mid-1990s a group of volunteers organized an adult language education program for interested residents to learn Mohawk (or Kanien’keha, as it’s called in the language), with the aim of launching a child-centered language program in the mid-2000s. By 2008 the group had established the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre in Tyendinaga First Nation and launched a “language nest” program for early-years education. In 2011, they’d established a primary immersion school on the reserve for children aged five-to-ten.

Nearly two decades later, the community’s efforts have paid off. “In about ten years we’ve gone from having a handful of latent speakers to now having babies who themselves are native speakers,” says Hill, who serves as Tsi Tyonnheht‘s executive director and now speaks conversational Mohawk. A defining moment for her was last year, when she was able to perform a welcoming ceremony for her newborn grandson entirely in the language.

“It is our identity, and our children need to know that,” she says.

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