Two weeks ago, public indignation followed the provincial government’s announcement that it would not be following through on plans to fund a French-language university.
Critics of this decision are understandably angered by the government’s lack of accountability towards the needs of the approximately 600,000 Franco-Ontarians, who would have been significantly empowered by an entirely Francophone educational institution.
However, if the core of the criticism is that linguistic groups should be adequately represented and empowered in postsecondary education, then the Francophone community is only one of many minorities in Ontario.
In fact, Francophones are outnumbered: over 600,000 Ontarians speak a Chinese language — such as Mandarin or Cantonese — as a mother tongue. There are also sizable Italian- and Punjabi-speaking communities. Yet there is no clamour to open postsecondary institutions based on these languages.
In reality, the necessity of upholding French as a unique language in Canada is grounded not as much in demographic representation as it is in a colonial mentality. French is thought to hold a rightful place in the nation because of the intertwined history of the language and the country.
But if we are upholding the integrality of French for historical reasons, then this justification should be extended to certain other communities, namely, those that speak one of the many Indigenous languages that have existed on this land for thousands of years.
These languages, more than any others, can be said to hold a rightful place on this land. It is interesting that there is no equivalent uproar for their representation in postsecondary institutions.
Ontario is home to a rich network of six Indigenous language families: Anishinaabek, Onkwehonwe, Mushkegowuk, Lunaape, Inuktitut, and Michif. These families include over 18 different languages and dialects.
The province has made efforts to revitalize and integrate these languages in the context of postsecondary education in the last decade. A key way is through the provincial funding of several Indigenous postsecondary institutes.
Ontario is home to nine Indigenous-owned and operated postsecondary institutions that offer programs in partnership with other colleges and universities. A year ago, legislation was passed that gave these institutes the ability to independently award degrees, certificates, and diplomas without negotiating with their non-Indigenous partner schools.
This legislation is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, in line with reconciliatory aims to grant the Indigenous peoples of Ontario further autonomy over their communities and affairs, as well as power and influence over the affairs of the country in general.
But these institutes have rather small circles of impact. Combined, the nine institutions offer programs to around 4,000 students. This number pales when compared to the over two million postsecondary students in Canada. U of T alone has over 90,000 enrolled students.
Indigenous language revitalization is a critical issue. Some of the key ways the violence of colonialism inflicts itself upon Indigenous peoples are the suppression and erasure of their ways of communicating, and the replacement of their languages with those of their colonizers — whether English or French. This process was facilitated through the residential school system.
Integration of these languages in education can be an important way of acknowledging the validity and necessity of Indigenous languages, to ensure that these languages continue to be learned and passed on to future generations.
Most of us are settlers in this country and benefit from colonialism by enjoying the use of the land and its resources. As such, we have an ethical obligation to support Indigenous peoples’ efforts to revitalize and sustain their cultures and ways of life. Language itself is a key site of power and control — and by making efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages, we can help empower these communities in a major way.
For education in Indigenous languages to have a wider influence and impact, larger colleges and universities ought to expand their curriculum to be more inclusive of them. Integrating Indigenous languages within an academic context would validate these languages as legitimate and important ways of communicating. Indigenous students would also have the ability to participate in their culture within these institutions.
Moreover, integrating these languages within educational institutions could help reverse some of the erasure wrought by residential schools — Indigenous students who were not brought up with knowledge of their communities’ languages would have opportunities to reclaim them. Non-Indigenous students would also have the opportunity to learn these languages, which would widen the scope of efforts to revitalize and sustain them.
Since 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for more programs in Indigenous languages has spurred attempts by universities to integrate these languages into their course offerings. But the selection is still sparse. The most exhaustive offerings are those from the smaller, Indigenous-run institutes, like Six Nations Polytechnic in southwest Ontario, which offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in Mohawk and Cayuga.
Other schools have been moving toward offering more courses in Indigenous languages. Queen’s University, McMaster University, and Lakehead University now all offer some courses in Indigenous languages. U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies offers courses in Inuktitut, Iroquoian, and Anishinaabemowin.
These selections have yet to compare to the exhaustive curriculums that these schools offer in languages like French. It can be argued that an expansive curriculum in Indigenous languages is of even greater importance, since there is no threat of French dying out. With Indigenous languages, that is a very real possibility.
As students, we can contribute to the revitalization of Indigenous languages on our own campuses. We have opportunities to take courses in an Indigenous language offered by U of T, and in that way we can make a concrete effort to spread and sustain the language.
Debates around French representation in postsecondary education illuminate that language is a locus of power and control. And while being mindful of the needs of Franco-Ontarians, we should be aware that the representation of Indigenous languages in our colleges and universities is of equal, or greater, importance.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.