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To preserve Indigenous languages, U of T must do better

Academic institutions must expand Indigenous language-learning opportunities in the face of endangerment and extinction
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In order to realize reconciliation, educational institutions like U of T must invest in Indigenous language and culture. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
In order to realize reconciliation, educational institutions like U of T must invest in Indigenous language and culture. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Over 188 years have passed since the first residential schools were established in Canada. Residential schools, a part of government- and church-sponsored policy, were built to undermine Indigenous identity in favor of the dominant white settler society. The repercussions of these schools are still felt by Indigenous people to this day. The intergenerational trauma of residential schooling remains a significant factor in the decline of Indigenous languages, as well as the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.

Indigenous language is integral to the preservation of culture and nationhood. As a result of residential schooling, Indigenous communities were left unable to safeguard their own languages and cultural identities. In fact, beyond the plethora of literature surrounding the psychological, physiological, and sociological implications that have taken hold, it is not uncommon to hear that those who have endured such practices still carry the burden — refusing to teach their children due to fear that they might endure a similar experience.

Until 1996, when the last residential school closed its doors in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, residential schools remained at the epicentre of the isolation, punishment, and assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture that the federal government imposed on Indigenous children.

Inside such schools, children — under the guise of educational policy — were removed from their communities and families and dissuaded from using their language and practising their culture. Furthermore, many of the more than 150,000 school children in residential schools were subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

According to a 2016 Canadian census, there are over 260,050 Indigenous language speakers in Canada — less than one per cent of the entire Canadian population. Further, there are reportedly over 70 distinct living Indigenous languages spoken in Canada according to the same census. Yet, only 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people can conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, a drop from the 2006 census.

Language is at the root of culture and history. However, for Bonnie J. Maracle, Wolf Clan member of the Mohawk people and Professor of Language Revitalization at U of T, language is much more than that. “Language is our help, our unity, our strength,” she claimed.

For Indigenous people like Maracle, there is a clear unifying connection between language and the spiritual and natural environment around us. “Language is this healing and wellness,” Maracle said. “A whole generation of people had no language and culture, all as a result of residential schools… language has been holding on by a thread [ever since].”

This is not a problem unique to Canada. Indigenous languages and cultures are currently at risk of disappearing in all corners of the world.

This summer, three undergraduate students travelled to the city of Boa Vista, Brazil, as part of U of T’s Research Excursion Projects (REPs). With guidance from Suzi Lima, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the students were able to study several Indigenous languages in the region, including Macuxi, Ye’kwana, and Taurepang, alongside locals in order to further preservation efforts.

On the importance of their work in Brazil, Gregory Antono, a former Linguistics and Spanish double major now entering his graduate studies in U of T’s linguistics program, spoke on the politics around Brazil’s loss of Indigenous languages. According to Antono, official language status, colonization, and desire to adhere to the dominant culture are among the major factors contributing to this decline. Antono went on to say that, “It’s a race against time, for one. A lot of these languages have [very] few speakers left so if we — from different areas of the world — don’t work together, there is a chance we will not be able to do it at all in a few years.”

Documenting the language and history of Indigenous peoples is just one example of the work that we, as academics, institutions, and global citizens can do to help preserve cultures all over the world.

“I think we focus a lot on theoretical problems rather than the field, but we need more programs like the REP to learn about and communicate with these communities,” Antono continued. “As a student I’m torn between pursuing my academic interests but also in creating meaningful work [within] the community itself.” It is in this day and age of critically declining language diversity that impactful work like this is not only beneficial to both parties at hand, but necessary as well.

In June 2019, the Canadian Government passed the Indigenous Languages Act (ILA). Along with making attempts to adhere to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Calls to Action, the Canadian government is to allocate $333.7 million over five years and $115.7 million per year thereafter to support the ILA’s implementation. While there has been a lot of debate regarding the government’s claim of co-development of this legislation in collaboration with Indigenous groups, this increase in expenditure will hopefully allow more language revitalization projects to come to fruition in the coming years.

Academic institutions must do more to preserve Indigenous languages in light of the current instability in this area. According to Professor Andrea Bear Nicholas, Maliseet from Nekwotkok, Tobique First Nation, who works at St. Thomas University, the situation is truly dire. “Unless we as a country give equal rights to Indigenous languages for the right to schooling in our languages, I think we will not be saving our languages,” she said in an interview with Global News Canada. “We have to make the next step, and that would be pre-school programs, that would be immersion programs, and guaranteed to any community that wants to start them. This is critical.”

Across Canada, academic institutions are starting to make spaces for Indigenous peoples to learn and thrive, offering course credits in Indigenous languages and cultural studies, and recruiting fluent speakers as administrators and educators. The Mohawk language has now joined Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin in U of T’s language course offerings, at two levels of education.

However, two levels of language-learning seem hardly enough given that the norm for other languages offered at U of T, such as French and German, are offered at four, if not five levels. As Canada’s number one university, continually pushing the boundaries of education, should we really have to ask ourselves whether three offered Indigenous languages are enough?

We must provide both Indigenous people — a great number of whom now live outside of reserves — and non-Indigenous students with opportunities to learn via immersive education, beginning in our public school systems. This is necessary if we want to move forward in mutual understanding and resolution.

U of T is also now beginning to pair Indigenous studies education with departments and faculties like the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Law, and Dalla Lana School of Public Health. According to Professor Maracle, it is crucial for professionals to learn about, understand, and attempt to solve the domestic problems faced by Indigenous peoples within our country.

The TRC has called on universities to start developing partnerships with Indigenous communities. “I can see universities coming to [our communities] and not just providing a classroom for students to go [to universities],” Maracle said.

For Maracle, though there is already programming in these communities, the question becomes, “how can we as institutions help to accredit those programmings that are already existing?” Institutions like U of T must strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities, especially given the barriers that exist for Indigenous students entering academic institutions.

“If there are people in the community that are getting accreditation,” says Maracle, “[then] at the very least they would have gotten some validation or accreditation for the work they are already doing in their own community.” Public institutions historically have not engaged Indigenous students as well as they have their non-Indigenous counterparts. We must make greater efforts towards recruiting Indigenous youths for postsecondary educational opportunities.

For many Indigenous people like Maracle, Canada is now closer than it has ever been. In her view, Canada’s acceptance of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and promise to follow up with further action — the ILA, for example — has set the tone for Canadians. “The acceptance of the TRC entirely changed the objectives of Canada,” she said. “It is now working toward changing the ongoing problems of colonialism by working together.”

“In the Indigenous sense you would really be helping if we could sit down and have a conversation about what we actually need.” Maracle concluded. “We need to communicate with Indigenous people [to see] what they need help with.”

After all, the key to the preservation of any language or culture is ensuring that dialects not only survive, but thrive. We must start to look at reconciliation efforts that do not result in the survival and continuation of Indigenous languages and cultures as little more than continued assimilation.

Conroy Gomes is a fourth-year Neuroscience and Biology student at New College.