Language revitalization

Despite this history of language loss, Aboriginal Canadians are working together to revitalize their ancestral languages by preserving the knowledge of elders and teaching a new generation of speakers. Instead of viewing language loss through a pessimistic standpoint, some people refuse to consider some languages “extinct,” but rather see languages that have no fluent speakers as “sleeping languages” that can be “awakened”. One common goal among some First Nations communities is to promote local control over their children’s education, a common philosophy among supporters of Aboriginal rights and self-government. For example, in British Columbia, the Stó:lo First Nation of the Fraser Valley have developed many initiatives to revitalize their traditional language, Halq’emeylem (Upriver Halkomelem). One program is the Pre-School Language Nest, a pre-school system modelled after a family home environment where children learn through natural language immersion. Another initiative is the Master-Apprentice Program, in which a fluent speaker is paired with a learner, and they carry out daily activities using Halq’emeylem at all times.16

In academia, linguists and anthropologists are recording as many mother-tongue speakers of Aboriginal languages as they can.  For some people who have forgotten their language, listening to these recordings can trigger their memory and help them regain their language skills. These initiatives have bridged academic research with on-the-ground language revitalization.  In June 2009, Fred Metallic, a York University Ph.D. candidate, became the first university student to write a doctoral dissertation in an Aboriginal language without an English or French translation. His dissertation, written entirely in Mi’kmaq, examines the reclamation of history and culture by the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Atlantic Canada.18

Over the years, the federal government and Aboriginal peoples have made significant efforts to heal and reconcile the legacy of discrimination and assimilation. In their final report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognizes that the “Aboriginal language status and use is a core power in Aboriginal self-government.”19 For Aboriginal peoples, speaking their traditional languages is not only an expression of identity, it is also an assertion of empowerment. In conclusion, the following quote encapsulates the importance of language for Aboriginal peoples in Canada: “One Elder has said, ‘Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit’.” Mary Lou Fox, Ojibwe elder

By Alice Huang

Visit the UBC Indigenous Foundations Languages Page