How Canadian universities help fight to save Indigenous languages

Indigenous languages across Canada are in peril, another legacy of the residential school system. Are schools doing enough to help save them?

Jennifer Lewington
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Students in the Ogwehoweh language program at Six Nations Polytechnic receive their degrees (Photograph by Cole Garside)

Wearing a purple dress decorated with beads and moccasins sewn by family members, Katsitsionhawi Hill clasps an eagle feather as she steps to the podium to speak at her graduation ceremony at Six Nations Polytechnic in June.

She is part of the second cohort of graduates of the bachelor of arts in Ogwehoweh languages (Mohawk and Cayuga). The program is the first of its kind in the world, offered by the Indigenous-run, degree-granting school at Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario.

Eight of this year’s graduates earned their degree in Cayuga; Hill, 25, completed hers in Mohawk. This fall, 23 students have signed up for the three-year undergraduate degree.

Speaking at her graduation in Mohawk then English, Hill describes her childhood mission to become a fluent Mohawk speaker then pursue a career teaching others. Her voice cracking, she repeats what she was told repeatedly by her family, which includes at least one residential school survivor: “It is important to be [an Indigenous language] speaker because if you don’t have your language you are not Ogwehoweh.”

MORE: Katsitsionhawi Hill on how a lifelong love of language led to her degree

Though not alone, Six Nations Polytechnic stands out in the ambitious scope of its language degrees. It’s joined by a growing number of Canadian universities—spurred by the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for “degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages”—adding Indigenous language courses as well as certificates, diplomas and degrees.

While praising the effort—a response to Canada’s residential schools legacy that left children physically and emotionally abused for speaking their Indigenous language—advocates urge more action given the perilous state of the country’s 60-plus Indigenous languages.

“What we are not seeing is fully realized, fully robust [university] programs that will take new speakers from start to end in a robust and comprehensive manner,” says Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. “That is a significant gap.”

He says universities must recruit more Indigenous language speakers, including those without typical tenure-track credentials, and support them in and outside the classroom. Importantly, he adds, universities must recognize “the inherent legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge systems that exist in parallel to Western knowledge systems.”

For Six Nations’ Hill, who attended an on-reserve immersion school until Grade 6 before transferring to English-language junior and senior high schools with few Mohawk courses, the new focus on language is overdue. “Our history is that we had the language beaten out of us, and it is very real,” she says. “Why do we have to go back all these years later and learn the language that should have been our birthright?”

Tom Deer teaches a Six Nations Polytechnic class about the condolence cane. (Six Nations Polytechnic)

As the United Nations marks the “International Year of Indigenous Languages” next year, Canada faces twin challenges: the residential school-inflicted loss of language and a dwindling population of fluent speakers.

“It’s a race against time,” says Richard Monture, an assistant professor of Indigenous studies at McMaster University, a long-time education partner of Six Nations Polytechnic. “A lot of our folks who are fluent are passing on. They are invaluable.” Monture is working with elders and students in his home community of Six Nations to produce audio and visual documents for a Grand River Mohawk dictionary.

Shirley Williams, a residential school survivor and elder who has earned multiple degrees and honours, says “the nuns and priests said we would never get a job using our language because it was of no value to us.” But in 1986 at Trent University, where she is now a professor emeritus, she began a lifelong effort to promote Indigenous language courses, including Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe). A published Indigenous author, her current projects include a dictionary of Ojibwe and Odawa (a dialect of Ojibwe), organized around themes such as relatives, plants, animals and recreational activities. “We are losing a lot of the words that they know and it is not being recorded,” she says. “We need to work twice as fast.”

Frank Deer, a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous education at the University of Manitoba, shares her sense of urgency. “The received wisdom over the past 10 years is that there are three languages that are viable enough to survive the next few generations,” he says, naming Cree, Anishinaabemowin and Inuktitut. “We are losing speakers and not developing new ones,” he says, describing the loss of language as a crisis.

But he also sees an opening for universities “to be part of this journey that Indigenous people wish to undertake to develop, recapture and revitalize their language.”

University administrators agree there is no time to lose. “It’s important to separate talking about Indigenization and actually doing it,” says Gordon Smith, vice-dean of the faculty of arts and science at Queen’s University. “Language and culture is at the top of the list of strategic priorities . . . It’s a way of addressing issues of reconciliation, identity and healing.”

Queen’s introduced a course in Inuktitut in 2013, and a bachelor of arts with an Indigenous minor was recently upgraded to a major concentration.

This fall, the university added two Indigenous language certificates developed with its Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre and the nearby Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory’s Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre.

A five-course certificate in Indigenous languages and culture, taught by a Mohawk speaker from Tyendinaga, largely caters to on-campus non-Indigenous students, including Sarah Vopni, a fourth-year global development major with interests in gender, feminism and power issues.

“I am studying global inequality, and you can study all you want, but if you don’t put it into practice, it doesn’t mean anything,” she says. With an introductory Mohawk language course under her belt, Vopni says the new certificate exposes her to Indigenous ways of knowing and Canada’s troubled history with its first peoples. “This is doing the work of decolonization,” she says.

Meanwhile, a four-course certificate in Mohawk language and culture is designed for members of the Tyendinaga community, who can apply the new credential toward a Queen’s degree.

Shelby Lisk, a Mohawk on her mother’s side from Tyendinaga, began to explore her Indigenous roots in her early 20s. “That was a really big piece that was missing from me,” says Lisk, an artist and freelance photographer who takes the certificate at nights and on weekends while pursuing a photojournalism diploma at nearby Loyola College.

She prefers studying in Tyendinaga. “For me, part of it is about connecting to my culture but also connecting to that community,” she says. “So much of culture is in language, and the more I learn, the more I have an understanding of how our ancestors lived and the things they valued.”

As universities up their game, students are lobbying for new credentials, not just courses. Last year, students at the University of Manitoba unveiled “ReconciliACTION,” an advocacy campaign to promote on-campus reconciliation and the implementation of new language programs. This fall, the Canadian Federation of Students plans to roll out the campaign nationally.

“Why are there fully recognized majors and degrees in French, Spanish and other languages widely available across Canadian universities and Indigenous majors are almost non-existent?” asks Noah Wilson, a fourth-year Indigenous governance student at the U of M and a member of the Ojibwe- and Cree-speaking Peguis First Nation. 

A co-president of the Indigenous Students Association, Wilson says “language is at the core of all cultures, and I think language is the future for Indigenous people, Indigenous innovation and Indigenous lifestyle. It has to be at the core of everything we do in the future.”

At the U of M, the student campaign coincided with internal efforts to expand programming. Existing undergraduate minors in Ojibwe and Cree are expected to be offered as major concentrations (as part of a three-year B.A. in native studies) by fall 2019, pending U of M approval, with a fully fledged degree contingent on provincial government endorsement. Recently, the university won support for its first tenure-track Indigenous language (Anishinaabe or Cree) professor, instead of only using sessional lecturers.

With a growing number of elementary and secondary schools in Manitoba offering Indigenous languages, “the market is there,” says native studies department head Cary Miller. “The interest from the students in these majors is there, and we want to have something as quickly as possible.”

A shortage of fluent Indigenous faculty remains a big concern.

“We see this as a challenge that really originates from the history of residential schools and the loss of language and master speakers,” says Donna Rogers, academic dean at Algoma University.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Algoma shares its physical campus (the site of a former residential school) and academic programming with Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig, an Indigenous post-secondary counterpart that serves First Nation communities in the region.

The two institutions have offered an Anishinaabemowin bachelor’s program for years, and this fall plan to add a three-year degree in Anishinaabe studies, with land-based offerings and other courses with an Anishinaabe worldview.

Like Algoma, universities with long track records in Indigenous language programs say success depends on working with First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities.

The University of Victoria introduced its first Indigenous credential in 1974 and has an expanding menu of undergraduate and graduate-level courses, certificates and diplomas, developed with British Columbia First Nation communities eager to reclaim their languages.

“It is not just a race against time with a loss of proficient language speakers across multiple languages,” says Nancy Wright, associate vice-president of academic planning at UVic. “It is also that there are multiple language communities and institutions of Indigenous higher education that need support, and we need to get to them.”

While undergraduate demand has remained steady since 2011, enrolment in graduate-level programs in Indigenous language revitalization rose 56 per cent over the past seven years, she says.

UVic officials take their cue from Indigenous communities when mapping out programs. “We do bring expertise to the table on how to do language revitalization, theoretically and practically,” says Jean-Paul Restoule, an Anishinaabe scholar and head of the new Indigenous education department in UVic’s education faculty. “But they are the ones who hold the expertise in language and culture. We work with them to identify who would be the best language mentors and the best instructors for a course.”

Since 2010, UVic has worked with the WSÁNEĆ School Board—which operates a tribal school for Tsartlip, Tsawout, Tseycum and Pauquachin First Nations on the Saanich Peninsula—on an in-community delivered certificate in Indigenous language revitalization. Graduates can move on to an undergraduate diploma, a stepping stone to a bachelor of education in Indigenous language revitalization (ILR). A graduate certificate in ILR could connect into a master’s of education or a master’s of arts in ILR.

Restoule says the laddered approach “allows people to move into more and more of the academic environment in a way that is supportive and recognizes community desires and aspirations.”

To date, WSÁNEĆ has enrolled 59 students in the various credentialed programs. “There was a time not long ago that we really worried about the endangerment of SENCOTEN [the language of Saanich First Nations],” says Kendra Underwood, director of WSÁNEĆ’s adult education centre. “Since we have offered the bachelor of education degree and newer cohorts of the diploma, we have seen an ever-growing team of proficient speakers, with some moving through to full fluency.”

Graduating Indigenous immersion instructors, she adds, “certainly works toward our goal of offering an immersion program [in their communities].”

Back at Six Nations Polytechnic, president and CEO Rebecca Jamieson is ecstatic over the latest crop of graduates but cautions that “we are only at the beginning of what needs to be done.”

At the convocation ceremony, she warned that “each of the six languages spoken in our community is on the list of languages that are in critical danger. It is of the utmost importance that we at Six Nations Polytechnic and the Six Nations community do everything in our power to prevent our language from being lost. If that were ever to happen, our culture and our way of life would be at risk.”

Later, she cited the economic benefit of language revitalization.

“We are on the brink of opportunities to build a whole knowledge economy in terms of the language,” she says, with graduates landing jobs in education, the arts and beyond. “It is about a whole revitalization of language and culture, and there is a huge opportunity to bring everything back to life.”

Her exhortation resonates with Hill, who took her Mohawk degree four nights a week and on Saturday mornings while taking daytime classes at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, a community-based adult learning centre at Six Nations. Together, the programs helped raise her fluency to an intermediate level.

Recently, she met a fellow Mohawk-speaker at Six Nations and struck up a casual conversation in their language. “It was a conversation that you would have with anyone about ‘How are you doing?’ ” she recalls. “It made me feel awesome and empowered.”