I am sure everyone knows that there is a strong importance of “preserving our language”—a phrase has been thrown around so much lately that it’s starting to lose its true meaning. I have wondered if non-speakers actually know that our language represents everything about native people’s ways: nature and land, spiritual ways, and even jokes and humor. It is embedded within the language that Mi’gmaq people have been doers, and our language is the life-force of our culture. Mi’gmag speakers have a totally different worldview than non-speakers, and as an indigenous person, wouldn’t you want an authentic worldview? Many may not understand how important it is to lose that part of your central identity and it’s so unfortunate to see so many of our people not taking action.
It only took that one generation, the parents who did not teach their children the language, to create the struggle we are in right now. It is our responsibility to start “preserving our language” rather than just acknowledging the fact that the issue exists. I understand it is difficult to learn a new language but it is not impossible, especially with all the resources out there. I have actually met people who learned our language within a month, and have held conversations with fluent speakers. This gives me hope for our own people.
My vision for Listuguj is for our people to seek identity through language and to share this aspiration with the future leaders of the community. We need to start doing things as a community to revive the sense of unique individuality as Mi’gmaw people. For example, I would essentially love to see a language camp developed –taking some of our kids to learn every aspect of their culture where the Mi’gmaw language spoken at all times. The central thesis would be to seek truth through learning the language along with learning about our peoples’ inherent connectedness with nature. When dealing with these future leaders, I understand the struggle in being divided between wanting acceptance from peers and being authentic to who you are. It is inevitable as an Indigenous person to encounter those who view us as a stereotypical drunk, poor, lazy Indian. Today, I can already see the kids in school who are lacking confidence in where they come from. These are the children that are going to fall into the stereotype or rise above it. My goal would be to spark the minds of the participants who will change their perspective on being Indigenous—inspire them to tackle this important issue of our diminishing language that our community has been burdened with. I want to change the minds of young kids, instead of them taking on the ways of the people who are essentially rejecting them, to thoroughly accept themselves for who they are as Indigenous Peoples.
Of course, the list is endless with what we can achieve. But I have faith that in the years to come, Listuguj will change perspectives in how choices are made for the community and to thrive in what is rightfully ours—a Mi’gmaw speaking community.
“Many Mi’kmaq argue that their language is their culture, the loss of which would be devastating. Not only does the language continue to be vital to the culture, it is beautiful and filled with profundity.” ~ Bernie Francis & Trudy Sable.
My siblings and I were taught to expand our minds through knowledge and to always take advantage of educating ourselves. The benefits of education were often praised in my family because my mother, Janice, realized how important it would be for our future. She would often say, “No one can take your education away from you”. Along with her emphasis in investing in our education, she stressed the importance of being a Mi’gmaw speaker. Our family stood out because we had a household of Mi’gmaw speakers and most families in Listuguj spoke English. We are aware that our language makes us a close-knit family because we share something that not many families in Listuguj have. This kind of compassion for language is evident in her work, which brings forth an awareness to preserve our rapidly disappearing language.
More recently, the community of Listuguj has been motivated to reconnect with the Mi’gmaw language. Though many people in the community are familiar with my mother, her contributions to language often go unnoticed. She works full time as a Nursery Mi’gmaw Immersion teacher with a goal of making Mi’gmaq a part of these children’s everyday lives. She incorporates other aspects of the Mi’gmaw culture in unique ways that stimulate the children’s minds, making them eager to learn. In addition to her work as an educator, she is often asked to translate various projects into Mi’gmaw. For example, in the past she has contributed to translations of a Ph.D dissertation, a Mi’gmaq/English dictionary, scripts and community journals. Occasionally, she also co-teaches Mi’gmaw Language classes with her sister Mary Ann for community members and has assisted in teaching a Mi’gmaw Language course for Cape Breton University.
A group of colleagues at the Listuguj Education Directorate came across the Indspire Educator Awards that had a category suitable for my mother’s nomination—Language, Culture and Traditions. The award was created for an indigenous educator who made a vital contribution to his/her community by inspiring people through education. Her colleagues saw this as an opportunity to enlighten her accomplishments and decided to construct a nomination package. The nomination package also included letters of support from community members who had been moved by her efforts.
My mother’s impeccable knowledge in the Mi’gmaw Language, her diligence as an educator and her willingness to help others is inspiring to many. The passion she radiates for educating the people of Listuguj, and the energy she spends in language revitalization, is key to cultural awareness. Her fundamental contribution to the Mi’gmaw Language is the reason why she had been chosen to receive the Indspire Educator’s Award. Knowing that she is a humbled woman, we are thrilled that she finally has been acknowledged in a way that she deserves.
Wellugwen aq Wela’lieg!
Congratulations and Thank You!
Janice and her Granddaughter Mila
Photographer: Marsha Vicaire.
Carol and I had talked about the Mi’gmaq language thriving in the community of Eskasoni and how nice it would be to actually visit one day. A couple weeks later, we actually put the plans into actions and we were finally on our way to Cape Breton. I’ve been there in the past and one thing always came over me…a sense of home—even though Eskasoni is an 8 hour drive away from my home in Listuguj. During my visits there, I’ve been blessed to have met the kindest people that have welcomed me into their homes. But the biggest shock of my life was hearing the Mi’gmaq language spoken all around me by the community members: children, teenagers, adults, and elders. I soon realized it was hearing my own language that felt like home. Sadly, Listuguj is rapidly losing its language. I’m 25 years old and I am one of the youngest speakers left in my community. The only people I really can converse with in Mi’gmaq are older family members (50+) and elders.
I first met Blaire Gould when she came to Listuguj to meet with my aunt Mali Ann and my mom Janice on their Mi’gmaw language teaching techniques. As soon as I contacted her in regards to our trip to Eskasoni, she was more than willing to arrange meetings with Eskasoni’s Mi’gmaq Immersion teachers. On the first day in Eskasoni, we met two sisters who were retired immersion teachers: Barbara Joe and Frances Young. Frances spoke about her younger days when she couldn’t speak a word of English and the family learned to speak English by reading newspaper articles out loud to their father. During our talk, the women had made an interesting comment: it’s up to the mother to pass on the language to their children. Alan pointed out the term “Mother-tongue”. I realized I was just given a huge responsibility. I always knew my future children would be speakers, but the level of importance in passing our language is on a much bigger scale than just personal identity (as a Mi’gmaq woman). It’s how we indentify a community. But the question is, how can Listuguj be a Mi’gmaq community when its own people do not practice traditional ways, such as speaking Mi’gmaq? Without our language, our people will be nothing more than just numbers under the Indian Act.
The second day when Blaire invited us to Chapel Island, one immersion teacher stood out most to me. Sherise is a Mi’gmaq Immersion teacher, a mother and a breast cancer survivor. She introduced herself to us as the “Queen of the Island”. She spoke with us about her experiences as a teacher, and having her own children enrolled into the program even though they are fluent speakers anyway. One of her children had been somewhat neglected in the classroom because she was already a fluent speaker. As a result, she had lacked the necessary reading skills according to the curriculum. Sherise was very shocked at this because the teacher would always praise the little girl on how well she’s doing in her class. Starr, also a Mi’gmaq Immersion teacher and Sherise’s best friend, was first to notice the child’s lack of comprehension and reading skills. This reminded me of the Mi’gmaq teachers I had in school and how they would often use me to help out the other non-speaking students. I was not only bored in class, but looking back it was not fair for me as a student. These ladies both agreed that if a student is excelling in a subject, give them an even higher level of work to complete and help them become the best students regardless of his or her language abilities.
I always looked up to Eskasoni as a strong Mi’gmaq community, but even they are worried about the declining levels of Mi’gmaq speakers. However, what I had learned from these amazing teachers through the stories and experiences shared, I’ve never been surer of my decision in becoming a Mi’gmaq language teacher. I came out of there with so many resources and advice; and it also helped me learn more about what my role will be in my own community. I’m very thankful for the work and contributions McGill has done thus far in helping Listuguj recognize the importance in preserving our language. I feel there is a now strong awareness that Mi’gmaq language in Listuguj is rapidly disappearing, and it’s our responsibility as speakers to keep the language alive and strong.