Reflections on Eskasoni

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.

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