https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/09/17/meet-the-people-determined-to-revitalize-indigenous-languages.html

When Mskwaankwad Rice began his journey to learn Anishinaabemowin 10 years ago, he didn’t know where to start — it wasn’t like he could download an app like DuoLingo and learn like he would Spanish or German. Everything was DIY.

“I just realized I had to stop talking about learning Anishinaabemowin and actually start doing something,” said Rice, a PhD student studying linguistics at the University of Minnesota.

Rice was living in Ottawa, but would visit his grandmother in Wasauksing First Nation, near Parry Sound, whenever he could, pulling out his phone to record her translating words and phrases from English to Anishinaabemowin, which is part of the Algonquian language family. He’d upload them to his computer, chop them up into small audio files, put them on his iPod and listen to them on a loop as he travelled to and from work each day.

Now, that new-found knowledge has transformed into The Language, a new podcast dedicated to the revitalization of Anishinaabemowin by second-language learners, for second-language learners.

Supported by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research and education centre based out of Toronto Metropolitan University, and co-hosted by fellow second-language learner Jessica Shonias, the program aims to stoke the passion they have for learning Anishinaabemowin in others.

In the podcast, Shonias and Rice tackle conversations about their journeys with learning, their two-week immersion camp, Eshki-Nishaabemjib, and the painful legacy of residential schools that continues to put Indigenous languages at risk.

For decades, Indigenous children across the country were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools where they often endured harsh punishments for attempting to speak their languages. The resulting decline in the number of Indigenous language speakers in Canada means the work of Shonias, Rice and others is more vital than ever.

Experts say to rectify the problem, Indigenous language programs need consistent funding and support. The City of Toronto is currently working on its own 10-year reconciliation plan, which includes backing for revitalizing Indigenous languages, as well as increased access to affordable housing for Indigenous Peoples, among other issues. The city’s plan is built upon the Calls to Action outlined in the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the history and legacy of residential schools, concluding such schools were a form of cultural genocide.

According to data released by Statistics Canada from the 2021 census, the number of people who reported being able to speak an Indigenous language dropped from 251,000 in 2016 to about 243,000 in 2021. The agency also found that between 2016 and 2021, the number of children aged eight or younger who can speak an Indigenous language grew from 11,715 to 28,755. Overall, the numbers are small considering more than 1.67-million people identified as Indigenous in the 2016 census, with 2022 projections sitting between two million and 2.4-million.

“A lot of the time, Native people are focusing on issues that seem more pressing” rather than learning Indigenous languages, Shonias said.

In Toronto, some 25 per cent of Indigenous adults were experiencing homelessness or precarious housing, according to a 2018 report by Well Living House, a research centre based in Toronto. It also found roughly 25 per cent of Indigenous adults reported they and others in their household did not have enough to eat, and that almost 60 per cent of Two-Spirit Indigenous adults have attempted suicide — a rate two times higher than those who do not identify as Two-Spirit.

While it may not be a solution to these systemic issues, Shonias said learning Anishinaabemowin, or any other Indigenous language, is a form of healing and reconnection. “I just hope people listening (to The Language podcast) are inspired, and realize it can be done. Whichever way gets you there is where you have to start,” she said.

Learning Indigenous languages may be healing, but it’s also inaccessible to some people, Rice pointed out. “The way our society is set up goes hand-in-hand with colonization,” as it’s hard to make room to learn the language when you’re focused on working in order to live. There’s not always an easy way to balance the two, he said.

“When you meet someone, especially young ones that are speaking fluently in their native language, that tugs on your heartstrings, and it’s not something you can just turn away from,” said Shonias, who taught her son to speak Anishinaabemowin. “People just need to see that it’s possible.”

Lindsay Hachey, who leads the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto’s Early On Indigenous Language and Family program, said the best way to preserve Indigenous languages is to start early and make it engaging.

In the program, supported by the City of Toronto, children from babies to age seven can learn Mohawk, or Kanyen’kéha/Kanien’kéha, from teacher Mitchel Brant, and Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin, from teacher Dianne Bob, while moving their bodies with martial arts, acting, yoga and powwow dancing and singing. Their upcoming term began Sept. 12, but they’re still accepting registrations online.

“We’re preserving the language in the most authentic way,” Hachey said — by bridging the gap between older generations who may have been shamed for speaking their languages and the upcoming generation who don’t carry the same stigmas.

For Hachey, investments in Indigenous language learning, for both youth and adults, can’t be piecemeal workshops and seminars. Funding needs to be on a long-term scale, and language teachers need to be fairly compensated for their knowledge, especially as they’re hard to come by, she added.

Schools in the city should build partnerships that would allow for Indigenous-led programs with curriculum that focuses on the “whole child,” including their emotional, physical, and mental autonomy, and sovereignty, in a “good way,” Hachey said.

Ry Moran, the founding director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and current associate librarian of reconciliation at the University of Victoria, noted what he calls the “wholesale attack” on Indigenous languages in the country is a relatively new phenomenon.

In the early-17th to mid-19th century, European fur traders were expected to know Indigenous languages to communicate with their peers, Moran said, and native Indigenous speakers would pass their languages on to the next generations. But in the late-19th century, and with the dawn of residential schools, Indigenous language speakers were forced to speak English and the stigma for not doing so was “reinforced by heavy amounts of racism and outright violence.”

The bilingual, or largely monolingual, country we have today has only been made possible through this process, he added, and it’s up to everyone — Indigenous or not — to help revitalize Indigenous languages through funding, opportunities to learn and legislation, among other solutions, some of which are outlined in the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In a statement, a city spokesperson said a community meeting planned for late 2022 will inform how it moves forward with its language pillar of reconciliation, and added accountability and funding needs will be determined through that process.

The city did not disclose how much it has invested in Indigenous languages revitalization thus far, and did not disclose which programs it has supported or how they are selected for funding, but noted it’s working to “raise the profile” of Indigenous languages by using Indigenous place names to highlight areas of “significant cultural importance to Toronto’s original caretakers, in their original languages.”

Moran said changing place names is the bare minimum governing bodies can do, especially as the United Nations enshrines the right of Indigenous Peoples to “designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.”

“We have to recognize the stakes are high. (Indigenous languages) are a human right, and it’s critical to stop or arrest the process of genocide that has been present in this country for multiple centuries now.”

The fact Indigenous languages remain, and that speakers are continuing to teach younger people, is “remarkable,” Moran said. “And their strength, determination and resilience needs to be acknowledged and cherished by each and every Canadian.”

Alessia Passafiume is a GTA-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Alessia via email: apassafiume@torstar.ca