School teaching disappearing Indigenous language to children

Educators say it’s an uphill battle to preserve a language very few people speak.

Mi’kmaq Immersion School in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia is the largest Mi’kmaq community east of Montreal. Language & Culture Consultant Katani Julian uses puppets as part of the tireless effort to reclaim the Mi’kmaq language, taken away in generations past.

“We have less than 8,000 speakers left, in the world,” Julian said.

This includes one of her students, five-year-old Piper.

“Piper is like a little old lady, if you don’t mind the expression. She speaks at the proficiency of an adult.”

Principal Elaine Denny says it feels like an uphill battle to preserve the language. The school’s principal says many children come here with minimal – or no- background in their native language. The biggest challenge she faces comes after the dismissal bell rings.

“I think the language should be reinforced at home, but I’m not sure if that’s happening,” Denny said.

This summer a historic proclamation was made, officially recognizing Mi’kmaw, the language Mi’kmaq people speak, as Nova Scotia’s first language.

It officially becomes provincial legislation on October 1, on Treaty Day.

“It sets a precedent for the other provinces, I’m hoping,” Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation Chief Leroy Denny said. “Our language will be visible. It will be able to be learned in all schools. Not just Mi’kmaq schools. Not just Mi’kmaq communities. But the whole province.”

The hope now is the new legislation will make a real difference in classrooms and communities.

At the school in Eskasoni, they try to battle the loss of language as they deal with the loss of someone who was helping to preserve it, Angie Stevens.

“She was very passionate with the Mi’kmaq language. We called her the Mi’kmaq warrior,” Elaine said.

Stevens died suddenly on September 12, working at the school that very day.

“We’re trying to move forward without her. But we’re going to honour her every day by speaking the language. When I do my announcements, that’s what I add. ‘Miss Angie would want you to speak Mi’kmaq.”

Julian said, “the future of our language rests with children like Piper.”

Mi’kmaq Immersion ends in Grade 3. School staff would like immersion to become an option offered until a student graduates.

Until then, principal Denny says the importance of what you might call ‘homework’ bears repeating.

“I want to have the support at their homes,” Elaine said. “That’s the most important, and that’s what’s missing here. It’s the missing link.”

Without that support, educators are concerned that even a child as fluent as Piper could lose the language by the time she grows up.

She has to have somebody to pass the language down to,” Julian said. “She has to have friends and family to converse with.”

The principal says this is an uphill battle “but we’re going to try. We’re not giving up.” 

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