As N.S. moves to recognize Mi’kmaw language, Indigenous language speakers in N.B. weigh in

Mi’kmaw, Wolastoqey and Peskotomuhkati language revitalization efforts would welcome provincial help

By Oscar Baker III | CBC News

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The tabling of legislation in Nova Scotia to recognize Mi’kmaw as the province’s first language earlier this month has Indigenous people in New Brunswick wondering what language recognition could look like in their area.

The Mi’kmaw Language Act, which the Nova Scotia government aims to pass by this fall, also lays out steps to help support Mi’kmaw language revitalization efforts.

New Brunswick has three distinct Indigenous nations: the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, and Peskotomuhkati.

Brian Francis, who is Mi’kmaw from Elsipogtog First Nation, about 91 kilometres north of Moncton, has worked as a Mi’kmaw language interpreter for both the House of Commons and the provincial legislature.

Francis said he would applaud a move of official recognition if it helped revitalize the language.

“We’re losing our language at an alarming rate,” said Francis.

He wasn’t sure on the official number of first language speakers but Francis said he’s hard pressed to find a fluent speaker under age 30. He said that because most fluent speakers are aging, they need solutions now.

Brian Francis says the Mi’kmaw language needs to be saved and he feels immersion schools would be an essential tool to saving the language. (Submitted by Brian Francis)

Francis would like to see Indigenous languages recognized territorially, with each Wabanaki Confederacy nation having its own language recognized in its homelands. The Wabanaki Confederacy consists of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, Peskotomuhkati, Penobscot and Abenaki, with three having traditional homelands in present-day New Brunswick.

“Our language is a living language and it’s a beautiful language and connected to the land for thousands of years,” said Francis.

He would like to see a language education body in New Brunswick like Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, an education collective that works with Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia. Francis would also like to see political leaders in the province push for language immersion funding. He said if the language is lost, there’s nowhere else to recover it.

“It would be a real tragedy if we lose it,” said Francis.

Repairing what was deliberately damaged

Ron Tremblay, Wolastoq Grand Council chief, has worked in Wolastoqey language education for years and agrees with Francis on a need to recognize the languages by territory.

Tremblay is an Indian Day School survivor and said the government and churches need to make reparations for their efforts to destroy the language.

Grand Chief Ron Tremblay says the Wabanaki languages have a special connection to the land. (Logan Perley/CBC)

He said recognition would go a long way in making amends but more needs to be done to repair the relationship.

“I wish the church and state would give all Indigenous nations the funds for immersion schools,” said Tremblay.

Tremblay sits on an educational board for a Wolastoqey immersion school soon to be built in the Fredericton region. He said the school will focus on land-based education and Wolastoqey culture, so the next generation can develop a relationship with the land.

“Our languages are rooted in the land here and that’s why it’s so crucial to save our beautiful language,” said Tremblay.

Taking care of language speakers

Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, at St. Andrews, N.B., said the relationship between his nation and the province has always been strained.

The Peskotomuhkati, known commonly as the Passamaquoddy, have had a decades-long fight to be recognized by the province and the Crown. Formal discussions for official recognition started in 2016.

Akagi said if the language was made a provincial first language, he’d want to know the effort was genuine and not an attempt to tokenize it.

Chief Hugh Akagi says any recognition needs to followed up with actionable items. (Submitted by Cynthia Howland)

He said many of the Peskotomuhkati first language speakers live in the U.S. Dwayne Tomah, a Peskotomuhkati language expert living in Pleasant Point, Maine, said the revitalization of the language is strong.

“It’s happening,” said Tomah.

“We have children speaking it.”

He commends Nova Scotia on the move to make Mi’kmaw its first language and said it would mean a lot to see New Brunswick do the same.

Tomah said Peskotomuhkati language revitalization needs financial support, as well as adequate health care for language speakers and healing centres with a focus on trauma care.

He said trauma has had a profound effect on his nation and by healing the trauma, the language effort would only get stronger.

“The language is so critical and important to our people, and collectively I think we can achieve it,” said Tomah.

No plans to legislate a first language: N.B.

The province of New Brunswick said in an emailed statement it had no plans to follow Nova Scotia in making an Indigenous language its first language but it was working closely with Indigenous people so students could learn about the Wabanaki cultures.

“There is an effort underway to ensure every student graduates with an understanding of Wabanaki world views, cultures and histories,” said the statement from David Kelly, spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs New Brunswick.

“The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is working with Wabanaki Elders and knowledge-keepers to ensure that curriculum development includes Wabanaki ways of knowing, being and doing across all learning areas.”

Introductory and intermediate Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey courses are being delivered online and in classrooms, the province said.

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