Updated

'Like being inside a Heritage Moment!' On hearing my student speak Mohawk in Parliament

On June 1, Montreal MP Marc Miller delivered a historic statement to Parliament — he spoke in Mohawk. His language teacher describes the experience.

'Language restoration is at the heart of nation-building.'

'I felt proud of Marc for sure, but also proud of how much work has been done in our broader language speaking community.' Zoe Hopkins who taught Mohawk to MP Marc Miller. (Zoe Hopkins/CBC)

On June 1, Quebec Liberal MP Marc Miller addressed Parliament in Mohawk (Kanyen'kéha). It was the first time the language had been uttered by a Parliamentarian in the House since Confederation. (See below for Miller's remarks.)

Zoe Hopkins, along with her father Brian Maracle, was Miller's language teacher at a school Maracle founded. Hopkins is also a filmmaker, and her recent 360° documentary Impossible to Contain explores aftermath of a diesel spill near the First Nations community of Bella Bella.

We spoke to Hopkins about the historic event, her experience learning Kanyen'kéha and the future of language revitalization in Canada. 

What was it like to hear Mohawk in the House of Commons?

My dad and I drove from Six Nations to Ottawa to hear Marc Miller's address in the House of Commons. I had tingles hearing our language being spoken in Parliament. It was amazing to see history being made. It was like being inside a Heritage Moment! I felt proud of Marc for sure, but also proud of how much work has been done in our broader language speaking community so that we might be here to witness this happening. 

Quebec Liberal MP has been quietly learning Mohawk for several months, and delivered a statement in that language in the House of Commons Thursday, a first in a Canadian legislature. 1:00

Were you initially skeptical about a Member of Parliament trying to learn an Indigenous language?

We've had other non-Indigenous students come to us with an interest in taking our online course — mainly the reasons we hear are that they feel a duty to do so because they live in our traditional territory. But this is the first time someone has wanted to do something that would be heard in such a public venue for both a personal and professional reason that could have some impact. So I was excited about what this could possibly bring forth — whether it be more people being inspired to learn any Onkwehón:we language, or whether it be more attention for our programs and what we need to continue to produce speakers in our community. 

Mohawk filmmaker and language teacher Zoe Hopkins says Miller has excelled at learning the Indigenous language. (National Museum of the American Indian)

What convinced you that his desire to learn the language was sincere?

I was encouraged by the level of Marc's engagement with the course and the material. He asks great questions about grammar, has an amazing eye for detail and is often in touch. He has committed to continuing with his language studies and has said that this wasn't just about learning to recite this speech. This is a long-term commitment. My hopes were answered when I saw his colleagues pat him on the back and recognize that he did a good thing. He shared with me that several MPs from other ridings have said that they would like to take steps to do something similar in the language of where they sit.

You didn't grow up speaking Mohawk... how long did it take you to consider yourself fluent? Have you ever seen someone who doesn't come from a Mohawk background become fluent?

I studied the language in an immersion setting for two years of full-time study. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was more arduous than earning my degree. I became an advanced-mid-level speaker. We use a standard of testing of proficiency that is set forth by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). We haven't yet had a non-Onkwehón:we person achieve a similar level of fluency. We have seen dozens of people in our community of Six Nations achieve high levels of proficiency and for the first time in generations there are babies growing up with Kanyen'kéha as their first language. 

You've said that "This is what reconciliation ought to look like." Do you think more Canadians should learn the basics of the Indigenous languages from the territories they live in? Should they be taught in schools?

Having Indigenous languages taught in schools would go a long way to restoring what was lost over the generations since the residential school era. For Onkwehón:we people, learning one's language restores a sense of belonging and identity. And for a non-Indigenous Canadian, I can only hope that if one were to try to learn one of our languages, that they would develop an interest to continue to deepen their understanding of us as a people. Our original way of thought is contained in our languages. This way of thought connects us to the land and each other in a way that I believe would see a more harmonious relationship with the earth and each other if we all were connected that way. We could, as Marc said in his speech, "become better friends."

What language teachers and language learners do is the front-line work of reconciliation.

I'm hopeful that this government's stated increase in funding towards Indigenous languages translates to more security for our language program. We have seen amazing results in our community through the hard work of a few people who make very little money and have no job security or benefits. Our programs run on a shoe-string on a year-to-year, project-to-project basis, and no public funding. The programs that work best in terms of producing speakers are grass-roots and have no formal accreditation with a University. Our people take on the teaching or learning of our languages for deeper benefits than a cheque or a degree. But this work often comes at a cost of working for less than what the average school teacher gets paid, which is already a low wage for the value of the work. What language teachers and language learners do is the front-line work of reconciliation.

Language restoration is at the heart of nation-building. 

Miller's statement

Miller provided this translation of his remarks:

I pay my respects to you who have gathered here. I stand here to honour the Mohawk language and I pay my respects to their people. Let us pay respects to the Creator for everything he has given to us that we may live peacefully.

I am proud to stand here and speak to you in the Mohawk language. Hopefully it will help us to become better friends. I also hope that we will hear the Mohawk language a lot more often here and that more Canadians will be proud to use it to speak to one another.

I pay my respects to you, the master of this house.