CBC Digital Archives

Losing native languages

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two generations. Church-run, government-funded residential schools for native children were supposed to prepare them for life in white society. But the aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Decades later, aboriginal people began to share their stories and demand acknowledgement of — and compensation for — their stolen childhoods.

media clip
Edna Manitowabi knew no English when she started attending a residential school in Spanish, Ont. Now she's making an effort to relearn the native language she almost lost. Delia Opekekew attributes her language loss to peer pressure from native students who'd already lost theirs -- or never had it. On the CBC program Indian Magazine, the pair discusses a shift in attitude at residential schools that means children are no longer discouraged from using their native tongues.
• For early missionaries in Canada, learning native languages was essential if they hoped to win native converts. New missionaries were sent to live in older missions for the first year so they could learn the language. But as residential schools started to take hold in the late 19th century, the churches began discourage missionaries from speaking native languages.

• School administrators recognized that language was inextricably linked with culture. If native children were to be assimilated into Canadian society, they must learn English. Of these children, the Department of Indian Affairs wrote in its 1895 report: "So long as he keeps his native tongue, so long will he remain a community apart."

• At the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie in 1875, children were given a number of buttons at the start of each week. Every time they were caught using a native language, they forfeited a button. At the end of the week, the child with the most buttons received a prize -- a bag of nuts.

• Some residential schools allowed students to speak their own language after a certain hour, or tolerated it if students were discreet.

• Many schools punished children for speaking an aboriginal language. Punishments included: writing 500 lines, adhesive on the mouth, withholding meals, needles through the tongue, or a strap across the hand or backside.

• At some schools, students came from varying linguistic backgrounds (such as Cree and Ojibwa), which made English a necessity if they wished to converse with each other.

• Statistics Canada estimates that of the 50 most prominent aboriginal languages in Canada, only three will survive past this century: Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway.

• In the 1996 census, about 180,000 Canadians listed an aboriginal language as their "home language" -- that is, the language they most often speak at home. That's less than 25 per cent of the 800,000 who identified themselves as aboriginal.

• Johnny Yesno, the host of Indian Magazine, was an actor as well as a radio host. In 1966 he starred as the title character -- a native man who commits suicide in the city -- in "The Last Man in the World," the premiere episode of the CBC Television series Wojeck. More recently, he was an economic development officer in Sault Ste. Marie -- site of Shingwauk, one of his former residential schools.
Medium: Radio
Program: Indian Magazine
Broadcast Date: Feb. 7, 1970
Guest(s): Edna Manitowabi, Delia Opekekew
Host: Johnny Yesno
Duration: 2:27

Last updated: November 4, 2014

Page consulted on November 4, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

The Berger Pipeline Inquiry

It was going to be the biggest private construction project in history. But before a pipeline ...

A Lost Heritage: Residential Schools extra cl...

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two gene...

The Battle for Aboriginal Treaty Rights

It's a battle over the land and its resources. The fight has taken place on the land, in the c...

Davis Inlet: Innu Community in Crisis

"We are a lost people." That description by an Innu chief seemed fitting when a shocking video...

Fighting Words: Bill 101

On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Quebec's language law but ruled that the...

A Lost Heritage: Canada's Residential Schools

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two gene...