Saving First Nations languages from extinction
Last Updated: Friday, September 3, 2010 | 4:48 AM ET
Having been asked to write a piece on First Nations' issues relevant to the current election campaign I responded by pointing out that First Nations people cannot participate in federal or provincial politics without jeopardizing their treaty rights.
Since treaties can only be signed by nations, and not by citizens of the same nation, the benefits and obligations arising from a treaty continue to exist only as long as the nations that were original signatories to the treaty continue to exist. And those nations continue to exist only as long as they maintain separate institutions of government.
That First Nations' lives are dominated by that piece of Canadian legislation known as the Indian Act is a serious infringement on our status as nations, but it does not negate it. By choosing as individuals, however, to participate in institutions of Canadian government, we put our status as separate nations into jeopardy, and with it, our claim to treaty benefits.
So it is as a dominated people, and not as potential voters that we need to speak out on issues of importance hoping that both candidates and the electorate will address these issues during the election campaign and act on them afterwards. In this case I would like to comment on a matter essential to our survival as First Nations, that of our linguistic rights.
Imagine your land is taken over by people with a language completely different from the one you speak. Imagine that these people force you to send your children to their schools, which are conducted in the strange new language, and it is force if you have no option to send your children to a school in your own language and if it is against the law not to send your children to these schools without threat of punishment.
Under the pressure of this oppression the adults in your community reluctantly begin to accept this alien form of education for their children thinking that it may even help to alleviate the poverty they have suffered since the arrival of the newcomers. Most think it will not hurt their language or their way of life since they are determined to continue using their language at home.
However, it takes only two or three generations of this sort of education before people subjected to it begin to use their language less and less often, to the point where they stop using altogether it with their children.
Since the children now have little or no opportunity to hear the language, they are no longer able to learn it, and for the first time in generations they will no longer be able to speak it, or to learn their traditions from elders in their language.
'Residential schools, of course, played a huge role in the destruction of First Nations languages since it was their duty to carry out the deliberate government policy of eradicating Indigenous languages.'— Andrea Bear Nicholas
The tragedy of this scenario is that the decisions made by the adults appear to be have been made entirely out of their own free will. If anyone is to blame for the disappearance of their language it seems that it is these adults.
But in fact, their decisions were not made of their own free will. They were made under the duress of oppression, the oppression of having no alternative but education in the medium of English or French for generations, the oppression of having been punished for speaking their language in school, and the oppression of misinformation about the benefits of bilingualism.
Residential schools, of course, played a huge role in the destruction of First Nations languages since it was their duty to carry out the deliberate government policy of eradicating Indigenous languages.
But as described above, this official government policy has been carried out in all schools, both on reserve and off, and it has continued as an unofficial policy in schools today, even though the residential schools have been closed now for over two decades.
It is the imposition of English or French as the medium of instruction, and with it the physical separation of First Nations children from proficient adult speakers that effectively denies these children the opportunity to become fluent speakers of their mother-tongue. The result has been that we have practically no child speakers of Maliseet or Mi'kmaq at present, and with that scenario these languages are facing almost certain extinction from the face of the earth, unless something very different is done soon.
Not only does the imposition of English or French as a medium of instruction destroy Indigenous languages. International research has now demonstrated beyond a doubt that this imposition is a major factor in the low educational achievement and high dropout rates among Indigenous children everywhere (more than 50 per cent at present in Canada).
Considering that there is also a strong correlation between high dropout rates and poverty, it is imperative for government to begin offering First Nations children a form of schooling that promises at least more positive educational outcomes. There is simply no time to tweak the same old solutions of more English and more remedial programs. None of them have worked.
The only form of education for First Nations children that promises to improve both educational outcomes and the outlook for the survival of Indigenous languages is mother-tongue medium (MTM) education. As well, this form of education has other important advantages.
One would bring New Brunswick into compliance with international linguistic rights standards, which are routinely violated in Canada where First Nations children are concerned.
The relevant international human rights instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007.
As well, international scholars are now suggesting that the imposition of a dominant language as the medium of instruction for Indigenous children may well be punishable under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998.
Save future expenses
Should New Brunswick begin providing the option of MTM education for First Nations children, it could save the province huge expenses in the long run. In the first place it could avoid the expense and effort involved in addressing the poverty in First Nations communities associated with high dropout rates.
These include such social and financial costs as welfare, addictions, suicide, incarceration, and poor health. As one analyst has put it, it would cost far less to provide a private tutor in the mother-tongue to a child for nine years than it would cost to keep a person in prison for one year.
In the second place, it would be far more preferable to expend money proactively on MTM education than on fighting potential charges in the future for violating the international linguistic rights of First Nations children.
In order to address the current lack of broad support for the points made here, it will need a major campaign to de-program policy-makers and the public at large regarding the misinformation with which they have been indoctrinated regarding First Nations languages, i.e., that they are not advanced enough, or that it will hurt children to teach them in the medium of their mother-tongue, or that it will prevent them from being employable.
What this campaign needs to do is to re-educate society in general about the social and cultural value of maintaining Indigenous languages, and about the benefits of bilingualism, i.e., that bilingual children generally do better in school, and that they generally learn to speak English or French more quickly and proficiently than their peers educated only in a dominant language.
What is needed most to facilitate and support the development of MTM education for First Nations in New Brunswick is a law that confirms the right of First Nations parents to have access to this form of education for their children.
The Yukon and Northwest Territories already have legislation protecting Indigenous languages, and Francophones in this province already have their linguistic rights entrenched in law here. How unrealistic is it for the same rights to be entrenched for First Nations languages? Unlike the French, First Nations peoples do not have another country to go to in order to hear and learn their languages once they are gone here.
We were unable to have the above points about MTM education fully addressed in a major study on the welfare of First Nations children in New Brunswick this past winter, even though the enormous benefits of MTM education are beyond question.
To fail to support and promote immersion education for First Nations in the ways identified here will almost certainly ensure that the languages indigenous to this province will become extinct in just a few decades, since most fluent speakers of Mi'kmaq and Maliseet/ Passamaquoddy are now over 50 or 60 years of age.
Unless we address this issue immediately and begin creating child speakers now, it will be too late in just a few years. MTM education for Indigenous children has proven its worth elsewhere in Canada, notably among the Mohawks, the Cree, and the Secwepemc, and in places as far away as Norway, Hawaii, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.
Why not here?