Eskasoni is a First Nation community on Cape Breton Island, and by many accounts, the Mi'kmaq language is alive and well amongst residents of this fairly large reserve. Speaking with many people who live there, Cross Country Checkup heard repeatedly how highly they value their language, and how integral it is to their culture.
One of the strategies they have employed to keep the language strong is an immersion program in the schools. For many years, immersion was a program hosted by the Eskasoni Elementary and Middle School, but in 2015, they opened a new school dedicated to an entirely immersive curriculum.
The Eskasoni Immersion School, or Essissoqnwey Siawa'sik-l'nuey Kina'matinewo'kuo'm in Mi'kmaq, teaches students from Kindergarten to Grade 5 and while it's sometimes a struggle to convince the students not to speak in English, they teach entirely in Mi'kmaq.
It's part of an initiative to encourage more fluent Mi'kmaq language speakers in the community. And because Eskasoni has self-governance over their education system, they've broken from the province's usual curriculum.
It's a bold effort, but it comes with challenges.
Guidance counsellor Doreen Stevens told Checkup that it is often a struggle to find teaching resources in Mi'kmaq for students to read and engage with. She said, "I'm concerned by how much reading material there is for the Grade 3s and 4s in Mi'kmaq. At that level many children are reading chapter books in English and there's none in Mi'kmaq."
The school has resource staff entirely dedicated to translating English materials in Mi'kmaq for the teachers to use. But it's a big task that many staff feel lacks adequate funding.
Beyond that, there are the challenges most immersion schools face with media and technology drawing students' attention to English content and away from the Mi'kmaq language. Doreen Stevens said iPads and online content is tempting for youth.
In spite of the difficulties of blazing an entirely new trail, parents like Giselle Stevens are excited by the prospect of language education in their children's school. Stevens said, "I know that I would be speaking to them in Mi'kmaq at home, but now I know that they'll be speaking it during the day in school. So they'll be hearing it all day, everyday."
While the Checkup team walked around the school, students' chatter and clamour in the Mi'kmaq language came out of the classrooms. Kids played and spoke in Mi'kmaq... and occasionally in English before being chastized by their teachers. It was striking to hear, and as many schools across Canada look at immersion programs we wonder if this will be model for other educators?
Join Cross Country Checkup live in Membertou First Nation on Feb. 26, 2017 and share your perspective on Indigenous Education.