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Losing Indigenous language

The Story

Edna Manitowabi knew no English when she started attending a residential school in Spanish, Ont. Now she's making an effort to relearn the Indigenous language she almost lost. Delia Opekekew attributes her language loss to peer pressure from students who'd already lost theirs -- or never had it. On the CBC Radio 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.

Medium: Radio
Program: Indian Magazine
Broadcast Date: Feb. 7, 1970
Guests: Edna Manitowabi, Delia Opekekew
Host: Johnny Yesno
Duration: 2:27

Did You know?

• For early missionaries in Canada, learning Indigenous languages was essential if they hoped to win 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 Indigenous languages.

• School administrators recognized that language was inextricably linked with culture. If Indigenous 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 Indigenous.

• Johnny Yesno, the host of Indian Magazine, was an actor as well as a radio host. In 1966 he starred as the title character -- an Indigenous 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.



A Lost Heritage: Canada's Residential Schools more