This 35-year-old Six Nations language immersion school in Ontario still doesn't have a home of its own
With UN Decade of Indigenous Languages starting in 2022, community members want ‘a school like everybody else’
Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo Private School, a language immersion school on Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, has been operating from the second floor of the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena for over a decade.
It is the only school in Canada that offers Cayuga and Mohawk languages, both of which are critically endangered, from kindergarten through Grade 12.
As first-language speakers of Mohawk and Cayuga continue to pass away, the push for Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo to have an adequate space to educate its students is urgent, say members of the school's board.
According to language experts on Six Nations, there are fewer than 1,000 native speakers of Mohawk and approximately 30 people who speak Cayuga left in the world, and some of them live in Six Nations. They understand that their teachings, ceremonies and stewardship to the land are all embedded within the languages. Thus, saving them is intrinsic to maintaining Haudenosaunee culture and identity.
"[Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo] will restore what was lost through the system of residential schools in Canada," said Ruby Jacobs, the school's board chair.
Many children were taken from Six Nations over the years and sent to the Mohawk Institute in nearby Brantford that was once Canada's longest-running residential school. Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo — which translates to good- or nice-sounding words — is effectively undoing much of the damage residential schools did to Indigenous people.
"Residential school syndrome is still happening today, in my opinion," Jacobs said, referring to the impact that displacement has had on communities and emphasizing the importance of schools like Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo.
Yet, on the federal government's list of Indigenous schools on reserves to be built or repaired, Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo ranks 21st out of 40 schools in Ontario alone.
According to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the main federal department that approves funding for these schools through the government's Capital Facilities and Maintenance Program, priority sequence is determined by several factors: health and safety; overcrowding; access to other educational facilities; and design requirements.
Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo's administrators say the school easily meets those requirements. They have also prepared a report that lays out its case for funding, finalized design plans and continue to seek out other funding opportunities, from private donors and government.
The school currently receives core funding from ISC that covers operating costs and staff salaries. However, according to school administrators, the wages fall below those for the average Ontario teacher.
They are now asking for an estimated $15 million to $20 million to build a space of its own, which would include a gymnasium, Longhouse, library, a space for elders, a wing for nine primary and grade school classrooms, and a separate wing for six high school classrooms.
The proposed design would allow for a significantly greater number of students, an increase from its current 125.
Still, they wait.
"We've had many visitors from the federal government, authorities in education, that are supposed to serve the Indigenous community," said Jacobs. "They know the situation here."
Matthew Gutsch, a media spokesperson for ISC, confirmed "Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo project is well positioned to take advantage of funding when it becomes available." He said by email that the ISC has visited and spoken to school leaders several times in recent years and recently supported the school's application for separate funding from Infrastructure Canada, under the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program. That application is "currently being assessed," Gutsch said.
But as for new funding directly from ISC or how the school can raise its priority ranking, Gutsch did not provide further details.
"Current requests for new school construction exceed resources available within ISC; should the application to [Infrastructure Canada] be successful, ISC officials will be pleased to work with federal partners to help advance the project," he said.
The challenge of enrolment
Considering the school's goals, an indicator of its success is enrolment. Yet Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo has had to impose a class-size cap of 15 students because the current classrooms are small, thereby limiting prospective language learners.
In addition, current COVID-19 restrictions reduced the number of students allowed on site by half, the school says. Because the classrooms also lack appropriate mechanical air ventilation, windows that open for ventilation, running water in the classrooms and have only two bathrooms, which are shared by staff and students, Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo's board of directors decided that it was not safe to bring students back to school on site.
This past fall, with the return of in-person work and the school's classes still online, nearly 25 per cent of Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo's student population had to transfer to other schools in the area, most without language immersion. The 125 students they have now will establish funding for the 2022-2023 school year, its board says.
Dr. Tehota'kerá:tonh Green, Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo's principal, understands the challenges of enrolment well.
He works out of a small space within the school, above the arena. Outside, garbage litters the playground area. Delivery trucks come and go. Half of the classrooms are windowless and the concrete floors don't allow for proper heating or ventilation.
"This space was never intended to be a school and it's been retrofitted to become a school," Green said.
Tehota'kerá:tonh has dedicated much of his life to the Kanien'kéha, or Mohawk, language. His own children attend the school and their first language in the home is Kanien'kéha.
The richness, and the quality and the depth of what they learn reflects who they are, who their families are.- Dr. Tehota'kerá:tonh Green
Green watched as the last speakers of the Mohawk dialect in Tyendinaga, his home community, passed away not long ago, and he sees the same urgency in Six Nations.
"The richness, and the quality and the depth of what they learn reflects who they are, who their families are," he said. "It reflects community practice and maintains a dynamic culture, and to me, there's nothing more valuable than that."
Promoting pride in being Haudenosaunee
Around 35 years ago, the school was started in a garage by a group of parents who saw an immediate need for their children to learn the language, and they have been looking for a home ever since.
Students have been bounced around from place to place as their school was condemned or deemed unsuitable.
Meanwhile, the school developed its own unique approach to education.
Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo's board of directors decided the students would learn the Ontario curriculum and tsi niyonkwarihotens (our cultural responsibilities) simultaneously. Tehota'kerá:tonh said the intent of the approach is that an education from Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo would promote understanding and pride in being Haudenosaunee while preparing students for life after high school — a "good life" in today's challenging, complex, dynamic society.
Graduates of the school have gone on to earn graduate degrees or come back to serve their community.
Elva Jamieson, a founding member of Kawenni:io, sees this at her local Longhouse.
"The graduates are the ones that are running the show now. Having to bury people, funerals, wakes and our healing ceremonies — the old ones depend on those young ones to do it because they can't do it anymore," said Jamieson, also a teacher and traditional medicine practitioner.
"Knowing the language teaches respect for all creation," she said of the cultural transmission of Mohawk and Cayuga.
Through tears, Jamieson reflected on their efforts to keep the languages going and asked, "How come we're not allowed to have a school like everybody else? How come our kids are on top of an arena? They have to walk across a parking lot to get to the playground."
A commitment to Indigenous languages?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action 13 through 17 deal exclusively with Indigenous language and culture. They call upon the federal government to "provide sufficient funds for Aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation."
Not only are these calls to action unmet — on the eve no less of the 2022 launch of the Decade of Indigenous Languages by UNESCO, which Canada has endorsed — but Green also underscores the changes throughout history that have limited the community's financial sovereignty.
He said that in the 1830s, Six Nations land was leased to the British Crown, for which the Crown paid and held in trust, and the income from these leases are known as the Six Nations or Indian Trust funds.
When Canada became a country and with the implementation of the Indian Act, the government began limiting the Six Nations Confederacy Council's ability to allocate these funds in their own community.
These funds could now be used to build the new school, Green said.
"We're not asking for anything that isn't already ours."