Mohawk language course to be offered for 1st time at UW

For the first time, students at the University of Waterloo will be able to take an Indigenous language course. Renison University College is offering the Mohawk language Kanien’keha starting this fall.

'Our language is directly tied to our identity,' instructor Nicole Bilodeau says

Starting this fall, students at the University of Waterloo will be able to take a course in Mohawk. It's the first time the school has offered an Indigenous language course and it will be taught at Renison University College. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Students hoping to learn the the Mohawk language Kanien'keha this fall at the University of Waterloo will need to know it's not like any language course they've ever been in before.

Knowing French or Spanish won't help you, instructor Nicole Bilodeau said.

"The Mohawk language is so different from European languages that you really have to teach it in a different way," Bilodeau told CBC News.

She plans to teach the inaugural course in Kanien'kéha much like how she learned the language — using an immersion model that will have students speaking it and performing oral comprehension tests.

It won't be easy, but she said if students bring an open mind, they'll succeed.

"Anyone can learn a language," she said. "It really just takes an open mind and a willingness to challenge yourself and push yourself out of your comfort zone."
Nicole Bilodeau is a Mohawk language instructor from Brantford. She'll be teaching a course in Kanien'kéha starting this fall at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo. It's the first time UW has offered an Indigenous language course. (Photo provided)

More Indigenous language education

The course is being offered through Renison University College in collaboration with the Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre at St. Paul's University College, also at the University of Waterloo.

Kofi Campbell, the academic dean at Renison, said the university decided to offer the course as a way to meet "Call to Action Number 16" from the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, challenging post-secondary institutions to offer degree and diploma courses in Indigenous languages.

"We chose to begin with Mohawk for a couple of reasons. First, because it is a language that is very much under threat," Campbell said, noting there are only about 3,500 Mohawk speakers around the world and only one at Six Nations, southeast of Brantford.

"In terms of language preservation, we felt that this was a very good place to start," he said.

The second reason is "because of our proximity and our connection to the Six Nations First Nation community," he said.
The course will be offered through Renison University College at the University of Waterloo. (Renison University College/Facebook)

'Tremendous' amount of interest

Language education has always been a big part of Renison, Campbell said.

"We've really always believed language acts as a bridge between cultures as a way of understanding a new culture," he said.

Since announcing the course will be offered starting next month, Campbell said there has been "a tremendous amount of interest" with some students calling because they're concerned they won't get into the course. And that's going to happen: not all applicants will get into the popular new class.

But Campbell said they plan to evaluate the course over the fall semester with the hopes of adding more sections of the same course in the near future.

"We do see this as a first step, it's just a beginning for us to fulfill our obligations. We intend to move forward in a very robust manner," he said.

The course evaluations will include consultations with Six Nations, people at the Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre and other communities.

"We want to do something that's going to be useful and that's going to work for people," Campbell said.

Language tied to identity

Bilodeau, who is Mohawk, took a two-year immersion course to learn the language. She now teaches it at night classes and part time in the community.

Our language is directly tied to our identity as Indigenous people.- Nicole Bilodeau, instructor

"For me, language is the best way to do that. Our language is directly tied to our identity as Indigenous people," she said of why she wanted to learn Kanien'ké​ha.

She is still planning the course outline and said it was hard to narrow down what she wanted to cover in the semester.

"That was one of the most challenging parts about putting together a course outline," she said, "I was trying to fit in so much stuff because the language is just so vast that you want to include everything."

"As I was working through the course outline, I was thinking about, how can I build on the course from week to week."

World view

Although she admitted to being surprised by the response by students — "We weren't sure what to expect, actually" — she said she's excited to get in the classroom as well.

"I'm most excited to teach about the difference between Kanien'ké​ha, a Mohawk language, and other languages that they may have been exposed to," she said. "It really brings a whole different perspective or world view ... than they're used to."