New Brunswick

Buffy Sainte-Marie opens conference devoted to Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqey languages

Music superstar Buffy Sainte-Marie is in Fredericton for the opening of an Indigenous language conference at the University of New Brunswick.

UNB hosts 4-day gathering in Fredericton for Indigenous language revival

Canadian-American-Indigenous singer Buffy Sainte-Marie is set to perform Thursday night at the Richard J. Currie Center in Fredericton. (Submitted by Paquin Entertainment)

Music superstar Buffy Sainte-Marie is in Fredericton for the opening of an Indigenous language conference at the University of New Brunswick.

"I just think that Indigenous languages are highly underrated," said Sainte-Marie.

"They're very, very valuable."

The singer-songwriter is fresh off an induction ceremony into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. She continues to enjoy critical and commercial success after a decades-long career dating back to the 1960s folk scene. Her most recent album, Medicine Songs, won a Juno Award. That followed up the Polaris Prize-winning Power In The Blood, from 2015.

The Mi'kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre invited Sainte-Marie, who often lends her talents to events that promote Indigenous languages.

"The brains of people who are fluent in these languages are visibly different and functionally different and it looks like they may have very different talents," said Sainte-Marie.

"I think that's very, very exciting."

Sainte-Marie said she has been dreaming about language revitalization since the sixties and is thrilled to see what is happening in New Brunswick.

"People are paying attention, they're researching, they see the value," said Sainte-Marie.

"This is pretty special … I've seen so many wonderful changes and this is one of them. People who do still have a few native language speakers in their communities, they're getting the support of everybody else. They're teaching little kids. In communities close to Fredericton they're learning their languages right from the beginning. It's just beautiful to see."

Wolastoqi elder Imelda Perley is anticipating Sainte-Marie's performance saying she's so excited she "can't even sleep."

"She's a perfect proponent," said Perley. 

Perley sees the event as a gift to the public and her people to let them know their languages aren't going away.

'A language to be saved'

The elder-in-residence at UNB is getting ready to hand over her moccasins, after a long career teaching language, native studies and being an ambassador for her people.

"I'm leaving at the end of this month, but don't forget, there's a language to be saved."

Perley said there may be fewer Wolastoqey language speakers now than there were when she was a child, but the language is "present in our environment," ready to be picked up by anyone who's interested, so it can be carried into the future.

Imelda and David Perley are inviting anyone interested in learning the Wolastoqey or Mi'kmaq language to a conference this weekend at the Currie Center in Fredericton. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

She would love to see more of it in local theatres, restaurants and stores.

"Language should be everywhere. You see it on signs — French and English. We can do the same thing with ours."

Sainte-Marie's performance at the Currie Center on Thursday evening is sold out.

But there will be plenty of opportunities for the public to take part in the conference in the following days.

A day of 'Wolastoqey-ness'

Mi'kmaq speakers and comedians are on the schedule for Friday.

Saturday is dedicated to "Wolastoqey-ness."

English will be mixed in throughout the conference, which wraps up on Sunday.

The complete schedule can be found on Facebook under Indigenous Language Gathering Celebration.

There will be learning sites for both Indigenous languages.

Games, speakers

"By the time you leave the conference, hopefully you'll be able to say at least the greetings in either Mi'kmaq language or Wolastoqey language," said David Perley, director of the Mi'kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, who is also retiring.

The conference will also feature games and expert presentations, including one on endangered languages by a linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one on a new sacred language curriculum in Saskatchewan.

There's no admission fee, but organizers are asking for donations for the local food bank.

Imelda Perley said she's hoping, "if I feed their bodies the spirit of my language will come back by the generosity and saying, 'Let's learn one word in their language.'

With files from Information Morning Fredericton