New Brunswick

Saving a dying language: stories of some hopeful rescuers

In New Brunswick, the languages of the Wabanaki people — Passamaquoddy, Mi'kmaq and Wolastaquey — are endangered, but a few fluent speakers and some students are trying to breathe life back into them.

Indigenous leaders and students are determined to revive the languages of their ancestors

Ron Tremblay, chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council, says he held onto his Wolastoqey language, despite efforts by an 'Indian day school' to beat it out of him. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to draw attention to languages around the world that are in danger of disappearing. 

In New Brunswick, the languages of the Wabanaki people — Passamaquoddy, Mi'kmaq and Wolastaquey — are endangered. 

CBC journalist Myfanwy Davies went to a conference on Indigenous languages to gather some personal stories —  from fluent speakers, people working to save and revitalize their languages, and people trying to learn them.

Lola Vicaire and Vicky Metallic, Listuguj First Nation

For cousins Lola Vicaire and Vicky Metallic, Mi'kmaq was the language of their childhood.

"It's very, very rare for young children," Vicaire said. "When we were growing up, we were fluent completely and our families stood out for that reason."

Now in their 30s, the two women are perhaps the youngest fluent speakers in Listuguj First Nation, just across the Restigouche River from Campbellton.

Both women point to their mothers as role models.

"Our parents worked really hard to keep the language within our home … knowing that other community members outside of our home were speaking more and more English," said Metallic.  

Cousins Vicky Metallic, left, and Lola Vicaire may be the youngest fluent Mi'kmaq speakers in Listuguj First Nation. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

The two women said their mothers were instructors for the immersion program in Listuguj, where about 2,100 members of the First Nation live. 

Metallic and Vicaire said it's now their turn as curriculum developers to try to revitalize the language.

But there are challenges, including people's attitudes and perceptions. Some people, for instance, aren't bothered the language is dying.

"That really hurts us, knowing that there's a spirit behind our language and there's like a wellness and a well-being behind it too," said Metallic.

People who don't want to learn the language are giving up on a way of seeing the world, she said.

"Language is about more than speaking the words, it's about having those feelings inside too. So it really hurts to hear people say that.

"Not because of the walls that they're putting up but because of the feelings I know they could feel inside, if they could just open themselves up to it." 

George Paul, Metepenagiag First Nation

When George Paul was sent to residential school in Nova Scotia when he was seven, he was forbidden from speaking Mi'kmaq, the only language he knew.

He was at the Shubenacadie Residential School for five years before returning to his community of Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation, about 32 kilometres west of Miramichi. Everyone told him how well he spoke English.

Now in his 60s, Paul is a published writer in both Mi'kmaq and English, a storyteller, songwriter and an educator.

He's well known for composing The Honour Song, considered an anthem for Indigenous communities in the Maritimes.

George Paul of Metapanagiag First Nation is an educator, published writer in both Mi’kmaq and English, storyteller and songwriter. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Paul also serves as a culture co-ordinator for Mi'kmaq Child and Family Services and is also a member of the council of elders at the University of New Brunswick's Mi'kmaq Wolastoqey Centre.

He's pleased that he's been asked to translate government documents.

"Well, it gives me that sense of pride, you know, that I am fluent, " Paul said. "If I get called to do that, it gives me a sense of pride and also they recognize that our language is an integral part of our province."

Ron Tremblay, Tobique First Nation

Ron Tremblay counts himself among the fortunate because he grew up in Tobique First Nation surrounded by Wolastoqey speakers. His nine older siblings, his mother and father, aunts, uncles and cousins were all fluent. 

Tremblay went to what was then known as "Indian day school," which was run by the Catholic Church and funded by the federal government. 

They tried to "beat the language out of him," he said.

"I'm a guy who goes against the grain and I didn't stand for not speaking my language."

Now, the chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council, Tremblay performs ceremonies, is a pipe carrier and speaks fluently. He even dreams in the language.

"When I wake up, the first words of gratitude to my morning ceremonies is in my language, and my songs that I sing are in my language and chants."  

Ron Tremblay, chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council, has been a fluent Wolastoqey speaker his entire life. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Tremblay has worked for the Department of Education to develop language modules and teaches online language classes, with about 70 students in Canada and the United States.

In his late 50s, Tremblay said he is one of the youngest fluent speakers in his community in western New Brunswick. He said he thinks immersion programs for children are one way to keep Wolastoqey alive.

"I've been travelling around our communities and our homeland and when I start speaking the language, people within the ages of 20 and 30 look at me, they don't even comprehend what we're saying in ceremony, so I feel really bad," Tremblay said. "But I do have hope."

On a trip to New Zealand, he saw children taking part in Indigenous immersion programs.

"It's so beautiful … so rich in their culture and in their language, so that's the way we need to go to save our language." 

Rebecca Labillois, Ugpi'Ganjig First Nation

Rebecca Labillois, 53, missed an early introduction to Mi'kmaq because of her father's negative experience in a residential school, where he wasn't allowed to speak it. 

"He always said that the language was no good and that we needed to speak English," said Labillois, from Ugpi'Ganjig First Nation near Dalhousie.

Today it's a different story. Labillois, a brother and two sisters have all been trying to learn Mi'kmaq.

"The only way that I think that I would be able to be fluent is if I would go to live with somebody and their family and be able to have it on a daily basis."

Rebecca Labillois is the language and culture co-ordinator for schools in Dalhousie and is teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from daycare to Grade 12. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Labillois is the language and culture co-ordinator for schools in Dalhousie and teaches Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from daycare to Grade 12.

She is often approached by non-Indigenous people, who thank her for sharing her language and culture.

Labillois said she feels a responsibility to pass on what she knows.

Labillois, the daughter of Margaret Labillois, the first woman to be elected chief of a New Brunswick First Nation, started learning Mi'kmaq later in life but she is hopeful.

"All I can say is I'm a language fighter today."

Candace Jones and Christie Saulis

Candace Jones and Christie Saulis took a Wolastoqey language course at the University of New Brunswick this year.

"We stumbled through it in the beginning but with more practice, we've gotten a lot better," said Saulis.

"We just did our final presentation for our class. That was a cool moment, just speaking it for everyone."

The two students said it's an honour to be taught by elders such as Imelda Perley, one of the foremost educators, spiritual leaders and language carriers in the province.  

"I want to honour them," Jones said. "So I'm going to learn their language and learn their culture and ceremonies."

Candace Jones, left, and Christie Saulis enrolled in a Wolastoqey language course at the University of New Brunswick this year. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Jones, who grew up in a Cree community in Ontario but now lives in Fredericton, said she's been inspired by the passion and dedication of the elders. She now wants to learn more about her Cree culture.

Saulis, from the Tobique First Nation, said her grandmother spoke the Wolastoqey language, but it wasn't passed on to her "because it was thought that English would be more useful for us." 

She hopes to become fluent.

"I think it's a challenge because we're bathed in English constantly from when you're born, but our elders speak it and I want to get to that level," she said.

It's important to remember why Indigenous languages are being lost, Saulis said.

"We have to remember they were actively exterminated through residential school policies and just general assimilation, so it's really important to remember the historical context."

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