New Brunswick

'Heart of our people': Oromocto First Nation launches language program

The language program, which is open to anyone, will run from September to March.

Allan Sabattis-Atwin starts Maliseet program in response to 'thirst for language' in community

Allan Sabittis-Atwin is starting a Maliseet language program in Oromocto First Nation to help his community preserve their language for generations to come. (Allan Sabattis-Atwin)

Oromocto First Nation will soon offer lessons in traditional Maliseet, a language that's been under attack over the years, the creator of the program says.

Allan Sabattis-Atwin, who is also a band councillor, said it's important to his community to preserve the language, although it has not been easy.

"There has been a real thirst for language in my community," Sabattis-Atwin said. "For many reasons our language has been under attack."

The new program, which starts Sept. 30 and runs through March, will be open to anyone who is interested.

Young people eager

"A lot of our youth are excited," Sabattis-Atwin said.

He himself feels a sense of loss because he doesn't speak the language fluently.

"I know other people in my community can relate to that," he said. "So it's important to me that I understand the language because it's connected to our land, it's connected to our ceremonies, it brings us to together. 

​"It flows through our blood, it helps us to really understand who we are."

Sabattis-Atwin and his mother Shelley Sabattis, who is Chief of Oromocto First Nation, will both participate in teaching in the new program. (Allan Sabattis-Atwin)

Sabattis-Atwin's mother taught him words here and there when he was young, and though he did have some language training in school, he said, it came at the expense of other subjects.

"When I think about it now, it just doesn't sit right with me. I feel like it shouldn't have come at an expense."

This realization prompted him to create a program that that wouldn't require any compromise and would be open to anyone looking to learn.

He applied for a grant through Heritage Canada and received word about two months ago that he was successful.

I've been taught by my elders that the language is a gift. It helps you to understand our identity.- Allan Sabattis-Atwin

"It's a ton of paperwork," he said. "It's useful because it helps you develop your idea and really get a vision for it, so that should you get selected for the funding you can carry it out with a detailed plan."

The grant is worth $35,498 and will last until March 2018, according to Heritage Canada spokesperson Jon Schofield.

Schofield said the grant is a part of an Aboriginal languages initiative within the Aboriginal Peoples program.

Overall, he said, Heritage Canada has approved 129 grants for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, including seven in New Brunswick. 

The Oromocto First Nation language program will be inviting guests who speak the language fluently, including Imelda Perley, the elder-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick.

Available online too

Sabattis-Atwin will help prepare lessons, record the lessons and help teach them.

Anyone who can't attend the biweekly lessons at the community centre will be able to access them online.

Sabattis-Atwin said he's talked to fluent elders about the Maliseet language.

"I've been taught by my elders that the language is a gift," he said. "It helps you to understand our identity. 

"The language is the heart of our people."


Nathalie Sturgeon is a reporter for CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She is a recent graduate from the journalism program at St. Thomas University. She is from Blackville.