New Brunswick

N.B. First Nation declares Wolastoqey the official language of the community

Neqotkuk council will officially recognize the Wolastoqey language as the original language of the territory and establish it as the official language of the community, Chief Ross Perley says.

The hope is that services will eventually be offered in Wolastoqey

Neqotkuk First Nation Chief Ross Perley announced a resolution to make Wolastoqey the official language of the community. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Neqotkuk First Nation has announced its intention to make Wolastoqey the official language of the community in northwestern New Brunswick.

Chief Ross Perley and the band council passed a resolution to recognize Wolastoqey as the original language of the territory and establish it as the official language of the community, according to a news release issued Thursday.

"Our language is part of our identity and how we, as individuals and as a community, interact with the world around us,'' Perley was quoted as saying. "For too long, the colonial languages of this province have been forced upon us and overtaken our own traditional language."

The plan is to develop a strategy to promote, protect and revitalize the language within the Wolastoqiyik nation, said Darrah Beaver, known in the community as Pine.

She said Neqotkuk, formerly known as Tobique First Nation, has already started changing signs, including welcome and stop signs, to those in their traditional language.

She said the hope is that eventually services offered within the community will be offered in Wolastoqey, and that more members of the community will have some level of understanding of the language of their ancestors. 

Beaver believes Neqotkuk is the first community in New Brunswick to make its traditional language the official language. 

Darrah Beaver, a Wolastoqey language revitalization planner, hopes Neqotkuk's resolution inspires other First Nations to do the same thing. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Imelda Perley, a Wolastoqi elder who grew up in Neqotkuk, was surprised but thrilled by the news on Thursday while she was in the midst of a gathering of elders. 

"I'm so happy," she said by phone. "It's good news. I can't wait to tell the community elders inside." 

Perley, who was recently named a member to the Order of Canada for her work as an educator and knowledge keeper, said she and many others have been "asking for that for a long time."

She hopes it inspires other First Nations communities to do the same with their own languages "because I don't think the province ever will." 

Imelda Perley, UNB's former elder-in-residence, offers language teaching and spiritual guidance. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Perley said she's currently working with a group of young people who are struggling to learn Wolastoqey. She said that's a product of how previous generations were punished for speaking their mother tongue. 

"It was really harsh, so we were afraid to speak," she said. "And so we have a generation still that's afraid to speak.

"Young people need to know that it's OK to speak their language." 

Perley said it's also important to protect Indigenous languages in the same way that French and English are protected. 

Language in decline

The announcement said the decision comes "at a particularly critical time for Wolastoqey language revitalization as recent census data has demonstrated a record low number of respondents indicating fluency or competency with the language."

It says census data show "the number of Wolastoqey speakers who use their traditional language in the home has decreased by a third."

According to the  2016 Census, 36,405 people — or five per cent of New Brunswickers — reported being of First Nations descent, but only six per cent of them — or 2,320 New Brunswickers — reported speaking an Indigenous language at least "regularly" at home. 

That was down from the previous census, when 2,600 reported doing so.

Findings from the most recent census, collected in 2021, will not be available until Aug. 17, according to Statistics Canada. 

"Our language has been sleeping and it is up to us to awaken it and bring it back to life,'' said Chief Perley. "We have learned through the past that we can't count on others to recognize and make use of our language. It is up to us to reclaim our identity."

Chief Perley did not respond to several interview requests. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

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