New Brunswick

Wolastoqi scholar says Indigenous language bill will just sap scarce resources

A new bill on Indigenous language education would undermine the critical need for Wolastoqey immersion classes for Indigenous students, says St. Thomas University professor emeritus Andrea Bear-Nicholas.  

Professor emeritus at STU says new bill could take away from revitalizing Indigenous language

Andrea Bear Nicholas, professor emeritus at St. Thomas University, has expressed her concern that a new Indigenous language bill could take away from much needed Indigenous immersion programs. (CBC)

A new bill on Indigenous language education would undermine the critical need for Wolastoqey immersion classes for Indigenous students, says St. Thomas University professor emeritus Andrea Bear-Nicholas.  

"I'm concerned, because it will require more speakers to be in more schools and to be teaching more students," said Bear-Nicholas, who was chair of the native studies department at St. Thomas University for 20 years.

"The plan to require [Indigenous] language in all public schools may actually draw away the resources we need, financial and human, into doing the immersion kind of project that is desperately needed before our language is going to be gone."

The Indigenous languages bill was proposed by Green Party MLA Megan Mitton received unanimous support last week from an all-party committee of MLAs. 

"It's important that there be some basic exposure to these languages" Mitton said.

Bear-Nicholas said there are barely enough teachers who can capably teach the language to members of the Wolastoqey nation itself. She fears introducing the language in other schools would spread those teachers even thinner.

"If [the members of the legislative assembly's] purpose is concern for the language or respect for Indigenous peoples, we far more need to have language opportunities for our own children to be increased," Bear-Nicholas said.

Megan Mitton, the Green Party MLA in Memramcook-Tantramar, put forth the bill which would see Indigenous languages be added to the curriculum. (Tori Weldon/CBC News)

Education Minister Dominic Cardy has already recognized there aren't the resources to teach Indigenous languages in public schools and said the bill would represent a small change.

Green Party Leader David Coon said the intent of the bill is to foster an appreciation of Indigenous languages in students.

"The intent is not to put Indigenous teachers into the schools to teach all peoples Indigenous languages in New Brunswick," Coon said. "It's simply to foster an awareness among all students in our school system that Indigenous languages actually exist, are spoken, here's what the language sounds like and maybe just pass on the notion of how to say 'Thank you,' to say 'Hello,' and say 'Welcome.'"

Bear-Nicholas said early childhood immersion is the only way to save the language, which has fewer than 100 fluent speakers remaining.

Prefers focus on Indigenous students

"We probably only have, if at all, five years left of being able to mount a reasonable immersion program in the preschools because all of our speakers are over 65 or 70," Bear-Nicholas said. "It just doesn't make any sense at this point to be sort of saying 'OK, here's a gift for every student in the province to have a right to our language' when our own children don't even have enough support to maintain the language."

There might have been enough speakers 40 years, or even 15 years ago, "but even then, it was really critical that we start immersion programs while our kids were still in communities where there were still some speakers."

"Right now, our speakers are so few, we really are on the verge of extinction."

Bear-Nicholas said early childhood immersion programs are being used in places such as Hawaii and New Zealand to revitalize languages that are on the decline.

David Coon, Green Party leader and MLA for Fredericton South said the implementation of an Indigenous Immersion program is a dream of his. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Coon said he too would like to see Indigenous immersion programs, but at the moment is unable to put forward such a bill.

"We would have brought in a bill to drive immersion programs for Indigenous students in Indigenous languages if we had the ability to bring in bills that had financial implications," Coon said. "But as an opposition party, you're actually not permitted to bring a bill forward that has implications to the budget.

"That would have been my dream."

Bear-Nicholas said crucial funding has been difficult to secure for an early childhood immersion program that would properly pay teachers and elders who know the language.

Province not keeping promise

"This province has agreed to support a program in early childhood immersion five years ago," Bear-Nicholas said. "They funded our little project then for a year, and since then we've been begging for more funding to make this possible."

Bear-Nicholas said if the province wants to give more exposure to First Nations cultures or languages, it should begin with treaty education, teaching the history of how the Peace and Friendship Treaties came to be signed.

"In fact, if we were to be teaching Indigenous history in this province, it would be everybody's history anyway."

Coon said a bill he put forward a few years ago made it mandatory that Indigenous history be taught in the provincial school systems 

Coon said the concern should be with how the Indigenous languages bill is implemented, and not with the bill itself.

Bear-Nicholas said she thinks the bill should be withdrawn or suspended until further discussion.

"I think there should be a consultation in our communities, an open consultation, not a private one."

The bill will be voted on by members of the New Brunswick Legislature this fall.

About the Author

Logan Perley is a Wolastoqi journalist from Tobique First Nation and a reporter at CBC New Brunswick. You can email him at logan.perley@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @LoganPerley.

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