Nfld. & Labrador

N.L.'s languages may be in a dormant phase, say teachers, but they can blossom again

For those on the front lines of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages, it means overcoming prejudice, distance and self-doubt, and reclaiming a vital part of their identity. 
Kanani Davis is a teacher of Innu-aimun and the CEO of Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education. (Submitted by Kanani Davis)

When Rod Jeddore arrived in Eskasoni, N.S. as a young teacher hoping to learn Mi'kmaw from the vibrant community of fluent speakers, he walked into a room buzzing with the sound of conversation.

"But English is a powerful language," he said.

With limited Mi'kmaw at the time, Jeddore said hello to the room in English.

"And everyone's conversation stopped, and went to English," he said. "To accommodate one person: me."

It's this kind of accommodation, says Jeddore — now a teacher of the language himself — that has contributed to a declining number of speakers of Newfoundland and Labrador's Indigenous languages, which also include Innu-aimun and Inuktitut

For those on the front lines of preserving and revitalizing these languages, it means overcoming prejudice, distance, and self-doubt, and reclaiming a vital part of their identity. 

Rod Jeddore is the director of education and a teacher of the Mi'kmaw language at Se't A'newey Kina'matino'kuom in Conne River. (Submitted by Rod Jeddore)

Kanani Davis, the CEO of Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education, which oversees the schools in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, says she worries about the decline of the language in their communities.

"I see it in both communities, with children picking up English a lot more than we did when we were young — it's scary."

Twenty years ago, Davis, a fluent speaker of Innu-aimun, wasn't worried about the future of her language.

"I'm very worried now," she said. "These days we're surrounded by technology, by English — it's frightening when you think about it, especially if you're an Innu speaker as your mother tongue.

"I still believe our language is strong in the older generation, but I see a decline in the younger generation, which is very frightening."

Davis remembers a time when hearing children speak the occasional English word was a novelty. Now, she said, the opposite is true.

"When I hear children speaking Innu it just gives me so much pride and I get so overwhelmed with happiness, hearing Innu children speaking Innu-aimun."

Despite the language being taught in school in the communities, from kindergarten through high school, Davis acknowledged the difficulty of trying to preserve and revitalize a language one class at a time.

"It's not five hours of the day — I wish it was five hours of the day — it's taking a half-hour to an hour of the days during the school week," she said, noting the need to balance the language with other classes.

"You don't want your students to fall behind on other curriculum work that we have to offer; there's other subjects that you've got to teach, and of course those are taught by non-Innu speakers," said Davis. "It's a struggle."

Overcoming racism and prejudice 

Long before Rod Jeddore walked into that Eskasoni centre, there was a time when his Indigenous identity was something he tried to conceal.

Sarah Townley is a teacher of the Inuktitut language and a retired co-ordinator of Inuit programs with the former Labrador School Board. (Submitted by Sarah Townley)

Jeddore, a member of the Miawpukek First Nation, attended Memorial University of Newfoundland in the late 1980s, where he said he would tell people that he was from Bay d'Espoir rather than Conne River.

"Conne River was Mi'kmaw, and that didn't have a lot of positive connotations that went with it. The stereotypes of Indigenous people — Mi'kmaw people — where you were lazy, greasy, stupid," he said.

"It wasn't something to be proud of, wasn't something to go and shout from the rooftops, that I'm Mik'maw."

Now, Jeddore is the director of education and a teacher of the Mi'kmaw language at Se't A'newey Kina'matino'kuom — St. Anne's School — in Conne River.

Despite the work that he and his community have done to try to overcome that racist prejudice, Jeddore said the language in Newfoundland has been in decline over the years.

"The Mi'kmaw language was spoken here fluently and regularly in the early 1900s and up to the 1930s and 1940s, actually going on up until the 1980s when our last fluent speaker — what we could consider a fluent speaker — passed," he said.

While language revitalization is important in reclaiming their linguistic identity, said Jeddore, it's also about reconnecting with their culture; something he emphasized is not mutually exclusive.

"You can't have one without the other," said Jeddore. "You can have an aspect of your culture and tradition, but to me personally, without the Mi'kmaw language, I'm not complete."

Language and technology

Sarah Townley, a retired co-ordinator of Inuit programs with the former Labrador School Board, has also watched the number of Inuktitut speakers decline over the past few years.

"We did try to have the Inuktitut immersion back in the early '80s," Townley said. But with teachers who taught Inuktitut beginning to retire, there are fewer resources for those wanting to learn, she said.

"And I'm noticing a lot of younger people, and a younger generation that are in their late 30s or early 40s are starting to lose their language as well."

Townley hopes that with enough support and more targeted initiatives, proficiency in the language will steadily rebound.

"The language is just in a dormant mode right now," she said. "Revitalization through different programs or a different education system, I think it's doable to get all this back again."

Townley was born in Hebron, Labrador, and lives in Northwest River, where she teaches Inuktitut. Over the winter, she saw an uptick of interest in learning and revitalizing the language, notably among those for whom she said it's declining.

"I was really surprised to see that most of the young people that wanted to learn were young adults in their 30s, some of them in their late 20s."

In the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, technology may play an important part, but Townley acknowledged both its strengths and weaknesses.

After her classes, many students would reach out through the Facebook messenger app, which allows for short voice messages to be sent, in order to work on their pronunciation.

When you encourage somebody, they blossom like a flower.- Sarah Townley

While it's a useful tool, Townley said lack of access to technology is still a barrier in parts of Labrador.

"A lot of times there's no internet connections, or some people don't have a computer, or some people don't have an iPhone," she said.

Despite the uncertain role of technology in revitalizing language, for Townley's students, and many others learning an Indigenous language, the most important obstacle to overcome is their own self-doubt.

"Their Inuktitut can strengthen if they stop thinking that they can't do it, because I know that they can," she said.

"When you encourage somebody, they blossom like a flower."

 Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Conor McCann is a freelance writer and journalist from St. John's.

With files from Jenelle Duval and First Light Fridays