Nova Scotia·Q&A

Learning Indigenous language 'shattered my understanding,' says activist

Ian Campeau, an Anishinaabe activist and former member of the musical group A Tribe Called Red, said he experienced shame for not speaking his ancestral language. Now he carries around books written in Ojibway to help him learn.

Campaign pushes for more funding for Indigenous language courses

Ian Campeau, Nikki Jamieson, Chance Paupanakis and Coty Zachariah are working on the campaign. (Submitted by Nikki Jamieson.)

It's been three years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released a list of 94 calls to action.

Since that time, 10 of those calls have been completed and 18 are underway. One of those is a call for post-secondary institutions to create diploma and degree programs in Indigenous languages.

The Canadian Federation of Students created a campaign, called "ReconciliAction," to highlight the need for funding that recommendation. An event at Mount Saint Vincent University on Wednesday marked the launch of the Maritime campaign for more Indigenous languages courses at post-secondary schools.

Ian Campeau, an Anishinaabe activist and former member of the musical group A Tribe Called Red, said he experienced shame for not speaking his ancestral language. Now he carries around books written in Ojibway to help him learn.

Campeau, along with Nikki Jamieson, the deputy chairperson of the students' federation in Nova Scotia, spoke to CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia host Portia Clark about their work.

What does the campaign entail?

Jamieson: We are working now to educate folks and rally students to get the funding allocated. English and French are considered our official languages so if we're ever going to move toward truth and reconciliation in a true, meaningful way then obviously Indigenous languages need to be included. We can't have this colonial system continuously imposed on our people and expect to ever reach reconciliation.

Why is language such an important part of reconciliation?

Campeau: I've been learning about my language for the last year since I got off tour, and it's literally shattered my understanding of how everything works. I learned the days of the week. Friday translates to Holy Cross Day, jiibiiaytgo giizhigad. Saturday is maani giizhigad or Mary's Day and Sunday's is name giizhigad or Prayer Day. I also found out that my history is connected to Lake Nipissing and it goes back 13,000 years. So that predates Jesus by 11,000 years.

So I learned the days of the week in my language and it shattered my understanding of how time was kept. That's how important this language is and that's why I understand why it was taken from us.

And when we talk about reconciliation, I'm understanding now what that means, because of all the effort that went into taking away these values. They put pins in our tongues if we spoke this language because of how powerful it was. It's time for us to make it as easy as humanly possible for us to get this back.

What have you heard from students, in terms of their interest in having these programs in post-secondary institutions?

Jamieson: Students want these courses. What we're finding is there's not funding or resources to implement them. We're also seeing a really stark academizing of the language. So while the resources could be implemented on campuses, we're having trouble finding people to teach them even though we do have fluent speakers.

[Universities] are constantly seeking these credentials that are coming from these institutions that our folks don't even have access to … so the problem isn't even implementing these courses and having the resources, it's how we're structuring who is teaching them and who we're valuing the knowledge from. We're basically showing contempt for Indigenous knowledge keeping and we're only focusing on the post-secondary side.

So where does the campaign go from here?

Campeau: I've been involved in a few of these ReconciliAction campaigns. One in Ottawa and one in [Nova Scotia]. I can't explain enough about how excited I am for being able to speak about these things. I'm learning these things about language and how important they are. I'm realizing what was actually taken and … what reconciliation actually looks like.

But I realize now that indigenous people, what did we do that we have to reconcile for? It's not on us. We didn't do anything that we need reconciliation for. Reconciliation is a settler idea and it needs to be put in place.

Are there any other venues that you see in terms of revitalizing indigenous languages?

Campeau: So far it's all grassroots. My dialect is so specific that I can't just learn it. I have these books as references but these aren't my dialect and our language wasn't written like this. So I have to hear it.

It's very, very tonal. There's incantations in the talking that are really beautiful. It sounds like singing. I can't read that incantation so I have to drive four hours each way to my community once a week to go learn this. This is what it costs for me to learn this language again.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia