Nova Scotia

Why this treaty educator says every Nova Scotian should learn the Mi'kmaw language

Ashley Julian-Rikihana from Sipekne'katik First Nation grew up learning Mi’kmaw from family members who are fluent speakers. She was never taught her language in school and says that needs to change if it's going to survive.

‘It takes a village to keep a language alive,’ says Ashley Julian-Rikihana

Ashley Julian-Rikihana is an educator from Sipekne'katik First Nation who has studied the resurgence of the Mi'kmaw language. (Ashley Julian-Rikihana)

A treaty educator from Sipekne'katik First Nation says it's up to all Nova Scotians to help keep the Mi'kmaw language alive.

Ashley Julian-Rikihana cradled her newborn daughter in her arms as she spoke to CBC Radio's Information Morning for a special show on Monday honouring National Indigenous Peoples Day.

"It takes a village to raise a child," she said. "It takes a village to keep a language alive."

Canada's residential school system was designed to sever Indigenous children's connection to their culture and language. As Canadians reckon with the lasting impacts of this history, they must also work to restore what was taken, Julian-Rikihana said.

"It takes a province like Nova Scotia to keep the survival of the Mi'kmaw language, the survival of Mi'kmaw culture ... those acknowledgements take everyone here in Nova Scotia, not just the Mi'kmaq," she said.

Julian-Rikihana encouraged non-Indigenous people to seek out resources and take the time to learn the language of this land.

"It's about being an ally," she said. "It really shows and demonstrates your willingness to live here in our territory if you're willing to speak our language."

Julian-Rikihana studied the resurgence of the language as part of her master's thesis in education, and has worked for the Department of Education to incorporate Mi'kmaw culture and teachings into the curriculum. 

She grew up learning Mi'kmaw from fluent family members, but she was never taught the language in school. She said while there are more educational resources available today, there still aren't enough. 

WATCH: Mi'kmaw language teacher Curtis Michael explains the important distinction between animate and inanimate nouns:

Part of the problem, she said, is that non-Indigenous teachers can still feel intimidated when teaching the material.

"Even in high schools and secondary level, it's not a mandatory course for non-Mi'kmaw people to take, and it should be because the resurgence and the survival of language is important for the next generation," she said.

Language apps help new speakers

A small team at Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey, the Mi'kmaw education authority based in Cape Breton, is making it easier for people of all ages to learn the language. They've developed about 40 language phone apps that have been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

Their first app, L'nui'suti, is an online lexicon that includes the word's translation in English as well as recordings from speakers who pronounce each word. They've also developed Ksite'taqn, which introduces children to Mi'kmaw words and phrases.

"We knew that we had to do something because our language was declining and to attract young speakers we had to use information technology," said Yolanda Denny, a senior Mi'kmaw language consultant who worked on the apps.

LISTEN: Linguist Bernie Francis talks about Mi'kmaw place names:

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The team is also working to revive old terms that are mostly spoken by elders.

John Sylliboy, an educator from Eskasoni and Millbrook First Nations, is doing similar work through his PhD research. He's looking into Mi'kmaw language and history to find and resurface terms to describe people who are two-spirit.

Sylliboy said there aren't specific gendered pronouns in Mi'kmaw. Instead, the word Nekm encompasses the person and can mean him or her.

John Sylliboy, of Eskasoni and Millbrook First Nations, is looking into Mi'kmaw language and history to find terms to describe people who are two-spirit. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"These are important clues for us to look at our language and how inclusive it is and to determine from there how we could move forward to develop or reassign or resurface some of the language that ... has been eroded," said Sylliboy, who is the co-founder of the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance. 

Since June is Pride month, he also shared the word Kepmite'lsi, which translates in English to "I'm proud."

WATCH: A couple from Eskasoni First Nation is sharing the Mi'kmaw language around the world:

Julian-Rikihana said she and her partner speak Mi'kmaw and Māori, the Indigenous language of New Zealand, and will raise their daughter to know multiple languages from an early age. 

She encourages Nova Scotians who say they want to be an ally to take the time to study the language and the Peace and Friendship treaties.

True reconciliation involves returning what was taken, she said.

"Those are the most uncomfortable conversations that we need to have," she said. "I think people want to predominately keep Mi'kmaq silent to this day and we have a voice and our children are going to understand who they are."

Listen to Information Morning's full show for National Indigenous Peoples Day:

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning

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