Mi'kmaq leader seeks official language designation in Nova Scotia

The Mi'kmaq language is falling out of use with young people, so the Eskasoni First Nation is pursuing talks with the Nova Scotia government to help preserve it.

Eskasoni First Nation leading effort to preserve language

An official language designation could mean more money for Mi'kmaq education. (CBC)

The chief of Nova Scotia's largest First Nation says he wants to pursue talks with the provincial government about declaring Mi'kmaq an official language in the province.

It's not precisely clear what such legislation might mean, but Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny said it could cover such things as road signs and translation services.

The main hope, he said, is that an official language designation would prompt the province to protect and preserve Mi'kmaq, and to support language programs.

Eskasoni has a population of 4,400 and the highest proportion of Mi'kmaq speakers in the Atlantic region.​ Even so, use of the language is declining among people under the age of 35.

'The core of our nation'

Denny is passionate about reversing that trend.

'Around Cape Breton, they have signs in Gaelic, right? Why can't they have them in Mi'kmaq?' - Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny

"People have to understand the Mi'kmaq language is the core of our nation," he said. "That's the heartbeat, our language, from our elders.

"So we have to protect that. It's the most important aspect of who we are, because it involves our medicines, the place names, our prayers, our songs, so if we lose that we're going to lose everything else."

Eskasoni opened an immersion-only school last year, with about 160 students.

'No English allowed'

"No English allowed," he said. "You know, bus drivers speak Mi'kmaq, the cafeteria, they speak Mi'kmaq. The environment is all Mi'kmaq."

But Denny said he doesn't want to rely only on those students to maintain the language.

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny says his vision for the Mi'kmaq language is far-reaching. (Submitted by Leroy Denny)

"We need to attack this at the community level," he said. "From our leadership, all the band departments we have, the health centre, the school, the band office. We're going to attack it through the elders, the youth."

He said in the new year, varied resources will be brought to bear, including the community channel, Facebook, YouTube, videos and cartoons.

"In the '90s, I think that's where everything changed, " he said. "You notice today: kids are on their phones, on their iPads, they're watching TV, YouTube, name it.

"Kids like these gadgets, right? So, we've been developing apps. You can find them on your phone and you can learn the language right in the palm of your hands. Same with the iPads."

CBU on board

Nunavut has an official designation for the Inuit language, legislation that dictates people have the right to use it in the legislature, courts and at some territorial and municipal offices.

Denny has the support of Cape Breton University, whose Indigenous studies department offers a Mi'kmaq studies program. CBU's interim president, Dale Keefe, noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for action from post-secondary institutions.

Cape Breton University interim president Dale Keefe says there will be more Mi'kmaq signage on campus. (CBC)

"You will see more signage on the CBU campus in Mi'kmaq, more material will be prepared — print version — in Mi'kmaq," said Keefe. "We're also going to look to enhance our language courses to support and help the First Nations communities with the goal of making sure that the language is preserved and revived."

Denny's vision for Mi'kmaq as an official language is far-reaching.

"Around Cape Breton, they have signs in Gaelic, right?" he asked. "Why can't they have them in Mi'kmaq? This is Mi'kmaq territory, right, and that's one of the questions we ask."

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton