Stop assimilating: Sask. schools aren't doing enough to offer Indigenous language education

I’m the mother of a First Nations child, and I’ve been searching for primary schools in the Regina area that offer any sort of Saulteaux language program. Hard as I’ve tried, it seems no such school exists. 

'My child, like yours, has the right to be instructed in her first language'

Saskatchewan is not doing a good enough job integrating First Nations language into classrooms, Bernadette Friedmann-Conrad says. (Krit Kani/Shutterstock)

For many parents, the end of summer and the beginning of the school year may well be "the most wonderful time of the year," as that commercial chimes. Perhaps you've succeeded at finding a school that is just right for your child; a school that reflects your values, is grounded in your spiritual belief system, and teaches in the language of your choice.

When I think about the time for school nearing, "wonderful" is definitely not the first word that comes to my mind.

I'm the mother of a First Nations child, and I've been searching for primary schools in the Regina area that offer any sort of Saulteaux language program. Hard as I've tried, it seems no such school exists. 

Knowing that since 1994 an Aboriginal Languages Curriculum Guide for Kindergarten to Grade 12 has been in existence makes coming up empty-handed all the more frustrating. There have been other efforts to incorporate Indigenous languages in the curriculum over the years.

  • In 1999, the Prairie provinces collaborated to produce the Common Curriculum Framework for Bilingual Programming in International Languages: Kindergarten to Grade 12.
  • In 2014, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education produced the Bilingual Education Integrated Curriculum Framework for Kindergarten to Grade 3.

To me, this indicates people have done a lot of work so that schools could offer First Nations language programs, but the local school boards never felt such programs were a priority to implement. This despite the fact that the demand for Cree language classes for example has been outpacing offerings for years in Saskatoon and Regina. And Cree is not the only Indigenous language spoken in Saskatchewan; there is also a desperate need for language classes in Saulteaux, the second largest language group, as well as others.

In April, Saskatchewan Education Minister Gordon Wyant announced that Dene, Saulteaux and Michif language classes will be offered for the 2019-20 school year at the 10, 20 and 30 levels. This is a good start, but it's not enough. 

I don't think I'm asking for more than most non-Indigenous children in this province are privileged to.- Bernadette Friedmann-Conrad

The perception that the need for Indigenous language classes at the primary level only exists on-reserve doesn't make any sense given that Saskatchewan has the second highest percentage of Indigenous people of all Canadian provinces, and with the rural-urban migration continuing, more than 50 per cent of First Nations people live off-reserve.

Across the country and internationally, the importance of Indigenous languages is finally being acknowledged. The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages because it recognized that language plays a crucial role in the passing on of cultural knowledge, social integration and healthy identity formation for children.

On May 9, the House of Commons adopted Bill C-91, An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages, which aims to facilitate co-operation between provincial and Indigenous governments to support and promote the use of Indigenous languages. The bill directly responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action that call on the federal government to acknowledge that Indigenous rights include language rights.

Residential schools and their traumatic after-effects have interrupted the transmission of Indigenous languages to a point where today many are in danger of disappearing.

The damage done to Indigenous language by residential schools, like this one in Mani-Utenam, are still being felt, Bernadette Friedmann-Conrad says. (Library and Archives Canada)

I'm a mom and like every other mom I wish for my little girl to be able to grow up happy, healthy and proud of who she is. I'm doing what I can at home to make sure she knows she is an Anishinaabe kwezens. I'm doing what I can to make sure she is grounded in her culture so that she can confidently navigate the two worlds she was born into as an Indigenous person in Saskatchewan. But I, like so many parents of Indigenous children, need schools to start supporting me in this work, and language is an integral part of this. I need the education system to stop assimilating and start respecting my child for who she is. 

My child, like yours, has the right to be instructed in her first language. She has a birth right and a treaty right to receive an education that supports and strengthens her Saulteaux language and identity. I don't think I'm asking for more than most non-Indigenous children in this province are privileged to.

If the Ministry of Education and local school boards want to breathe life into Bill C-91, if they are serious about reconciliation, they need to offer Indigenous language education through immersion, intensive and core programs, from kindergarten to Grade 12.

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Bernadette Friedmann-Conrad holds an MA Integrated Studies in Cultural Studies & Adult Education and currently works as a Human Resources Officer in the Regina area.