Thunder Bay·Audio

Indigenous education conference opens with focus on language revitalization

New Zealand’s high commissioner to Canada, Daniel Mellsop, opened the Matawa Education Conference by touting his country’s Maori language strategy, which aims to see a million New Zealanders expressing basic ideas in Maori by 2040.

The Matawa Education Conference opened with a workshop taught by veteran Maori language educators

Daniel Mellsop is New Zealand's high commissioner to Canada. He said mounting social pressure in his country over the past 30 years led to the adoption of a new Maori language strategy, which includes micro language lessons on social media. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Indigenous language revitalization was a theme as the 12th annual Matawa Education Conference kicked off at the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Tuesday.

New Zealand's high commissioner to Canada, Daniel Mellsop, delivered an opening keynote touting his country's Maori language strategy, which strives to see a million New Zealanders, or about 20 per cent of the country's population, able to express basic ideas in Maori by 2040. 

It also aims to have 85 per cent of New Zealanders valuing Maori as part of their national identity and 150,000 Maori over the age of 15 speaking Maori as frequently as English. 

"We see a lot more Maori content now in the public discourse and in all forms of media," he told the packed ballroom. "There is demand from all New Zealanders to use more Maori every day, and importantly, there's very accessible resources for those who want to learn."

There is also societal pressure to pronounce Maori place names and people's names correctly, he said.

New Zealand is still in the early stages of implementing the strategy, he added; it is still holding regional and national workshops aimed at determining the best ways to meet its targets. 

'They are where we were 30 years ago'

But it's already launched a social marketing campaign and micro language lessons on Twitter and Facebook called "Snap Reo," he said.

Mellsop's keynote was followed by a workshop called Language Revitalization in the 21st Century, co-presented by Aroha Watene, a veteran Maori language educator from New Zealand who is currently helping Matawa develop its language revitalization program .

"Coming into Matawa First Nations Management and this project, I would say they are where we were 30 years ago," Watene told CBC. "And I say that because their voices are starting to be heard that this is what they want to do, and now they're actually practicing it and doing it."

Aroha Watene of Matawa First Nations Management speaks with the CBC's Heather Kitching about developing a new language revitalization program for member communities in northern Ontario. 7:04

Watene is currently working with two native Ojibway speakers to develop a curriculum that is suitable for their communities and that will help local speakers teach community members.   

"Their skill is to help put a curriculum together, and then that curriculum will sit alongside the community speakers, and they input into the curriculum, their dialect," she explained.  "The learning outcomes are the same, but how they say it, the words they use, the phrases they use, will be from their own community."

It's too early to know which language speakers in each community will be the designated tutor or tutors, Watene said.

But "the chiefs are for it," she added.

The conference continues through March 7.