U of T professors fight to save dying Indigenous languages

University of Toronto Indigenous Studies professors are fighting to save languages under threat.

Languages lost or threatened due to Canada's residential school history

Ryan DeCaire, assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Toronto, is focusing on preserving the Mohawk language. (Mark Bochsler/CBC News)

The Indigenous language Ryan DeCaire is fighting to save isn't one he spoke regularly — or fluently — while growing up on Wahta Mohawk territory. 

"People [with Mohawk ancestry] are saying words like, 'hello', 'goodbye', 1,2,3' but is that all there is?," DeCaire asked himself.

The questions spurred him to realize that the only people who spoke fluent Mohawk were elders in the community and that time is running out to preserve the language. 

"If we don't do something about that, we're probably going to witness [the language's] death in my own lifetime."

DeCaire is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for Indigenous Studies. The faculty focuses on teaching Indigenous history, language and customs to students.

DeCaire estimates there are only 1,000 people left with a strong command of Mohawk. (CBC News)

Its Ciimaa/Kahuwe'ya/Qajaq language program teaches the Mohawk, Anishinaabemowin, Oneida and Inuktitut languages, which teachers and linguists said will die out if they are not passed on to the next generation. 

"It's a part of what it means to be Canadian, that we have a relationship to Indigenous people."

Mohawk, an Iroquoian language spoken in Ontario, Quebec and parts of New York state, is considered threatened and is estimated to be spoken by 3,500 people; a number that DeCaire disputes. He believes those who are proficient and experienced in speaking Mohawk as their first language hovers around only 1,000 people. 

DeCaire, who teaches a class of 12 people in Mohawk language studies, is dedicated to learning his ancestral language from elders over "many cups of tea and games of solitaire."

He also enrolled in a two-year immersion program at Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, learning directly from speakers whose first language is Mohawk. 

"You have to set up your life in a way that you can constantly be around a language and constantly be learning it," DeCaire said. 

Effects of residential schooling

Indigenous languages and cultures, intertwined with Canada's past, have a long and difficult history. 

More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools beginning in the mid-19th century. The last residential schools closed in 1996.

The Canadian government developed an "aggressive assimiliation" policy that mandated Indigenous children to learn English as their main language and adopt Canadian customs. 

Speaking Indigenous languages was strictly forbidden at the schools, causing an entire generation to lose touch with their ancestry and culture.

Many residential school students were forced to adopt English as their main language at the expense of their ancestral Indigenous languages (Yukon Archives)

DeCaire says a belief developed that, "If you speak Mohawk, if you speak Cree, if you speak Squamish, Inuktitut —that's not going to get you a job. And what's the point in doing that, at the end of the day?"

But there is now a movement among young Indigenous people to reclaim their cultural customs and languages.

The Wahta Mohawk territory, where DeCaire is from, is one example, Located on the shores of Georgian Bay near Muskoka, the council there has created programs to teach Mohawk, according to Chief Phillip Franks. 

"We started with our children's programming and introducing culture. A whole morning of learning language and cultural, traditional ways," Franks said. 

"It makes them more resilient."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to delve into the legacy of residential schools and find ways to repair the damage they did,  lists "protecting the right to Aboriginal languages, including the teaching of Aboriginal languages as credit courses" as one of its 92 recommendations. 

Challenge in saving languages

Time is of the essence as many elders who speak Indigenous languages are getting older.

But there are other barriers to learning Indigenous languages properly — chief among them is being surrounded by other speakers and being able to practise even after students leave the confines of the classroom. 

DeCaire believes it is now the duty of young Indigenous people to take the torch and immerse themselves in their languages; which faculty members believe is a crucial part in their students' understanding of native identity. 

"The younger generation, people my age, are just as critical. We feel a burden because we're the generation, where if they don't do something about it, we're going to see the loss of it."