Fear of losing culture rises among Indigenous people in Manitoba

More than half of Indigenous people in Manitoba fear their culture and languages are eroding and will one day be gone. That's up from previous years.

Poll: More than half of respondents believe their way of life is in danger

Could Indigenous cultures and traditions one day disappear? A new poll suggests 52% of First Nations and Métis in Manitoba think it's a possibility. (CBC)

More than half of Indigenous people in Manitoba fear their culture and traditions are eroding and will one day be gone, a new poll suggests.

According to the poll, conducted by Probe Research in March, 52 per cent of respondents are "worried that Indigenous cultures and traditions may gradually disappear." That's an increase from a 2011-2012 poll which suggested that 48% expressed that anxiety.

"I'm glad that people are becoming more aware," said Lorena Fontaine, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg whose focus of study is Indigenous language rights in Canada. "The fact that people are worried signals that there's an awareness that this is an issue."


​Fontaine said that anxiety about the loss of culture, traditions and ultimately language can actually drive the desire to have them revitalized.

"I have to have that kind of attitude, because if you don't you might as well throw the towel in," she said.

Fontaine said there are many examples of people — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — who are working hard at preserving their languages and cultures, including Hawaiians and the Sami in northern Europe. 

Some languages, such as Hebrew, have even been revived from scriptures and other ancient texts, she said.

​Anxiety into action

A 2014 report on the status of B.C. First Nations languages listed k̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim — or the Skwomesh language — as "critically endangered," with only seven fluent speakers remaining.

So Khelsilem, a member of the Squamish Nation, turned his anxiety and anger into action.

Khelsilem has devoted his life to reviving the k̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim language. (Blaire Russell)
"I asked myself, 'How do I contribute to the things that I complain about?'" he said. "I can complain about what other people aren't doing or I can try and do something about it."

Beginning by learning from tapes, he's now spearheading a full-time adult immersion program for the Skwomesh language at Simon Fraser University, which sees students learning the language seven hours a day, five days a week. 

'Burning our house down'

​Like many, Khelsilem believes that governments are responsible for funding the revitalization of Indigenous languages, but communities and families have to commit to learn.

"The government was responsible for burning our house down so they're responsible for building it back up," he said.
  "However, it's ultimately up to us to decide what goes in that house and if we're going to live in it."

The survey findings also come at a time, Fontaine said, when the federal government is about to draft legislation to protect Indigenous languages and even appoint an Indigenous languages commissioner. 

Fontaine believes because people are feeling anxiety over language, they could be more clear about what should go into that legislation, she said.

Anxiety rises among First Nations

​According to the poll, anxiety of losing culture and tradition is higher among First Nations. with 58 per cent worried about the future of languages and culture. Among the Métis, 43 per cent shared those fears.

Five hundred First Nations and Métis people from both urban and rural areas of Manitoba took part in the Probe Research telephone poll between March 6-29.

A mixed methodology, including primarily random sampling, was used. If only random sampling had been used, the margin of error for a survey of this size would be +/- 4.38 per cent, 19 times out of 20.