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Indigenous languages are coming back from the brink

Across Canada, people are learning the language of their ancestors and turning around and teaching others.
Zoe Hopkins is part of a wave of First Nations people helping revive Indigenous languages in Canada.

Seven years ago, Zoe Hopkins knew 15 words in her mother tongue. Ten of them, she jokes, were the numbers one through ten.

Now, she has 36 personal pronouns she can choose from in Kanyen’keha, also known as Mohawk — one of the languages of the Haudenosaunee, or people of the longhouse. They’re part of the lessons she teaches in an online language school based out of Six Nations, in Ontario.

Kanyen’keha “sounds like a river,” and it has quite literally changed the way she sees the world. “It has changed my life,” says Hopkins, a filmmaker.


“We don’t have a word for empty,” she goes on. “You have to say it’s 'not full.' When we think about the English dichotomy, where the glass is half-full, or its half-empty, in Kanyen’keha, we’re only half-full people. If you think of the entire planet had only half-full people, could you imagine how the world would be?”


When I was in elementary school on the Six Nations reserve, in southwestern Ontario, I was taught that Canada was a mosaic, while the United States was the melting pot. I learned this lesson in a school that offered my mother’s language of Mohawk for just two years before we lost our language teacher to other opportunities. I didn’t have a chance to take my dad’s language of Cayuga until high school.

While this country embraces immigrants and refugees and encourages them to keep their culture, historically it did everything possible to eliminate mine — with residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and other systems that removed our language from us. Our ancestors were discouraged and punished for speaking their mother tongues. Today, only one in five Indigenous people in Canada can have a conversation in their language, according to 2016 census data.

“We don’t have a word for empty.”

There are 70 Indigenous languages in Canada. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorizes almost 75 percent of them as “definitely,” “severely” or “critically” endangered, while the rest are considered vulnerable/unsafe. The healthiest and most sustainable languages are Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway, with most of those speakers living in Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec, according to Statistics Canada. Nuxalk, on the West Coast, is among the most fragile, with only about a dozen speakers remaining in British Columbia. In contrast, there are about 1,000 speakers of Mohawk in North America.


But at the brink of an extraordinary loss, there is a renewal and growth. Across the continent, individuals and communities are resurrecting these endangered languages. They’re teaching themselves the language of their ancestors, and turning around and opening schools, launching apps, or landing jobs at post-secondary institutions to teach others.

The University of Victoria in B.C. offers a Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization, which helps develop strategies to support language revitalization, and the University of Toronto programs a Revitalizing Languages course, along with courses in dialects of Inuktitut, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee. Radio stations that exclusively broadcast in Indigenous tongues are trying to stir up awareness. Later this month, an historic summit in Juneau, Alaska will bring together a room full of Tlingit speakers, of which there are fewer than 200 left. This revival extends to music; Polaris prize winner Jeremy Dutcher, of the Wolastoq First Nation, has made language revitalization a cornerstone of his art. His debut album was inspired by 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of his ancestors that he unearthed from the Canadian Museum of History. In his acceptance speech in Toronto in September, Dutcher emotionally said, “To do this record in my language, and have it witnessed not just by my people, but people from every nation, from coast to coast, up and down Turtle Island, we’re at the precipice of something.”


For someone like Hopkins, (pictured above) who has been wearing the many hats of registrar, curriculum creator, tech support and more at the online school, more financial support from the federal government is key.

That’s the message she delivered to Melanie Joly, the minister of tourism, official languages, and la Francophonie, as the Trudeau government conducted consultations this summer to figure out how to go about protecting these languages.

The Indigenous Languages Act bill will be formally submitted through Parliament this year, with the goal of receiving royal assent in 2019.

Hopkins works in conjunction with the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa adult immersion program in Six Nations, co-founded and run by her father Brian Maracle. Their schools are one of several language schools on the Six Nations reserve, near Hamilton, Ont., ranging from private elementary schools to Six Nations Polytechnic, a post secondary institution. Mohawk, Cayuga and Onondaga are the focus — three of the Six Nations that form the community.

The operations run on a shoestring budget, mainly funded by the Six Nations Language Commission, a non-profit organization that coordinates and supports language initiatives in the community.

Every summer, Hopkins and her father are worried about whether they’ll have enough money to hold classes that fall. Three times a year, she is unsure whether she’ll have a job.

“We really need significant investment … so the languages have a chance to flourish into the future.”


“We all laughed one time when someone called in to the office and asked to speak to the registrar. They left a message and my dad played it for us and we laughed. Then we played it again and laughed. And then played it again,” she recalls. “People don’t realize we’re the instructors but we have all the other work … I have to create a registration form, put it online, monitor it, see people through that process and maintain registration lists, class lists, and [this] is my part-time job. It’s easily a job for two full-time people.”

In Ontario, the new Doug Ford-led provincial government has been mostly quiet about Indigenous people, with the exception of cutting the Indigenous-language immersion pilot project for kindergarteners proposed by the previous Liberal government. However, on the west coast, British Columbia’s provincial government announced earlier this year that it is investing $50 million into language revitalization. Distributed over three years by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (a First Nations-run Crown Corporation), the money will go towards 34 languages in B.C., for community grants and community language revitalization programming. About $14 million in grants will be delivered in the first year.

Tracey Herbert, the Council’s CEO, says that in addition to expanding existing programs, such as its successful mentor-apprentice program, they’ll be developing strategic language revitalization plans with communities, to ensure that the whole scope of the community, from baby to elder, are able to participate in language learning. The funding will also help document all of the languages via its website.


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“B.C. has 60 percent of the Indigenous languages in Canada and currently only 4 percent of the people in B.C. speak an Indigenous language. That’s fewer than 6,000 people, so it’s really come to a bit of a crisis,” says Herbert. “We really need significant investment to do the type of work we need to get done, so the languages have a chance to flourish into the future.”

She is also clear that while $50 million sounds like a lot, it will take significant and sustained funding over many years to revitalize and document the languages of the country.

“It’s a concrete example of reconciliation and is an example for the rest of Canada. [The provincial government] recognizes that restoring connections to our languages builds resilience and supports healthy people in communities,” she adds. “We see that a lot in our work, the incredible change that this type of programming does in the community, and how inspiring it can be.”

Banchi Hanuse can attest to the kind of local transformations that are unfolding. She’s the station manager for the grassroots Indigenous radio station, Nuxalk Radio, in Bella Coola, B.C. In the heart of the Great Bear rainforest, the station is trying to amplify the Nuxalk language, which is only spoken fluently by four remaining elders. Much of the radio's programming is dedicated to language learning.


"It's a major psychological shift that's happening in the community, too, as part of who we are again, and being proud of the language."

Hanuse says that bringing the language to people's ears has a noticeable effect on the community. "Our parents and grandparents were beaten for speaking the language in residential school. There's this whole shame to the language and people don't want to speak it," she says. "With it being on the radio and people hearing it, people are more comfortable. You do hear it a lot more, things like 'hello,' 'thank you,' 'good morning.' People are embracing it and introducing themselves in Nuxalk. It's a major psychological shift that's happening in the community, too, as part of who we are again, and being proud of the language."

It’s about community for Hopkins, as well.

“I didn’t grow up in Six Nations, so I don’t have high school friends, university friends, that sort of peer group when you grow up somewhere,” she says. “Because of the language community that I met, I have a peer group now. That’s a huge gift for someone like me.”

They go to dinner at restaurants in neighbouring Brantford, like Boston Pizza, speaking in Kanyen’keha, through bouts of laughter.

She has a consistent roster of 40 to 100 students at any given time. Her students are mostly Kanyen’keha from all over North America, usually living in cities they’ve moved to from their Mohawk communities. Others taking the course are “settler people who don’t feel right living on our land and not knowing our language, and others are linguists just interested in other languages.”


She’s had students in Russia, Singapore, Brazil, and the UK, and ages range from as young as 12 to 70 years-old.

One of her most notable students is the Quebec MP Marc Miller, who was the first person in history to speak the language in Parliament.

Hopkins was especially floored by Miller’s second Kanyen’keha Parliament speech.

“It was important that the Pope apologized for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the residential school era, and he said that in our language in the House of Commons and that resonated with me more,” she says. “We are where we are at because of residential schools, and to have a member of Parliament call for an apology from those responsible, in our language — I cried.”

When asked what needs to be done to continue language revitalisation, she said it's important to recognize that language is a huge part of reconnecting people to their identity. That means funding both language teachers and language learners. “It’s my feeling that giving people back their language is the utmost important cultural activity.”

“Number two, is realizing that the job is down to the individual to reclaim language,” she says.

“I just look at the people who come through this immersion course and are taking on all levels of sacrifice — if you want to do it, find a way.”

She also admits to feeling pessimistic about the federal government’s efforts, because she felt their primary concern in their discussions was how many regions should have language ministers, and how many language ministers they should have.

“I told them, quite honestly, I don’t care how many language ministers there are, because that sounds to me like a lot of salaries to people who don’t speak the language. All of that money will be taken away from front-line workers and language learners, [who are] the frontline of language revitalization, not language ministers.”

All photos of Zoe Hopkins by Ian Maracle.