A Small Reflection

The Inequity of Language Acquisition: Niwî gikendân.

A Small Reflection

At a recent gathering with my family, we reflected on how our Algonquin teachings are a part of how we conduct ourselves in our personal and professional lives. Although my grandparents spoke Algonquin, they passed before I was born, and I would not have the opportunity to learn the language through their presence and worldview. Our language is our identity and reflects how we structure our world along the continuum of life. By participating in the Algonquin language, we gain an understanding of our values and our governing structures in education, health and justice. More importantly, our language holds the development of our knowledge systems since time immemorial. Everyone at our gathering is in different stages of language acquisition. Algonquin is not the spoken language between us. Why is that?

Racist policies under the Indian Act, aimed at dismantling entire identities, did just that by prohibiting the use of Indigenous languages in schools. This resulted in language loss in many families. The Act has been in effect since 1867, it governs where a reserve geographically starts and ends. Despite remaining a key governing document for many First Nations, it has never been translated into the 70 different Indigenous languages of the people it impacts most.

Why are there inequities in language acquisition opportunities today? The colonial system was created to foster inequity by banning the use of our languages and promoting division between services on and off reserves. We must advocate to be able to develop and have access to our languages and traditional ceremonies whether we are on reserve or not. Our languages should not be limited by the confines of colonial systems.

Modern communication has shaped how fast we can collect and disseminate information. Online language courses and language apps continue to be developed and made accessible. I question why many Indigenous languages are not accessible in a way that works to promote language speakers no matter where one lives? The Algonquin language apps that do exist are helpful with vocabulary and short phrases, however, the apps cannot capture the complex structure of oral conversations or the root of the word and the cultural significance. Language classes are at times only provided in person, and the same is true for ceremonies. Ceremonies require a land base and access to language speakers.

The question remains: How can First Nation communities accommodate in-person and virtual language courses as well as ceremony for off reserve band members who wish to learn their language and acquire the meaningful ceremonies throughout a lifespan? For those living off reserve, like myself, and living on the other side of the country from my traditional territory, this means travelling across the country to have access to an in-person language course and to participate in ceremony.

The traditional custom of Indigenous naming in the context of language retention can be seen in my niece and nephew who have been given their Algonquin names and who have also acquired parts of the language through ceremony. The resilience and memory of our remaining language speakers have made this possible.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the TRC Calls to Action have all highlighted the right of Indigenous peoples to their language and culture. In 2022, the United Nations launched the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to protect languages. I believe in order to be successful we must acknowledge that there exists an inequity in access to documentary linguistics and language programming particularly between on and off reserve First Nations People. We must be mindful that equitable access to language acquisition will occur when everyone has access despite where they live.

My mother relayed that as long as Indigenous families find themselves together at the dinner table unable to speak to each other in their own language, the measure of successful language acquisition will remain a large “why question!” A question, Niwî gikendân (I want to know) how to help find the answer to.

This article is part of a 4-part series on issues CBABC members face as BIPOC lawyers.