Imagine speaking a completely different language than your parents. How would you tell them when you were hungry? If you were hurting? How would you tell them that you love them?
When John Kistabish left the Amos Indian residential school in Quebec, he could no longer speak Algonquin, while his parents could not speak French, the language that he had been taught in the school. As a result, he found it almost impossible to communicate with them about the abuse he experienced at the school. “I had tried to talk with my parents, and, no, it didn’t work.”
One of the most profound effects of residential schools on Indigenous children was the loss of their language. Rules against the use of Aboriginal languages were intended to force students to learn English (or French) as quickly as possible. These rules and the anxiety they caused remain among the most commonly cited elements of residential school experiences.
And yet, in the five years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its final report on residential schools, including its 94 ‘Calls to Action’, progress has been slow.
William Herney recalls being caught by a staff member speaking Mi’kmaq with his brother in the residential school he attended in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia:
‘’And she says,” “What are you two boys doing?” “Nothing, Sister.” “Oh, yes, I heard you. You were talking that language, weren’t you?” “Yes, Sister.” “Come here,” she said. I went over. She took a stick. She leaned me over to the bathtub, grabbed me by the neck, and I don’t know how many whacks she gave me over my bum, and I was crying like I don’t know what. Then, she took a piece of soap, and she washed my mouth in it. I can still even taste that lye soap. All my life I tasted that taste. And she said, “You don’t talk that language here. That’s a no, no, no, you don’t, you understand?” Looks at me straight in the eye. She said, “Do you understand that?” And I said, “Yes, Sister, I understand.”
Mary Courchene recalled that in the 1940s at the Fort Alexander school in Manitoba, she was taught that “my people were no good. This is what we were told every day: ‘You savage. Your ancestors are no good.”
She became so ashamed of being Aboriginal that when she went home one summer “I looked at my dad and I challenged him and I said, “From now on we speak only English in this house.”
Her father’s eyes filled with tears. Then he looked at her mother and said, in Ojibway, “I guess we’ll never speak to this little girl again. Don’t know her.”
Unsurprisingly, former students found themselves unable or unwilling to teach their own children Aboriginal languages and cultural ways. As a result, many of the almost 90 surviving Aboriginal languages in Canada are under serious threat of disappearing, and 70% of these languages are considered endangered.
Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and these figures highlight the urgency to preserve them.
The TRC calls for the preservation, revitalization, and strengthening of Indigenous languages across Canada. Some of the ways this could be accomplished is through the appointment of a federal Aboriginal Language Commissioner, university and college degree and diploma programs being offered in Aboriginal languages, and the waiving of administration costs for residential school survivors and their families to go through the process of reclaiming names changed by the residential school system.
Recently, Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, says “reconciliation and healing are matters of urgency – if anything, that urgency is greater and more apparent today than ever.”
Governments would be wise to listen, before these languages are lost forever.
The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
What We Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation