Language, culture stolen by residential schools now part of reconciliation process

·5 min read

The United Nations (UN) named 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages to highlight the need to preserve, revitalize and promote the use of the world’s estimated 7,000 Indigenous languages - 2,680 of which are considered to be in danger.

“Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory,” the UN said in a news release.

At the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the UN declared an International Decade of Indigenous Languages to begin in 2022.

The resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 18, “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language” and to “take urgent steps at the national and international levels.”

The 2011 Census of Population recorded over 60 Aboriginal languages grouped into 12 distinct language families – an indication of the diversity of Aboriginal languages in Canada.

According to the 2011 Census, almost 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue. In addition, nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home.

The Indian Residential School system attempted to completely wipe out all Indigenous languages and culturally specific traditions, like ceremony, dancing, and feasting.

When the children were brought to the schools, the first thing that happened was that their hair was cut off. This may not seem like a big deal, but Indigenous people value their hair differently than mainstream society; their hair is an extension of themselves, an extension of their nervous system, and very sacred.

Many Indigenous people never cut their hair, choosing instead to wear braids or let it flow naturally. However, when a loved one passes away, many people cut their hair to honour the person and to offer up their grief to the Creator.

Chatelaine Magazine published an article by Andrea Landry, a teacher at the First Nations University of Canada, a mother, a certified life-skills coach, and a freelance writer for Today’s Parent. She also has a personal blog entitled Indigenous Motherhood.

The following statement is an excerpt from the article titled, “What my mother taught me about my hair.”

“Hair is sacred. The teachings have been passed down by our nokamis (grandmother) to our mothers, our mothers to our daughters and our fathers to our sons. While hair teachings differ, depending on the family, community and nation, there is an overarching theme. Our hair connects us to our identity, our kinship systems and our life force. Ultimately, how we take care of our hair is a reflection of how we take care of ourselves and our children.”

To strip the children of their identities, the schools took their clothing, hair, and language away, and name-calling and berating them and their families/culture began.

When the children spoke the only language they knew, they were punished severely.

Sir John A. MacDonald is quoted as saying the following during an 1883 address to the House of Commons:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

Imagine, if you will, your child goes to school prepared with the only language they may know. Now, imagine your child comes home with their hair cut off (most heads were shaved), with bruising on their little bodies because they spoke the only language they know.

Worse, imagine that they didn’t come home at all? But nobody tells you, your inquiries are ignored, and you are advised to “get over it.”

Then 50 years later, they find your child in an unmarked grave behind the school, but you still need to get over it; it was a long time ago.

Call to action No. 13 is the first of five calls under the heading of language and culture:

“We call upon the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.”

According to the Indigenous Watchdog, this call to action is classified as complete.

Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous Languages, received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019. Bill C-91 states: “The Government of Canada recognizes that the rights of Indigenous peoples recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 include rights related to Indigenous languages.”

The Canadian government website states the following regarding Bill C-91:

“The bill has been developed to support the meaningful implementation of Calls to Action 13, 14 and 15 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, elements of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the commitment to a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership.

“This legislation aims to reclaim, revitalize, strengthen and maintain Indigenous languages in Canada and aligns with the commitment to renew the relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. Under Bill C-91, Canada recognizes that Section 35 of the Constitution Act includes language rights. This is a monumental step in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.”

Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action series will continue with more from the Language and Culture section in the next segment of the series.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times

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