Starr Sock did not attend a residential school. But she remembers, as a child, seeing the students who came home for the summer.
“When they got off that bus, they were strangers,” recalls Sock.
The children could no longer understand what people were saying or make themselves understood. Stripped of their native language and culture at school, they no longer spoke the language of the Eskasoni First Nation, one of five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton, N.S. And they no longer understood traditional ways.
The granddaughter of a grand chief, Sock says she was “fortunate” to have been raised by aunts who taught her to be proud of her heritage.
Today, Sock and her friend and colleagues, Sherise Paul-Gould and Ida Denny, are called “language warriors.” Through their efforts, a Mi’kmaq Immersion Program (MIP) pilot project was launched at Eskasoni in 2000. The program, which has had a huge positive impact on this community of 4,000, continues to this day.
Study of the program, using data from 2008/2009 as well as conducting interviews, has revealed that students taught exclusively in Mi’kmaq from kindergarten to Grade 3 perform better, excelling in Mi’kmaq, and later, in English literacy. Research has also shown that these students have higher levels of self-esteem, more self-confidence and are more eager to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Why? Because “they know who they are, they are proud of their identity,” said Paul-Gould.
Sock and Paul-Gould shared the results of their study at a session on indigenous language at the Atlantic National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) being held here Oct. 26 to 29.
Paul-Gould and Sock expressed the hope that their study will convince other Mi’kmaq communities to take steps to preserve their native language, which is in danger of disappearing “largely due to the devastating effects of the residential school experience.”