Esther Wesley once attended a Sunday service at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Prince Albert, Sask., and could hardly believe it when she heard the entire congregation sing The Doxology in Cree.
“I mean, they sung it in Cree!” says a visibly excited Wesley, co-ordinator of the national church’s Anglican Fund for Healing and Reconciliation. “And, I’ve been told they’ve continued to do so every Sunday.”
Wesley’s excitement is understandable. Such a feat had been made possible, in part, by Cree language classes held at the cathedral, which in 2014 received a $15,000 grant from the healing fund. Initiated by the dean of St. Alban’s, Ken Davis, and taught by the Rev. Samuel Hackett, the classes had attracted a mix of students-ages 7 to 70-Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, Anglican and non-Anglican.
The classes were one of about 70 language and translation projects across Canada that had received grants from the fund since its inception in 1991. Established to support initiatives that help Indigenous people heal from the harmful legacy of Indian residential schools, the fund has so far disbursed $7,359,209, of which roughly $960,000, or 13.04 per cent, has gone to language-related projects.
Wesley, who has been fund co-ordinator since 2000, firmly believes that most of the issues confronting Native communities are tied to loss of language. “Language work must continue. If we don’t support language, then all the children that are coming up are going to lose their identity,” Wesley told Council of General Synod (CoGS), the church’s governing body between General Synods, last November.
Loss of language was one of the devastating consequences of the Indian residential school system and other assimilationist policies of the colonial government. From the mid-19th century to the second half of the 20th century, Aboriginal children were taken from their homes and sent to federally funded, church-run residential schools, where they were forbidden from speaking their mother tongues.
At Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, former students shared experiences of physical and emotional abuse endured as a consequence of speaking a language other than English or French. While some dared to use their mother tongues in secret, many eventually lost their ability to speak them. Unable to communicate, they were cut off from their families and communities and lost the ability to bequeath their ancestral language to succeeding generations. Denigration of Aboriginal languages also inhibited many from relearning them.
The results have been devastating. Today, many of the 60-90 surviving Aboriginal languages in the country are “under serious threat of extinction,” according to the TRC’s final report released in 2015. Only 14.5 per cent of Canada’s 1.4 million Indigenous population report an Aboriginal language as their first language, the TRC noted, citing Statistics Canada’s 2011 census report.
“In the previous 2006 census, 18% of those who identified as Aboriginal had reported an Aboriginal language as their first language learned, and a decade earlier, in the 1996 census, the figure was 26%,” said the TRC. “This indicates nearly a 50% drop in the fifteen years since the last residential schools closed.”
There is hope, however. In recent years, there have been sustained efforts by Indigenous peoples and many other sectors to revive and rebuild Aboriginal languages. A 2011 survey from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) showed that about 88 per cent of First Nation schools offered Indigenous language programs. Despite a lack of funding, about 58 First Nation schools across Canada are finding ways to offer Indigenous language immersion programs for children, it added.
The Bible has also been translated into several Aboriginal languages, with support from various church agencies.
Last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a plan to implement a new law to protect and preserve Indigenous languages in Canada. Adequate financial and logistical support are key if this law is to have substance.
The Anglican Church of Canada wasn’t far behind: on December 23, CoGS voted to dedicate this year’s undesignated proceeds of General Synod’s annual fundraising campaign, Giving with Grace, to the Healing Fund. Campaign organizers hope to raise $1 million, which will allow the fund to continue supporting projects-particularly those aimed at language preservation-for the next five years.
It’s a campaign that deserves generous support from Anglicans, who are on a continuing journey of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
We all know the importance of language. Language is the essence of a people’s culture-allowing them to pass on their values, beliefs, heritage and histories from generation to generation. It is also a tangible expression of a people’s right to self-determination.
In a 1994 study of the impact of residential schools, the AFN, quoting First Nation elders, says that “a First Nation world is quite simply not possible without its own language. For [elders], the impact of residential school silencing their language is equivalent to a residential school silencing their world.”
Elder and cultural educator Mary Lou Fox (Odemin Kwe), of the Ojibwa First Nation, Manitoulin Island, summed it up when she once said, “Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”
For John Mosquito of Nekaneet First Nation, it is simply this: “Our Creator put us here on earth. He gave us different languages to use. He put us here to love and respect each other.” (Source: Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre website.)
*Mushkegowuk Cree language