When it comes to the many challenges that aboriginal peoples face here in Canada, I find I have to strike a balance between identifying those problems and trying to come up with solutions for them. Spending too much time on either of those things and I get mixed up, ungrounded. The one is too depressing to deal with all the time, and the other is too long-term and can burn a person out if that person (me!) needs more instant and tangible results.
People will ask me, “so what would your solution be”, and I often step back and refuse to answer, because I believe solutions have to come from people themselves and I don’t want to speak as a single person. I think that when you propose solutions, you should also have an implementation plan…because anyone can dream. It takes a lot more effort to make dreams real.
But right now, I’m going to talk about dreams and wishes. I’m going to think aloud on the topic of things I would really love to see, and why. I can’t call these things solutions, just ideas. But solutions start somewhere.
How would you go about changing the relationship between natives and non-natives in Canada?
Ooooh! *rubbing hands gleefully* Let’s just pretend I have a magic wand, billions of dollars, and unlimited resources.
My dreams are based on things I want in my life. Things I think are missing, support I don’t have, resources I crave. Pretty much all focused on my kids actually. In this post I’m going to address just one wish I have. I’m going to leave out scholarly articles, studies, long winded justifications and just tell you what I’d love to see.
Aboriginal language (and culture) learning for everyone!
Hear me out! I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly (and often negatively) about having to learn other languages. Chill. I’m just chatting here. (And if you want a more involved discussion of the various issues at play, please read this article.)
What I’d love to see is for aboriginal languages to all become official languages in Canada. “Are you nuts!? We could never afford to translate every official document and sign into all those languages!” Yes, I realise that, and I’m not asking for that actually.
As official languages, there may indeed be translations in specific regions where necessary (although this already happens to some extent, where provinces have made that effort through provincial or territorial ‘official languages‘ policies). However, I don’t see that addressing relationships between natives and non-natives.
Nope, what I want is for aboriginal languages to be taught in all elementary and secondary institutions. I want them to be mandatory. “Whoa, what!? Are you–” Hold on, I asked you to hear me out.
The way I picture it is that whichever traditional territory the school or school board in question is on, the traditional aboriginal language of that territory would be taught to all students, native and non-native alike. So if you’re in Mohawk territory, you have Mohawk language classes. If you’re in Dene territory, you learn Dene, and so on.
Now, my kids and I are currently living in Mohawk territory, but our language is Plains Cree. Would it suck just a little to have them learn Mohawk in school and not Plains Cree? Yes, it would, just a little…but I think the benefits would by far outweigh this.
“What benefits?” you scoff. Well, let me first identify what I see some of the problems to be, and I’ll address how I think this would address those problems.
Not understanding aboriginal history/culture
As Justice Sinclair put it:
“Aboriginal kids were taught that they were savages, that they were heathens, their cultures were irrelevant and that they had to assimilate,” he said. “That very same message was being given to you and your parents and your grandparents in the public school system.”
It’s not only non-aboriginals who are lacking in information about aboriginal history and culture, and how that history and culture is relevant to Canadians today. Many aboriginal students also lack that information and understanding. One way I think we can address this is through aboriginal language learning.
Language can not be effectively taught in a vacuum. (Sound waves just won’t travel in space!) Okay but seriously, learning the language of the territory you are in also comes with historical and cultural information. Even if at first all you’re learning is those funny place-names are actually aboriginal words that refer to specific physical features or historical events, you’re becoming more grounded in regional history.
Once you become more versed at delving into regional history and culture, I think that it becomes easier to do this on a wider level as well. Canada’s history is very much a patchwork of regional histories and contexts. Correct more immediately relevant regional understandings first, and you create a strong foundation from which to work with.
I do not think you can effectively engage in this kind of historical and cultural learning without at least some language learning. Translations alone aren’t sufficient. I’ll probably wax eloquent on that subject in a later post.
Lack of self-confidence among aboriginal youth, divide between native and non-native youths
For me, and for many other aboriginal people, it is incredibly empowering to hear an aboriginal language being spoken and taken seriously. Even if that language is not necessarily yours. Even when the territory you live in is not your traditional territory, having native culture being presented in a positive light can be incredibly confidence-boosting. I think there is also a great opportunity to make non-natives feel ‘welcome’ and part of something cool and interesting.
I have heard a lot of stories from non-natives who grew up in the Prairies and who got to see hoop dancers, grass dancers and so on, or who saw native students going off to smudge in the native student centre or what have you. They often talk about how as children, they saw these things and were really moved by how ‘cool’ it was, but that they also felt left out. They wanted beautiful regalia too, they wanted to smudge. Some of them got to, but others felt denied access to these things because they were not First Nations. There was a recognition there of the beauty of another culture, but also a barrier that further exacerbated an already deep divide between native and non-native students.
I think that engaging non-natives in language and cultural learning would allow them to feel more rooted in the regional culture. Not as ‘wannabe Indians’, but rather as people who share a pride in the local history and culture. Imagine for example, a non-native student proudly saying, “I come from Wet’suwet’en territory”. Imagine native and non-native students proudly peppering their speech with Witsuwit’en terms.
I remember reading an article a few years ago about just such a language program somewhere in BC. I wish I could find it, but students both native and non were interviewed about what it was like to learn an aboriginal language. The students all thought it was really cool. The results were very inspiring…the program fostered inclusion that affected the native and non-native students in different ways perhaps, but in every way positively.
But why make it mandatory? And why promote this over other (currently non-official) languages like Mandarin, Spanish or even Arabic?
I do not think it is enough to make such things optional, not if we seriously want to change relationships and undo damage. It can’t be an ‘opt out’ situation that risks missing vast swaths of Canadians.
Aboriginal languages need to be recognised at the very least as equal to English and French. Why? Oh boy. If you’re even asking me why, it means we are doing a crap job right now of teaching the relevance of aboriginal culture and history. I can’t even begin to answer that question without first making you understand how our cultures are revelant to all Canadians…including our most recent newcomers.
And that’s the point. That’s the learning I’m talking about. I see language learning as a ‘way in’ to a deeper and more respectful (and healthier) relationship… not as a way to increase your job opportunities. I don’t expect everyone to become absolutely fluent in an aboriginal language (though it sure would be nice!), but having some legitimised exposure can’t hurt. Whether we make it a separate class, or integrate it into the curriculum and blend it into every subject, I believe aboriginal language learning for everyone has incredible potential for fostering understanding and cooperation.
I believe it has this potential because it focuses on positives in a way that even the most second-language resistant person can find interesting. It also forces there to be more direct involvement from aboriginal-language speakers, most of whom also have important cultural knowledge. There has been a push to teach more aboriginal culture in schools across Canada, but oh man…some of that information is just awful, to be honest. And I don’t blame the teachers if they don’t know what’s accurate and what’s not. Having actual community members and holders of real cultural knowledge involved in the process means we aren’t perpetuating silly mistakes and stereotypes.
Mandatory language/cultural learning for teachers too!
Yup. I think that anyone wanting to be a teacher in this country also needs to have mandatory language/culture training. If we don’t start teaching our future teachers about the history of this country, we’re never going to get anywhere. Right now, very few teachers-in-training receive any sort of education on how to deal with First Nations students or aboriginal issues.
I see education as THE TOOL, the main force for change. Thus those people who go out to engage in educating current and future generations must not be left out. They are possibly the most vital link.
We are not simply ‘a minority’.
I hear this a lot, about aboriginal peoples being ‘just another minority’. Well hey, guess what…so are Francophones. Yet we (in my opinion rightfully) preserve a special place for Francophone language and culture because the French were one of Canada’s founding peoples.
The myth of only two founding members of Canada needs to be smashed up into little tiny bits. Aboriginal peoples were vital in the founding of this nation, and despite the truly awful history of oppression and colonisation, we continue to be relevant in a way that is not comparable to other ‘minorities’. We’re never going to truly understand that without making some real effort.
I joke with my partner that New Zealand used to be associated just with sheep and kiwi when I was a kid, but that now it is inescapably flavoured by the Maori. The national character of New Zealand, as seen from abroad, has shifted because of a new understanding of Maori culture in that country. For example, where would the All Blacks be without the haka? Simple changes perhaps, and that country is hardly free from native and non-native conflict…but it’s a start.
Canadians often complain about a lack of a national identity. Well folks, isn’t it time Canadians learn about their history and culture, and finally develop that complex and beautiful national identity?
I don’t have it planned out. I don’t have the curriculum designed or the funding figured out. I just have ideas, and wishes. I’d love to hear what ideas and wishes you have!