The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated

To hear non-Indigenous people tell it, we’ve been teetering on the edge of extinction since not too long after Contact. That narrative hasn’t changed much over the years, though the cause of our cultural and perhaps even physical demise has varied somewhat in the details. There have been moments of colonial guilt over past policies, but in every age the contemporary opinion is focused on the inherent inability of Indigenous peoples to survive in the supposedly modern world.

Whether this belief is held by those who mourn our slow disappearance or by those who wish we’d hurry up and vanish already, our continued presence must indeed be puzzling. Ours is the slowest apocalypse in human history it seems, because over 500 years later, millions of Indigenous peoples continue to exist all throughout the Americas.

That’s not to say the situation isn’t grim. British Columbia is home to over half of the sixty distinct Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, and in BC every one of those languages is considered at extreme risk. In some cases, the number of fluent speakers can be counted on one hand.

Now, why would I bring up language first, when twenty percent of First Nations in Canada lack safe drinking water? Why discuss language before the five to seven percent higher suicide rate among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth? Why not talk about how Indigenous people make up twenty-three percent of the prison inmates in Canada, despite only being four percent of the total population?

The answer I must give you is that I believe our languages to be so central to who we are as Indigenous peoples, that I cannot discuss our present or our future without reference to languages.

The oppression we have faced, and continue to face, does not define us in the way our languages do. Our resilience, and the fact that we have not disappeared all the times it was predicted that our end was just around the corner, is very much rooted in our languages. The ability to transmit our languages to our children has been actively interfered with for generations, and remains greatly threatened. The fact that anyone remains at all to speak our languages is a cause for celebration, and such tenacity in the face of unimaginable adversity warrants admiration.Think about that for a moment.

Regardless of the fervent wishes of the architects of policies intended to eliminate our languages and cultures, there is no sudden transformation from Indigenous to non-Indigenous when a single person is denied the opportunity to learn her own language. I would argue, however, that if our languages were lost completely, our collective identities would be at risk of being lost. Such loss would not be immediate, but in my opinion, the extinction of our languages would make it impossible to grow as peoples. We would become stagnant and rootless. How many generations beyond complete language loss would render us non-Indigenous, I hesitate to even guess. Next to losing the land, I cannot think of a factor that more threatens our collective existence as Indigenous peoples than no longer being able to talk our talk.

To explain why I believe this to be so, it is important to understand what our languages do for us besides allowing us to communicate with one another. It makes sense to use examples from my own language, but before I do that, I would like to provide a bit of context. I am from a historic Métis community on the shore of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. The founders of that community were Iroquois (Mohawk) traders and Métis with roots in the Red River. There are Cree and Nakota Sioux communities in close proximity to my own, and intermarriage remains common. Speakers of various other Cree dialects as well as Dene peoples had been making annual journeys to this lake for many generations, and continue to do so.

Linguistic diversity in that area is the norm. Over the years, the Mohawk language fell out of use and was replaced by Michif and Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin). It has been easier for me to learn Cree than Michif, simply because of the availability of speakers and materials in Cree versus Michif. When I say “my language,” I refer to Cree, but perhaps I should be saying, “one of my languages.”

In any case, in order to begin demonstrating what language can do besides allowing us to communicate, let me use the example of the nêhiyawêwin word, wîtaskîwin. Most easily translated as “peace,” wîtaskîwin actually has a much more complex meaning. It can be better translated as “truce or alliance” or best yet, “living together on the land,” and it is a foundational principle of Cree law.

There are a number of Indigenous scholars who are working to reclaim and restore Indigenous law. Let me diverge yet again for a moment to explain the difference between Aboriginal and Indigenous law. Aboriginal law is the name given to the body of law that defines the relationship between the colonial state and Indigenous peoples. Indigenous law is the traditional law of our many nations, and only rarely is it ever acknowledged within Aboriginal law. Indigenous law is the body of law that defines the reciprocal obligations between human beings, animal and plant beings, spirit beings and the land.

Language is central to the reclamation of Indigenous law because translation fails us — not only because so much is lost in translation, but also because so much is added. It is nearly impossible for me to use the English term law and not have you immediately form images in your head of what law is. Your understanding of this term is probably rooted in a specific Anglo-cultural history. Whether you form pictures in your mind of lawyers in powdered wigs, or monarchs passing judgement, or of weary Crown prosecutors desperately trying to make it through a stack of files three feet high, the term is inextricably linked to an Anglo–common law tradition which stretches back for centuries. Millennia, if we want to really get to the roots of it.

Because of this, when I talk about Cree law I cannot avoid evoking a system and a history that is quite antithetical to what Cree law actually is. This distortion is a problem no matter what Cree term I would try to translate. That is not to say I cannot eventually help you to understand what a term means, without you first having to learn Cree. Going back to the word wîtaskîwin, we could drink many cups of tea and discuss what “living on the land together” means. There would be many misunderstandings to overcome, many cultural assumptions to address, but eventually we could come to an understanding using the English language.

If you were to learn Cree, you would not just be learning new words, you would also be learning a worldview. It would still be possible for you to misunderstand this worldview, and to apply your own cultural understandings to the terms you learn, but this is less likely to happen than when we use translation.

Aside from allowing us to communicate with one another, our languages express our laws and sociopolitical principles. When we lose our language, we can no longer tap into those things that make us a whole culture. We must rely on translations that are inescapably influenced by foreign cultural understandings. We cannot help but experience an erosion of our cultural foundations when we cannot access these principles in their pure form, in our languages and in our territories. On the flip side, even when our traditions and cultures have been eroded, we can use the language to reclaim foundational principles that may have been forgotten or erased on purpose by the overlay of colonially imposed governance in our communities.

Our languages also contain the history of our peoples, which is the history of all those who live in what is now called Canada. I chose the Cree word wîtaskîwin because it is the name of a town in Alberta, anglicised to Wetaskiwin (and made notorious for a long-running jingle, “Cars cost less in Wetaskiwin!”). If all that remains of the language is that word, with no understanding of its meaning, the place becomes disconnected from its history.

The town’s name originates from a legendary peace made between the Cree and the Blackfoot. Understanding from this, first of all, that the history of Canada did not begin with Europeans, is an important step in reclaiming our collective histories, whether we are Indigenous or not. Understanding that Indigenous peoples have been making treaties with one another for thousands of years is an important step in recognising that we have always exercised self-determination.

Acknowledging these two truths in a real way would be breaking new ground in a country that has worked for centuries to overwrite us with colonial narratives. Canada is literally bursting with such history, marked by Indigenous words for physical features and historic events. Unfortunately, much of this history has been ignored. The stories continue to exist in oral form, but because orality is not respected in the way that written literacy is, these stories are in danger of being lost completely. Though some would say that the solution is to write down the stories or in other ways record them for future generations, I argue the complete opposite. I want us to maintain our orality.

Orality is often framed as a lack, or an absence, specifically of a system of writing. Drawing a line between societies with a system of writing and those without is too simplistic by far. A number of Indigenous nations had a system of writing, but remained oral cultures. Rather than being an absence of something, orality is in fact a very well-stocked cultural tool-kit.

Orality is a way of accessing knowledge in a way that is fundamentally different from the way we access written knowledge. Transmission of oral knowledge requires great discipline: repetition, patience, attention to nuance and an expansive understanding of cultural and historic context, among many other skills. (I use the term historic here, despite the fact that the word history is often limited to refer to written history.)

Many European cultures were once oral cultures as well, and it doesn’t take much scratching to reveal those roots. Imagine if you will, the skill it took to master some of the epic poems (Beowulf or The Lusiads) that reside now only between the pages of bound books. While still stirring tales, something vital is lost when the storyteller is taken out of the picture.

When we lose our languages, we lose our orality as well, because the dominant culture is very much based on written literacy. This loss requires a fundamental shift in how we see the world and understand our relationship to it. That shift takes us away from our Indigeneity and furthers our colonisation. Rather than building on the strengths within our oral cultures, we are forced to operate within a system of knowledge transmission that is fundamentally at odds with our own.

I bring up the issue of orality as an essential component of our cultures and pedagogies, but it is also a language-learning tool. As babies, none of us were given paper and a writing implement and taught to write words before we learned them. Children are often likened to sponges, soaking up knowledge without having to endure the kind of nineteenth-century banking-style education that somehow remains the norm in Canada. Some sort of intellectual calcification of our sponge-like abilities seems to render us incapable of learning languages that way as we age, or so the experts claim.

Yet Indigenous language resurgence has been most successful when done in settings that favour traditional language transmission. By traditional, I refer to Indigenous pedagogy as well as the kind of teaching we receive as infants. As little sponge-babies, we receive our grammar from context rather than from texts designed by linguists. Indigenous language resurgence has focused on providing that context, without worrying too much about the linguists. After all, as Khelsilem Rivers of the Sḵwxwú7mesh/Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw nations likes to put it, “if linguists were going to save, reclaim and restore our languages, they’d have done it by now!” (at Concordia’s Study in Action panel on “Culture and Race: Languages of Resistance,” 17 March 2013).

Language resurgence has been a central focus for a number of Indigenous nations worldwide for some time now. In the seventies and early eighties, the Maori launched what they call the Kōhanga Reo, translated as “the language nest.” These language nests are rooted in traditional Maori pedagogy and culture, putting fluent elders and child learners together in immersion settings.

These programs became wildly successful, and reversed the drastic decline of the Maori language as well as revitalizing Maori traditions. This model has been adopted in communities all over the world, including First Nations here. While most successful when begun as early as possible, the language nest model also gives adults the opportunity to become fluent in their languages. Increasing the number of fluent speakers requires immersion settings, and it is more and more likely that the language nest model will become the standard in Indigenous communities.


Vincent Medina became one of the first people to speak his Chochenyo language in 70 years.

In some cases, languages that have gone extinct through the loss of all fluent speakers have nonetheless been brought back. A notable example is the Chochenyo language, spoken by the Muwekma Ohlone in California. The last fluent speakers died in the 1930s, and the Chochenyo language was not spoken again for seventy years. With great community-wide effort, fluent speakers were created in a few short years, bringing the language out of extinction and back into spoken life. While I previously stated that linguists are not the ones who will save languages and bring them back, the work linguists do in recording and understanding language does have a place, particularly in a situation like that faced by the Ohlone Chochenyo.

Indigenous languages also need official recognition and serious financial commitment to flourish. Recently, Nunavut’s Official Languages Act of 2008 finally came into force, making Inuktitut an official language along with French and English. Some people have misunderstood the importance of this, as the Official Languages Act of the Northwest Territories (which up to this point had applied to Nunavut as well) already lists nine Indigenous languages.

Legislation without investment and guidelines is merely lip service. In practical terms, not all government services are available in every Indigenous language listed in that Act in the NWT, while in Nunavut a significant amount of time and money has been spent to ensure access and compliance. Also passed in 2008 was the Inuit Language Protection Act, which has not yet come into force. It protects the right of parents to have their children educated in Inuktitut. Currently, Inuktitut-language instruction exists until grade three, but should be available in all grade levels within the next decade.

What would it take to bring all of our Indigenous languages back to good health? I believe it would take an apocalypse — an end to colonialism as we know it! Our languages and cultures would have to be valued in truth, by all peoples living in Canada. I believe that such a shift in perception is possible. Perhaps Indigenous language resurgence can help bring this end about. We can start small, and word by word begin dismantling the colonial narratives that obscure the true potential of all peoples living here.

We live in turbulent times, and the current sociopolitical model that dominates the landscape has not always been up to the challenge. There is a willingness to believe that while we do not have the perfect system, we have the best system possible, despite the fact that so many groups are deeply unhappy with things as they are.

Indigenous peoples remember that things have not always been this way for all peoples, and that they need not always be this way. Many of the social advances Canada has experienced in the past few generations, such as working towards equality, acceptance of fluid sexualities and genders, and a greater awareness and respect for the environment, are principles that have existed for thousands of years among many of our nations. Overturning the colonial narrative would allow more people to become aware of how these principles need not be new floors we add to our existing home, but are instead the foundation upon which all else can be built.

Indigenous peoples are not generally seen as a fountain of resilience and adaptation, despite a history that shows these traits are precisely what have kept us alive for so long. Despite the way we have been portrayed, as primitive and incapable of living in the modern world, the foundational principles of our peoples are absolutely suited to whatever gets thrown at us. Unfortunately, few people understand that we even have such foundational principles, much less know what they are.

Language resurgence gives us access to those principles. The beginning lies with the principles as expressed in our languages — principles such as wîtaskêwin, miyo-wîcêhtowin (how to manage our relationships with others to achieve mutually beneficial living), and askîwipimâcihowascikêwina (the way in which we must create arrangements to live well together, to be self-sufficient and interconnected at the same time).

The more important work is in applying these principles to current circumstances, in a way that acknowledges the world we live in today. This of course requires that we come together as peoples, to make decisions together as equals rather than as superiors to inferiors.

An example of how these principles are applied to contemporary situations can be found in the adaptation of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ, the Inuit way of doing things) to all aspects of governance in Nunavut, from education and health to environment and economic development. You can find these principles stated and explained on the Nunavut government website, but also woven through every curricular document and every piece of legislation passed in the territory. For example, a synthesis of IQ and Western science is being used in Nunavut to better understand, and help find solutions to, the extreme climatic changes being experienced by Inuit peoples. Consensus-based decision making and learning-through- doing are two of the principles that inform the application of IQ to contemporary issues.

Understanding these principles as expressed first in our own languages, contradicts the status quo of assuming our beliefs function only in a pre-Contact utopia populated by noble savages. When only lip service is paid to understanding Indigenous principles, and we accept token references to Turtle Island, Mother Earth, the Four Directions and other such pan-Indian terms and phrases, we perpetuate a two-dimensional view of our Indigeneity. This becomes particularly dangerous given that seventy percent of Indigenous peoples in Canada are living in urban centres now. If we three dimensional beings fail to conform to two-dimensional standards by living in cities and wearing jeans and using smartphones, then it is often assumed we have abandoned our Indigenous principles.

This view can only exist when those principles are understood so poorly and so superficially. Using our own languages first, and providing translations only when necessary, forces us and others to interact with these concepts in a deeper way — hopefully a more meaningful way.

I see language as the hook that will draw people in to the good relationships described by our foundational principles. I would like to see every person in Canada learn at least some of the language of the people within whose territory they reside. It is my hope that this would allow them to grasp the importance of some of the place names that escaped notice before. It is my hope that this would allow all people living here to better locate themselves within a wider history that has been ignored and downplayed for too long. It is my hope that in this way, we can collectively reclaim our humanity.

Indigenous peoples essentially face two futures: one which continues to be dominated by colonialism and paternalism, where we are unable to make fundamental decisions about our own lives; and another where we exercise self-determination based on the foundational principles of our sociopolitical orders, in cooperation with all those who share these lands with us.

The first scenario is comfortable for non-Indigenous peoples, and maintains the status quo. Eventually, as we are underfunded and mismanaged into deeper ill health in the physical, social and spiritual senses, we may indeed finally experience the apocalypse that has been so repeatedly predicted for us. I can assure you, however, that the end is not so close as certain non-Indigenous peoples believe it to be.

The second scenario is inherently uncomfortable, requiring great effort on the part of all peoples living here to decolonize themselves and the familiar institutions that have existed here for generations. It is understandable that there is a reluctance to do this work, particularly when the outcome is not something we can truly see until the process is further along. A colonized mind cannot escape its mental limits in order to peek into a decolonised future; not for longer than a few uncertain heartbeats.

The discomfort to which I refer is so great, that perhaps not even the appeal to our continued existence as Indigenous peoples is enough persuasion to do the work needed. We are already facing death from many fronts, at rates so much higher than the general population. If these facts do not sway the majority into re-examining the relationship that exists between Canada and Indigenous peoples, then what else can be said?

As for us, we will continue to do what we can to revitalise and restore our languages. We will continue to fight for our lands, with our words and our bodies. We will continue to hold on to our foundational principles. We will not ask for permission to exist. We will face obstacles put in our path the way we have faced them for thousands of years: with humour, humility, courage and strength. I can only hope that our continued efforts to reach out to our neighbours will be met with honesty, integrity and compassion so that we can all experience what wîtaskêwin truly means.


Originally published in FUSE Magazine, 19 June 2013. The theme of that issue was apocalypse.

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Categories: Aboriginal law, Culture, Decolonisation, First Nations, Fluency, Idle No More, Indigenous law, Inuit, Language learning, Métis, Residential schools

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19 Responses to The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated

  1. john lavers says:

    language is the lunch pin of culture. no question about it. I speak a little gaelic, or should I say gaidhlig, I’m from the tail end of a disappearing culture. we have the fiddling and dancing but even that has changed when notn linked to the rhythyms of the language. gaidhlig music used to be taught orally to syllabic phrases that have the rhythym the tune was trying to achieve. gaidhlig has slurs and dipyhongs and gutterals and aspiration of letters. all these were part of the orniments of the fiddle tune. few learn this way anymore as few can speak well enough and the fiddling is becoming less ornamented and faster. they used to play at a moderate pace for dancers, and use the extra time to add slurs, gutterals from the bow etc. now its fast and more commercial. nice , but this is the end of traditional gaidhlig fiddling. and that’s pretty much all we have left!! without a firm grounding in traditional language you lose the flavour accents of a culture and it becomes homogenized, and then assimilated. ghen the world loses a special gift.

    clean water , decent housing and good jobs and education are good too but while cape Breton was one of the poorest places in north America the culture was richest back when most people spoke gaidhlig before 1945. you couldn’t suppress the culture when there was the backbone of language. even through the clearances, the coffin ships, mass starvation and war the culture was strong because the people spoke a common language that informed everything they did.

  2. Thank You for this lesson! As a colonial ‘Canadian’, I am listening with open ears and an open heart.

  3. granny says:

    SOME “non-Indigenous people” …

    In pursuing change, it’s wise to spend time and energy connecting to the 20% of non-Indigenous people who do support you, and educating the 60% who will support you once they understand better.
    Focusing on and addressing the narrow, entrenched prejudices of the 20% who are extremely resistant to changing their views is a waste of your time and energy. It can also defeat your purposes if interested non-Indigenous people are turned off trying to educate themselves by being lumped with the resisters.

    Find those you can work with.

    • If you feel implicated when the general term ‘non-Indigenous people’ is used, then that is something you can examine on your own time. I am not going to invest a lot of energy into ensuring that I always qualify my statements so that I avoid ‘turning off’ people who claim to be trying to educate themselves. The constant, and yes it is constant, insistence that we celebrate and recognise our ‘allies’ and always at every turn ensure we are not lumping the ‘good’ with the ‘bad’ is a very blatant display of privilege that I have no interest in catering to.

      You don’t need me to recognise you and create a separate category for you. Your actions do these things. Or not, depending.

      Edit: Is that seriously what you’ve chosen to comment on? Not a single peep about the actual subject matter, just a finger-wagging, ‘we’re not all like that!’ moment based on the first sentence?

      Wow. An incredible display of self-absorption.

      • Daphne Johnston says:

        Granny is probably a troll. I have seen the same comments on other sites relating to First nation issues.

      • Brenda Gold says:

        I do not think that Granny is a troll. I think that Granny is a settler/colonial/imperialist who does not want to confront her/his own internalized racist and to take personal responsibility for the perpetuation of colonial attitudes and institutions here on this land. As a settler/colonial/imperialist/racist myself I have found this part of self education to be the hardest. I have had to give up so many aspects of myself that I once thought were part of my identity and pride in being Canadian.

        A few years ago I had to realize that a large part of what I identified as my being Canadian was in fact “imperialist nostalgia”, an illness or disease defined as “mourning the loss of that which you are actively engaged in destroying.” Not a pretty picture or a nice disease to have. Now when I feel those waves of sick nostalgia and mourning come over me in relations to FN peoples I can recognize it for what it is – a pernicious disease that indicates that I have destructive attitudes no matter how much I simultaneously congratulate myself for my benevolent strength of feeling. I think that most well meaning Canadians, or even would be allies are infected with this disease. It is very hard to shake – it is an addiction.

        Some of the worst offenders in forced assimilation of FN were deeply ill with this disease, including Duncan Campbell Scott, poet of Confederation, and deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932, some of the worst of the residential school years. He mourned the death of FN peoples in his poetry, while he was actively engaged in destroying FN language, culture, economic viability and actively engaged in forcing FN communities into starvation, poverty and dissolution.

        I think that the sad truth is that we are all like that, even the most open-hearted of us. We have all been raised in a settler/colonial/imperialist/racist culture. We have learned to valorize ourselves and to disrespect FN.

        Am I self-absorbed? I hope so. I am committed to to critically examine my responses, to weed out disrespect and dishonour in order to begin to listen and then maybe to understand. I try to help others who feel misunderstood in relations with FN peoples to realize how offensive and unhelpul expressed feelings of grief, guilt,hurt, offensive, slight can and will be in interactions. My advice to those who come to me for it is “Don’t ask FN peoples to take care of you.” “Deal with yourself.” Even asking FN peoples to react to your needs, to push back your needs on to yourself is another form of colonial/imperialism.

        Lately I have been experimenting with the hope/idea that critically examining myself for signs of assumed superiority, disrespect, and dishonour learned from my culture and admitting and acknowledging that I am infected with them will allow me to understand how these processes work in our society and in the minds and psyches of other non-indigenous people. I am hoping that if I can understand these processes in myself I will be better able to recognize them in others and then understand how it is that FN can feel so frustrated with would-be allies.

    • Ellen says:

      @granny, if you care about the rights of First Nations people, then you ought to also care enough to listen to what they have to say about those rights and the country’s handling of them. That’s called respect and there’s no such thing as really caring without it.

    • hermit2003 says:

      Well Granny, most of those of us who continue to support Indigenous people are usually happy to garner more facts and good sources of information to persuade our non-supportive friends to change their minds. Unfortunately, I think your estimate of the percentage of extremely resistant souls is vastly understated.

  4. Thanks for writing this piece that illuminates and connects together so many things, from language-nest learning to the strengths of oral cultures to (and I was most thrilled by this) the synthesis of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and science in respondiing to extreme climate change in the far North. Climate change is getting pretty extreme everywhere, and even the most rigid right-wing mind has got to notice the weather at some point, so I’m hoping that Nunavut can be a model and a beacon of hope — oh, it is possible to respond to an earth-emergency in a human way, and here’s one example.

  5. Brenda Gold says:

    Thanks for republishing this. These are the very issues that I have been thinking about and grappling with. I am a settler living on Anishnaabe land and territory. I have recently been studying Anishnaabemowin ( Ojibwe language). When I was asked why, I just said because I feel I should. Thanks for articulating why I should. I have been working towards this, but was groping a bit in the dark.

  6. sameo416 says:

    On a battlefield tour a former member of the Belgian resistance left us all with a challenge – if you do nothing else in your life, learn at least one other language. Language is the only way to really understand another people. You’ve motivated me to get back into Michif studies. Thanks.

  7. Bruce Weaver says:

    Wonderful. A real motivator for me to learn Mohawk as well as continuing to learn French to better understand my son in law and his family. I have respected languages for many years and now as I enter a storytelling time, your work has helped me understand the need to hear stories in the original language to truly really get the message of the story.

  8. Frederick Peitzsche says:

    Open Letter to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations – December 13, 2013

    Thank you for your open letter of November 25, 2013 regarding the draft legislative proposal sent to all Chiefs on October 22, 2012, outlining a way forward for First Nations education. I also understand that productive discussion on First Nations education took place at this week’s AFN Winter Assembly that resulted in a resolution directing you as National Chief to continue working with our Government to address the five issues raised in your letter. I believe that the time is long overdue for us to ensure that First Nation children have access to a comprehensive education regime which affords them education rights and protections in the same manner as all other students. My view is that we cannot get there without putting in place legislation.

    While we have an enormous challenge ahead of us, it is not insurmountable. What I have witnessed in my conversations across the country is that the desire for change runs deep, it is urgent, and it is shared by students, educators, parents and chiefs.

    I want to reaffirm my strong commitment, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to working with you and other First Nations leaders. While we may not always see eye-to-eye on all issues, I know we can stand together in the efforts to create a better system for First Nation students.

    It is in this spirit that I offer the following points in response:

    The Government of Canada agrees that First Nations must have control over their education. The proposal that I put forth is intended to empower those who know best what their children need – First Nations, parents, communities, and administrators – to determine what is most effective for their success. The proposed bill strengthens and entrenches the roles and responsibilities of First Nation governments and education authorities, while reducing the day to day powers of the Minister and the Department from what they are today. I cannot stress enough the important fact that the draft legislative proposal will not apply to First Nations who are part of existing comprehensive or sectoral self-government agreements that cover education. Implementation of First Nation control over First Nation education will provide First Nations with the opportunity to establish the structures and systems that support First Nation control and institution building, including self-government negotiations moving forward. We remain ready to consider options to further ensure that this principle is embodied in the legislation.

    Your letter also raises the need for statutory funding for First Nation education. The Auditor General noted in her 2011 June Status Report that “…structural impediments severely limit the delivery of public services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living conditions on reserves.” The Auditor General went on to identify four specific impediments: “lack of clarity about service levels, lack of a legislative base, lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and lack of organizations to support local service delivery.”

    The draft legislative proposal provides a framework to address all four structural impediments, including funding, and would commit the Minister in law to sustainable, stable and predictable funding to students and schools. I look forward to continuing the discussion regarding structures and standards so that we can then determine adequate, stable and predictable funding. If we are to put in place a legislative framework that provides First Nations control of education, minimum standards and which also takes into account the need for language and culture programming, of course, new funding will be needed to support this system. As I mentioned earlier this week, new funding will accompany legislative reform.

    Another point that your letter addresses is the importance of language and culture for successful education models. We could not agree more. In fact, many First Nations have shown success in education through curriculum that responds to local needs and includes language and culture programs. If there are ways to improve the proposal with regard to language and culture, I welcome the opportunity to discuss your ideas.

    First Nations have made it clear that they have been advocates of stronger accountability in their schools to achieve the outcomes for their students. I accept that First Nation schools must be responsible to their communities for the evaluation of student outcomes. Now is the time to sit together and determine how this accountability would best be structured. I would welcome a proposal from the Assembly of First Nations in this regard.

    Last, you raised the need for an ongoing process of meaningful engagement. I agree. It is only by working together that we will achieve strong and effective education systems that will meet the needs of all First Nation students. We need to sit down now on an urgent basis and have this discussion so that we can move forward together.

    On the issue of ensuring that legislation meets First Nation student needs, the proposal builds on decades of study and extensive consultations with First Nation leaders, youth and parents across Canada. From the Joint National Panel on First Nations Education, to the discussion guide, to the Blueprint, we have taken an iterative, open and transparent approach. The consultation process is not finished, and there is no deadline. We are only on the first draft of a bill. The bill also ensures there will be a full review of the legislation after five years, which will give First Nations an opening to further refine the Act.

    The last time a formula-driven funding mechanism was put in place was back in 1988. It has been 25 years since it has been updated. The passage and implementation of legislation would be the most direct route to consolidating the current mix of programs into a single operating transfer, supplemented by strategic funding, to support the transition to the new legislation and the creation of new education authorities.

    The challenge we face in increasing the intolerable low graduation rates in First Nations schools is not insurmountable because we see success already before us – such as with a graduation rate among the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia that is more than double the national average. Our challenge is to make successes like these the norm, not the exceptions. Students and parents have waited so long for us to address First Nation education. The homework has been done. The studies are in. It is time to act. The opportunity we have before us can become our promise, not to the next generation of students, but to this one. With continued discussion and engagement, we can fulfil that promise.

    I look forward to working with you on these important matters.


    The Honourable Bernard Valcourt, PC, QC, MP
    Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

    From the statements made in the letter from the minister,it seems to me that FNP should thrash out an education act now for the future, instead of boycotting the whole process.
    One begins to learn his/her language at their mothers knee.CFDan one really take anothers language/culture away? Under pain of death the Koreans proved to the world that if your language/culture was meaningful for you ,no one could take it away,you lose it through indifference.

  9. Joe Campbell says:

    I love the idea of oral traditions and I especially loved the Beowulf example. Writing is a very useful tool, but it should not eliminate something that has been essential to human existence for thousands and thousands of years. Every person on this earth is blessed that there are books, but conventional pedagogy relies on book smarts to create mindless worker drones. This is no good. I am reviving the oral tradition in my family by telling my girls stories every night!

  10. Penny says:

    It’s sometimes an immigrant anti-Semitic thing too. That version rolls like this:

    “The Palestinians are so provoked that Israelis can’t complain if they and their children get destroyed.”
    “Wait, aren’t you a settler in [Canada/the U.S./Australia/NZ/etc.] yourself and didn’t you make babies on indigenous people’s land too?”
    “That’s different, you can’t make up for it after like only a dozen native people are left.”

  11. Pingback: More Thoughts on Stories of Immigration… | Too Old to Paint Trains

  12. Hey!
    I’m Gabriele from Italy! I really like learning languages and cultures; now I’m finishing studying Swahili, and next I’m going to study Cherokee. I think in the future I’m going to focus more on American indigenous languages. It was only recently that I became aware that all I knew about “Native American culture” (which means nothing, since there are hundreds of cultures) was only stereotypes, and I became more and more interested. I wish I’ll become able to understand at least a little bit of Cherokee worldview! Who knows, maybe Cree will be next. Anyway, what you are doing is great!

    • Thank you.

      I hope you are also aware of the incredible privilege you have being able to learn any Indigenous language, given that a great deal of Indigenous peoples themselves do not have access to their own languages.

      • Yes, I’m aware of my privilege, and I know Indigenous people were forbidden to talk their own languages, and even now they aren’t encouraged properly to do so. As an aspirant linguist, this really angers me. White people have tried to destroy an incredible amount of cultures all around the world, and, as you say, language is an extremely important part of anyone’s culture.
        Unfortunately, here in Italy no one studies Indigenous languages (I’ve heard about a Nahuatl course in my university, but I missed it and that’s all), so I have to import books from the USA. More unfortunately, it’s hard to get books of these languages even from America!
        No one seems to care nothing about this languages here, but I’ll try to change the things, at least a little. I’ll translate some songs and record it in Cherokee, as I’ve done in Swahili. It’s very interesting and fun.
        Is there any good Cree book available for purchase? It’s not my next language, but I could consider studying it…

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