Residential schools in Canada banned Indigenous languages. The Cree are trying to recover theirs.


MASKWACÎS, Alberta — Lucy Johnson never spoke the Cree language as a child. His father wouldn’t allow it. He called it “jungle talk.”

He didn’t elaborate much until he was weeks away from dying of alcoholism. Then he told his children that he associated the language with his experience at Ermineskin boarding school. When he tried to speak Cree there, he said, a priest sexually assaulted him.

“The more he talked, the more punishment he got,” Johnson said.

It is a legacy of Ermineskin that Johnson, now 55 and a paralegal, cannot speak the language of her people. Neither did his six siblings. Across Canada, the often brutal residential school system, designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white European culture, succeeded in breaking the tradition of passing languages ​​from generation to generation — and putting the survival of some in danger.

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But now, 25 years after the last boarding school closed, some indigenous communities — including the one Pope Francis visited on Monday — are reviving and relearning their native languages. It is a movement fueled by the desire to recover what has been lost and by the feeling that progress is possible. The youngest of the Crees did not attend residential schools. Unlike their parents or grandparents, they did not internalize the idea that speaking their language could be wrong.

Isaiah Swampy Omeasoo, 20, studied and spoke Cree fluently. His wife is expecting a child in February, he said, and he will speak to his son or daughter in the language.

“I wanted to change the model,” he said. said. “It’s not going to skip another generation.”

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In Maskwacîs – an area comprising four First Nations reserves on the Alberta prairie between Edmonton and Calgary – Cree, the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada, can be found written on stop signs, municipal buildings and vehicles. ’emergency. A local radio station has Cree-speaking DJs. The school district says its mission is to “integrate” Cree culture and language into education – a direct response to the damage caused by residential schools.

But restoring a language is not easy. Steve Wood, the secondary school’s vice principal, said only six of the 54 staff members could speak Cree fluently. Many in the community are not conversational. Robert Ward Jr., the radio station manager, says he sometimes comes across ideas on the air that he can’t articulate because he lacks vocabulary. He’ll admit it to live radio, he says, hoping an elder will call and help.

“It’s a language that was taken away from us,” he said.

For much of the 20th century, Indigenous children in Canada were forcibly removed from their families and placed in residential schools – often hundreds of miles from their communities – where they were forbidden to speak their native language or practicing cultural traditions. Some were physically and sexually abused.

The United States also ran what were called Indian boarding schools for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Home Office is currently investigating abuses of this system.

In Canada, a the majority of schools were run by Catholic entities. When Francis apologized here on Monday, he noted how Indigenous languages ​​and cultures had been “denigrated and suppressed.” Many in Maskwacis felt the pope’s apology was necessary and helpful. But they also noted that by speaking his words in his native Spanish, he was exercising a privilege that was denied to them.

“If you look at the pope, he was speaking in his language,” Johnson said. “How come my father didn’t speak his own language? »

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on Indian Residential Schools reported on the many punishments children were subjected to for attempting to speak their language. A former student testified to being cut up close. Others said they were beaten with straps or had their mouths washed out with soap.

Many arrived at the schools with little or no knowledge of English or French, sparking the ire of nuns who expected them to understand instructions. Over time, some children forgot their own languages ​​or suppressed them, only to return home and find it difficult to communicate with their parents.

More than 70 Indigenous languages ​​are spoken in Canada, but they are much less common in daily life than English and French – Canada’s two official languages ​​– or even the languages ​​spoken by many of the country’s immigrant groups.

It was not until 2019 that simultaneous translation services for an indigenous language became available in Parliament. That year, for the first time, a National Hockey League game was broadcast in Plains Cree. Elections Canada offers information guides in 16 Aboriginal languages, but the ballots are in English and French.

The share of the Indigenous population with the ability to speak an Indigenous language well enough to have a conversation fell from 22% in 2006 to 16% in 2016, according to the federal census. On the positive side, the proportion of people who learned an Indigenous language as a second language increased from 18% in 1996 to 26% in 2016.

UNESCO in 2010 recognized 86 Indigenous languages ​​in Canada, but warned that 32 of them were “critically endangered”, meaning they were “used primarily by very few speakers, from the generation of the great-grandparents”.

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Many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action focused on language and culture. They included recommendations for the federal government to recognize that Indigenous rights include language rights and for universities to offer degree programs in Indigenous languages. Many do now.

Parliament passed legislation in 2019 to provide long-term funding to recover and strengthen Indigenous languages ​​and to establish an Indigenous Languages ​​Commissioner who must report on progress annually. The first commissioner was appointed last year.

And after Indigenous groups said last year that ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of unmarked graves near the sites of several former boarding schools, the government announced it would allow Indigenous peoples to recover their names. traditional – often changed in schools – upon government identification. free until 2026.

Lorna Williams, associate professor emeritus of Indigenous education at the University of Victoria, said the 2019 legislation was “important to send the message that Canada itself is finally giving Indigenous languages ​​some importance, and that makes a huge difference”.

But “what has really made the difference so far,” she added, “is the efforts of the people themselves in the Indigenous language communities.”

Although most education in Canada is administered by the provinces and territories, on First Nations reserves it is funded by the federal government. Critics say the chronic underfunding of reserve schools has effectively institutionalized inequality.

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In 2018, the four Maskwacîs First Nations signed an agreement with the federal government that gave them much greater control over education, allowing them to deliver and design a curriculum infused with the language, culture and Cree traditions.

Brian Wildcat, superintendent of the Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission, said educators plan to pilot a new curriculum in the fall with a particular focus on Cree language, identity and way of life. He hopes it will eventually replace the current district curriculum, which was drafted by the province.

Wildcat’s mother was a teacher who brought the language and culture into her classrooms.

“Residential schools were weapons used against the community to destroy families, destroy the community and get rid of the identity of the Cree people,” he said. “Our schools today are the tool of hope and change that is based on what the community wants.”

Wood, the deputy director, called restoring the language a “monumental effort” — and one that requires immersion. So he tries to use the scream as much as he can: when he orders a sandwich at the local subway or when he fills up his car at the gas station. “Language has to be heard for people to understand it,” he said.

It is with young people, he says, that he sees progress.

“We have kids coming back from our preschools who know more about Cree than their parents,” Wood said. “It’s a product of what happened.”

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