Preservation of Indigenous languages vital to understanding cultures: prof

Indigenous languages are being recognized for their cultural richness — but also as living, working means of communication, instructors in the UVic’s Department of Indigenous Education say.

Prof. Onowa McIvor said the state of First Nations languages is often a function of population density. The greater the population, the more likely it is that their language will be spoken. As well, the farther north you go, the more you will encounter Indigenous languages at work in business, the home and in the community, she said.

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“It makes a difference when Indigenous people are controlling the language — when they have more control over the local schools and what’s being taught,” McIvor said.

McIvor, a Swampy Cree/Scots-Canadian woman from northern Manitoba, led a national forum Monday at the University of Victoria. It was attended by about 40 people involved with the teaching, revitalization and study of Canada’s Indigenous languages. The event coincided with the beginning of the United Nations Year of Indigenous Language.

To mark the UN year, the First Nations Education Foundation announced that UVic was chosen as the future home of an Indigenous languages pole. It will be carved by master carver Tim Paul from a cedar felled in Huu-ay-aht territory, in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It will be installed in November of this year.

McIvor said her forum is the beginning of the creation of an online atlas for Canada’s Indigenous languages. It’s planned as an open portal for communities to network about Indigenous languages: how to teach them and how to revitalize them.

It’s also part of the first national project focused on the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, led by Indigenous people and governed by Indigenous people.

Jean-Paul Restoule, a UVic professor and chair of the Department of Indigenous Education, said his department currently offers certificates and two-year diplomas, whose holders can then transfer into the education faculty.

He looks forward to a time when students can study for a degree majoring in an Indigenous language in the same way a student can earn a BA with French, English or German as a major.

“I hope that day is not too far away,” Restoule said. “Right now, it’s about building up the proficiency of the speakers.”

McIvor said the about 70 Indigenous languages exist across Canada, some in greater need of revitalization that others.

She said teaching and learning these languages can offer priceless insights and spiritual awareness of Canada for everyone.

For example, McIvor said a Nuu-chah-nulth word for tree loosely translates as “ground grabber.” This holds enormous wisdom when considering whether to log a hillside of the trees, whose roots are holding the soil in place.

“It means if you clear-cut the side of a mountain, you will have a landslide into a ravine and the salmon will no longer be able swim up,” McIvor said.

She said learning something of the 70-odd Indigenous languages would benefit all Canadians and new immigrants.

“It’s about what we can learn from Indigenous Peoples that will enrich all our lives for a stronger society,” McIvor said.

“This is what reconciliation is about,” she said. “It’s not just about apologies and funding. It’s also about who we are and how are we going to get to know each other.”

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