I come from a community that historically, was multilingual. People spoke Michif, Cree, English and French, and many also spoke Stoney (Nakota). Some knew even more languages if they needed to. Today, almost everyone from my community is a monolingual English speaker.
That pattern of multilingualism shifting to monolingualism is seen throughout Indigenous communities. For some of us, the process is nearly complete. For others, the process began only recently, but with appallingly rapid results.
We even know why this has been happening! Colonialism wields blunt instruments like the Residential Schools to strip us of our tongues, but it also operates in more insidious ways, by devaluing our linguistic diversity in the name of economic and social opportunity. It vigorously funds English and French while allowing Indigenous languages to languish in linguistic palliative care.
Like all human beings, Indigenous peoples want to be able to thrive; want our children to be successful and self-sufficient. For generations, Canada has made it clear that Indigenous people must assimilate to the over-culture or we will forever be marginalized. Enforcing marginalization is a choice Canada is making; it is not an inevitable consequence of being Indigenous.
A crucial part of assimilation is leaving our languages behind.
I was 28 years old when I finally got to study one of my traditional languages, Cree/nêhiyawêwin. I had to go to University to do it! I was the first person in my entire extended family to actually go to a post-secondary institution. What an injustice, that our languages are so often rendered inaccessible to us; that those with the leisure and opportunity to become fluent experts are not even our kin.
I am still nowhere near as fluent as my ancestors were, and I may never be. Nonetheless, what I was able to access completely changed my life. Suddenly the way people speak English in my community and in the surrounding communities made sense! It isn’t “broken English” like some claim as they make fun of us. It is a form of English that has been shaped by the grammar and cadence of Cree and Stoney. It is beautiful. More importantly, embedded in the Cree language are concepts I had only imperfectly understood in English. Concepts like miyo-pimâtisiwin, tapahtêyimisowin, wâhkôhtowin.
Canada seems to want to put a dollar sign on all things. Wants us to show the economic value of everything, or support will not follow. In our need to provide for our children’s futures, I think we sometimes get sucked into believing our languages aren’t worth passing on because we can’t prove they will benefit our kids economically. We really need to reject that paradigm.
We don’t have to prove that learning our languages is going to get us good jobs! Let Canada explain why it underfunds languages that exist nowhere else in this world, while English and French are prioritized to the tune of billions of dollars a year! Let Canada be on the defensive, because we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. Our languages have intrinsic value, on so many levels: culturally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically. When my mind pushes through English, and when my tongue forms words in Cree, I feel joy. It fills my whole body.
Maybe one day, Indigenous multilingualism will be a reality once more, but to get there, we’ve got to make it happen.