Arts & Culture King's Briefs

A moment of hope and healing

I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Atlantic National Event which ran from Oct.26-29. The goal of this event was to reconcile and revitalize the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society, which greatly suffered from the 100 years of residential schools. Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend these government-funded, church-run schools, which were created to eliminate parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of Aboriginal children.
One of the greatest consequences of these schools was the loss of Aboriginal languages. The seminar I attended discussed a language revival project that has been taking place in Eskasoni, a reserve in Cape Breton, with the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world. When I heard about this project, I saw a moment of hope for healing and true reconciliation; I felt compelled to raise awareness about the importance of supporting similar projects and Aboriginal language revival in general.
In 2000, Starr Sock and Ida Denny started a Mi’kmaq Immersion Program at the Eskasoni Elementary and Middle School. They had no resources, and had to create the curriculum themselves with the support from the Mi’kmaq Centre of Excellence in Eskasoni. Their program has been very successful, and it now goes up to the grade three level, with a transitional year in grade four. They hope to extend the program beyond grade four in the future.
In the research conducted by Starr Sock and Sherise Paul-Gourd, a Mi’kmaq teacher who joined their team, it was demonstrated that the program enhanced the students’ academic success in English rather than hindering it. In a sample of 16 Mi’kmaq Immersion Program students (MIP) and 65 regular English instructed only students (EIP), 13 of the MIP students were reading at the highest level in English whereas only one English-only student was reading at this level. No MIP students were reading below the lowest level, whereas 40 English-only students were below this level.
This is was no surprise to me, since my French immersion education in no way hindered my competency in English, demonstrating that immersion programs improve academic success in both languages.
Paul-Gourd also said that the MIP students are much more confident than the average student and more involved in extra-curricular activities. She gave the example of the many MIP students who volunteer to present at school ceremonies, where they make presentations such as reading poems in Mi’kmaq. One member of the audience was very touched by this. He said rekindling pride in Mi’kmaq culture is essential, since it was largely destroyed by the residential schools. “We need to teach our children that our ancestors were proud people without abuse,” he said.
When I later asked Paul-Gourd about how language is essential to Mi’kmaq culture, she said: “Mi’kmaq language and culture walk hand in hand. Many values pertaining to our culture are embedded within the language where without the Mi’kmaq language, a lot of those values and moral lessons will cease to exist.” After hearing this, I understood just how this program was a true opportunity for hope and healing. By reviving Aboriginal languages in this way, much of the damage from the residential schools in destroying Aboriginal culture, spirituality and intellectual understandings could be repaired.
Many audience members commented on how they are very frustrated because there are no similar immersion programs in their communities. They said there needs to be more people starting these initiatives in their communities, and more potential government funding to accompany these initiatives. One audience member said that she went to a very well-funded French immersion school in Manitoba. She felt this showed that government-funded Aboriginal language immersion schools are a complete possibility.
When I asked Paul-Gourd how the general public could help this cause, she said that the public must “remind the government that it is their obligation to help in this fight to keep our languages strong in order to hold onto our precious culture.” Therefore, in order to reach this full reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society, revival of Aboriginal languages must become an essential public concern. Many Aboriginal language immersion schools could exist, just like French immersion schools, if the public demands them.
By writing letters to your Member of Parliament and to the current government about the importance of increasing funding in language revival, you can contribute to the recovery of our country from the horror of residential schools. By spreading awareness about the importance of language revival and the damages from residential schools, you can contribute to this reconciliation. Paul-Gould, Sock and Denny have demonstrated that healing is possible; however, reconciliation will only be fulfilled when each Canadian plays their part in supporting it.
The seminar ended with one man in the audience’s hopeful words: “We must not think of our language as becoming extinct, but as sleeping,” he said. Let us act on this moment of hope and help support the awakening of these languages from their forced slumber.

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