Current Problems

Language and Culture (13-17)

Educators say more support needed to keep Indigenous languages alive

February 11, 2023

Consultations are ongoing to update the Indigenous Languages Act

Students at Bkejwanong Territory-Walpole Island First Nation’s language immersion school, Anishnabeg Kinomaagewgamig, do a lot of their learning outdoors while learning about traditional activities. (Submitted by Jennifer O’Brien)

CBC News: As the federal government considers changes to the Indigenous Languages Act, some Indigenous educators say they need more support to keep their languages alive.

“First Nation schools are severely underfunded when it comes to immersion programming, let alone the basics in terms of language instruction,” said Leslee White-Eye, governance director of the First Nations with Schools Collective. The Collective represents eight First Nations in Ontario that run their own schools.

White-Eye said time is running out to teach Indigenous languages like Anishinaabe because a generation of fluent speakers are now elders, and won’t be around forever to teach younger people.

“We have just a small window of opportunity,” she said. “We have maybe 10 years to make sure that fluent speakers are invited in and lifted up in our communities, to speak to us, to be recorded, to be archived, to tell us how to speak the language and why it’s spoken a certain way and what the meanings are.”

White-Eye said the current funding model is centred on the premise that First Nations schools fall under school boards that have more resources at their disposal than individual schools. “That’s absolutely false,” she said. “They are independent, autonomous community schools that have their own internal structures that need to be addressed and need to be funded properly.”

A woman sitting at a table.
Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell is an elder from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island and an advisor for the First Nations with Schools Collective. (Submitted by Leslee White-Eye)

Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell, an elder from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, and an advisor for the First Nations with Schools Collective, said the Anishinaabe language is starting to erode in her community. Corbiere-Lavell speaks the language fluently, and said she learned it from her father.

She said treaties with the federal and provincial governments guarantee some aspects of nationhood, and language is one of those aspects.

Neil Debassige, an education consultant with the First Nations with Schools Collective, said Indigenous languages and culture should be incorporated into all course content with participating schools. “Instead of separating the social studies like geography and history in the intermediate divisions, why wouldn’t we try and develop a curriculum that takes kids out onto the land to talk about local geography and infuse language, culture and ceremony into that curriculum?” he said.

The Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs has held four days of consultations on the Indigenous Languages Act since last December.

With files from Warren Schlote