Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 14: Language and Culture (13-17)

Residential schools tried to eradicate Mi’kmaw. The language needs help to survive

October 2, 2023

Teaching Mi’kmaw is essential, and educator Noreen Sylliboy wants more provincial support

a women stands in class with Mi'kmaq words on the board
Noreen Sylliboy is shown teaching Mi’kmaw phrases, days of the week and seasons to a Grade 5 class at Truro Middle School in Truro, N.S. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: Teacher Noreen Sylliboy stands in front of a class of Grade 5 students and starts with a simple lesson that names the days of the week and the seasons, speaking in a language that only a few thousand Nova Scotians know. 

She is trying to do her part to revitalize Mi’kmaw, a language that Canada’s Indian residential school system once tried to destroy.  “I love to hear my language. I love speaking it,” Sylliboy said.

Saturday marked National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honours the children forced to attend residential schools in Canada, and their families and communities. In its landmark 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that residential schools were part of a collective, calculated effort to eradicate Indigenous language and culture.

In her classroom at a middle school in Truro, N.S., in front of a mix of Mi’kmaw and non-Mi’kmaw students, Syliboy is part of an effort to reverse that.

A new generation is learning Mi’kmaw. Here’s why their teacher says it’s important: Duration 2:24

Students at Truro Middle School in Nova Scotia are taking part in a Mi’kmaq language program. Noreen Sylliboy has been teaching to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth for over a decade. She believes it’s essential for the language’s survival.

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She learned the language through her elders and family members growing up in Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.  She began teaching at Truro Middle School about a decade ago, picking up the mantle from Melody Googoo, who had started the Mi’kmaw language course at the school.

Sylliboy said she wants the language to be spoken and taught across Nova Scotia. First Nations can help with programming, but she said the provincial government and school districts need to work to bring more Mi’kmaw language teachers on board.

Children sitting in chairs are shown.
Grade 5 students at Truro Middle School are shown during Sylliboy’s Mi’kmaw language class. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

“The province can definitely continue to support and continue to fund our programs for culture and language,” Sylliboy said. “We need to speed up on the language aspect of our reconciliation.”

The Truro Middle School has a funding partnership with nearby Millbrook First Nation and the Chignecto-Central Regional Centre for Education to incorporate the course in the school’s curriculum. 

“A lot of my learning has to do with understanding our language structure,” Sylliboy said. “It’s very different from English and I can’t always apply the way that English is spoken to Mi’kmaw.” Mi’kmaw is heavily verb-based, she said, while English is more noun-based. Teaching Mi’kmaw can be “tricky.” 

A man is standing in a classroom next to a painting
Standing next to a mural created by Mi’kmaw and non-Mi’kmaw students, Gordon Pictou said it is crucial for the Mi’kmaw language to be taught to the next generations. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Gordon Pictou from Millbrook First Nation helps incorporate Mi’kmaw culture into the curriculum at 66 schools in the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education.  “We definitely could use more of me, we definitely could use more Mi’kmaw language teachers, but we’re on a path at least towards that, compared to when I was a kid,” Pictou said. “The reality is that one person can’t cover 66 schools.”

According to the 2021 census, there were just more than 3,000 people who spoke Mi’kmaw as a mother tongue. In all, 5,650 Nova Scotians had knowledge of the language.

Truro Middle School students Tegan Sylliboy Moody, 12, and Mila Martin, 13, are trying to join those who are fluent in the language.  “It feels like I’m connected to my culture a little bit more each time I speak it,” Tegan said.  “I think it’s good to learn our language more so we can keep it alive and we don’t stop speaking it and sharing it with everybody,” Mila said.

girls standing in a hall
Truro Middle School students Tegan Sylliboy Moody, 12, Mila Martin, 13, and Matlen Martin, 13, said they are proud to speak their language. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Pictou said there should be more programs for those interested in teaching.  “Our language encompasses all the teachings and encompasses all our history and comes as our way of life,” Pictou said. “Education in the past was the thing that severed that.”

Sylliboy said one of the challenges is getting parents involved, as some grew up without being taught the language. Some of her students are only learning the language through her. “We’re losing our elders too fast and they’re often our speakers. Pretty soon we’re not going to have any elders to lean on when we want to discuss language.”

Last year, the provincial government recognized Mi’kmaw as the original language in Nova Scotia, with efforts aimed at promoting and keeping the language alive.

A new pilot project course called Netukulimk and the Environment 11 will be introduced to four high schools next semester, according to the Education Department. It will teach Mi’kmaw and traditional values.

This year, for the first time, students will be able to enrol in Mi’kmaw language 11 through Nova Scotia Virtual School. The Education Department said students will learn conversational Mi’kmaw. “I think reconciliation really has a lot to do with that generation and us to be listening to them and help support,” Pictou said. 

“It’s going to be this generation on the ground now, and it’s going to be the non-Indigenous kids and the Indigenous students together that will figure out what that looks like going forward.” 


Tehosterihens Deer, Reporter

Tehosterihens Deer is a Haudenosaunee from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake. He is a reporter and journalist with CBC Nova Scotia.