French language is dying in some First Nations communities because schools refuse to teach it.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey results, three native reserves in the Nova Scotian counties of Inverness, Richmond and Victoria had the lowest number of residents who speak English and French, Canada’s official languages. The data shows that the communities of Whycocomagh, Wagmatcook and Chapel Island have only five people each who know both languages.
Joe Marshall, the Executive Director of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, said English is the most spoken language on these reserves, but that is causing concern for the community.
“A lot of them [students] want to learn to speak English because they feel it’s the language that will improve their education and help them find jobs,” he said. “And in some cases, they refuse to learn their own language, which is Mi’kmaw.”
Eleanor Bernard is the Executive Director of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, a Mi’kmaw education resource centre, in Sydney. She said French isn’t a priority for students on the reserves.
“Why would we want to learn French?” Bernard said. “Our Mi’kmaw language is dying, so we have a very huge concern of that and we’re trying to retain what we have and revive it.”
Since the arrival of Europeans and other settlers in 1534 and the establishment of residential schools in the 1880s, First Nations languages have been at a rapid decline. Children at residential schools were forbidden from speaking First Nations languages and those who disobeyed faced physical and emotional punishment.
Nova Scotia has Canada’s largest population of Mi’kmaw people at 60 per cent, with the second largest population in B.C. at 28 per cent. However, a 2014 report by the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council revealed that only four per cent of the First Nations population in B.C. could fluently speak the language. 59 per cent of these fluent speakers are 65 years old or older.
According to the Mi’kmaq Education Act, originally drafted in 1988, a reserve has the power to create laws and programs in relation to the primary, elementary and secondary education in its community. However, the educational programs must be comparable to other schools in Canada so that students can transfer to different institutions without difficulty.
Bernard said Mi’kmaw language immersion programs have been introduced to schools in Mi’kmaw communities as well as provincial schools to help revive the language. She stated that French would never be an option at the schools and even if it was, they refuse to teach students the language.
“If a student(s) [are] adamant about taking French, they can do it through the provincial program or through virtual schools,” Bernard explained further. “But there hasn’t been anyone who has been concerned about it. No one has come forward and said they want to take French.”