Beyond Bilingualism

The Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act will soon turn fifty. Have we out­grown it?

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Mark Ab­ley

The Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act will soon turn fifty. Have we out­grown it?

In the dwin­dling light of a win­ter af­ter­noon, amid the north­ern sprawl of Win­nipeg, a line of school buses turns slowly into a park­ing lot out­side Maples Col­le­giate. The high- school stu­dents have al­ready left for home. Most of the bun­dled-up chil­dren who clam­ber out of these buses are be­tween five and twelve years old. They ar­rive here three af­ter­noons a week in their hun­dreds, not to prac­tise sports, not to learn arts, but to re­tain or re­gain their an­ces­tral lan­guages. In­doors, emerg­ing like but­ter­flies from the chrysalises of snow­suits, the chil­dren of­fer a glimpse of to­mor­row’s Win­nipeg — to­mor­row’s Canada — that is very dif­fer­ent from the past. Those head­ing to classes in Ger­man, Ital­ian, or Pol­ish are mostly sec­ond- and third-gen­er­a­tion Cana­di­ans. Their teach­ers work on con­ver­sa­tional skills — “so, when the kids are at a fam­ily gath­er­ing, they can start to par­tic­i­pate,” says Cathy Hor­bas, who over­sees the Her­itage Lan­guages Pro­gram for the Seven Oaks School Di­vi­sion. By con­trast, most of the chil­dren en­ter­ing the five classes in Pun­jabi or the three in Filipino are new Cana­di­ans who al­ready speak the fam­ily lan­guage; their fo­cus is on read­ing and writ­ing it. Their par­ents grew up in so­ci­eties where it’s nor­mal to be flu­ent in sev­eral lan­guages, un­usual to speak just one. And then there are the kids whose grand­par­ents or great-grand­par­ents knew the lan­guages of the river val­leys, the plains, the un­end­ing pine forests of Man­i­toba. The kids who come to Maples Col­le­giate in hopes of learn­ing Ojibwe or Cree. The kids who will sleep tonight, many of them, not among their own fam­i­lies but in the homes of those paid to look af­ter them. Last fall, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­clared the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Indige­nous chil­dren in Canada’s child-wel­fare sys­tem to be a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis — in Man­i­toba alone, nearly 90 per­cent of chil­dren in fos­ter care are Indige­nous. When they’re placed with non-indige­nous fam­i­lies, it’s not just a lan­guage that’s miss­ing from their young lives — it’s an en­tire cul­ture.

“We have to be care­ful how we ad­dress the chil­dren,” says Bar­bara Nepinak, an Ojibwe el­der who vis­its the af­ter-school pro­gram reg­u­larly. (Ojibwe is of­ten writ­ten Ojibwa or Ojib­way. The lan­guage is also known as Anishi­naabe­mowin.) “We can’t dwell on fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, be­cause there’s a dis­con­nect. Most of the chil­dren have fos­ter moth­ers, of­ten from the Philip­pines. They’re fine, lov­ing peo­ple, but they don’t un­der­stand the cul­ture.” Win­nipeg rises on the land of Treaty One, the first of Canada’s eleven num­bered treaties, and at 93,000, its pop­u­la­tion of Indige­nous res­i­dents ex­ceeds that of any other Cana­dian city: it has the largest num­ber of First Na­tions peo­ple and of Métis peo­ple. By def­i­ni­tion, their lan­guages were never for­eign here — that’s what “indige­nous” means. But, in a city where one in four peo­ple were born out­side Canada, a city of 700,000 echo­ing with voices from In­dia and Latin Amer­ica and the Philip­pines, Indige­nous lan­guages seem alien to many. Win­nipeg is, in this light, a mi­cro­cosm of the whole coun­try — and the lan­guages that ebb and flow through its wide streets speak vol­umes about Canada’s evolv­ing iden­tity. It never takes much in Canada to make lan­guage a po­lit­i­cal is­sue. A cen­tury ago, de­bates on the topic were crys­tal­lized by the so-called Man­i­toba schools ques­tion. In 1916, the Thorn­ton Act, named for Man­i­toba’s ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, R.S. Thorn­ton, shut down the en­tire French-lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in what Louis Riel had helped found as a bilin­gual prov­ince, mak­ing English the only lan­guage that could legally be taught in pub­lic schools. Its pro­po­nents heard the mu­sic of lan­guages other than English as a dan­ger, a weak­ness, an em­bar­rass­ment. Two years later, Thorn­ton de­clared: “Our aim is to plant Cana­dian schools with Cana­dian teach­ers set­ting forth Cana­dian ideals and teach­ing the lan­guage of the coun­try.” In the same pe­riod, On­tario and Saskatchewan took sim­i­lar anti-french mea­sures. The emer­gence of a sep­a­ratist move­ment in Que­bec in the 1960s spurred the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to de­clare Canada a bilin­gual coun­try: next year will mark the fifti­eth an­niver­sary of the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act. Its pro­vi­sions, along with those of the Con­sti­tu­tion Act of 1982, give speak­ers of English and French the right to be served in their own lan­guage in all fed­eral in­sti­tu­tions and courts as well as the right to re­ceive pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in ei­ther of­fi­cial lan­guage. But the cel­e­bra­tions may well be muted. For, as the mul­ti­lin­gual na­ture of Win­nipeg sug­gests, the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act in­car­nates a vi­sion of Cana­dian iden­tity that, to many peo­ple, seems less and less rel­e­vant. One rea­son is the con­tin­ued ero­sion of French out­side Que­bec. An­other is the ex­plo­sive growth of non-euro­pean lan­guages, in­clud­ing Man­darin, Can­tonese, Ara­bic, Pun­jabi, and Filipino; each of them now has more than half a mil­lion speak­ers in Canada. A third, cru­cial rea­son is the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s de­sire to pass an Indige­nous-lan­guages act be­fore the 2019 elec­tion — a di­rect re­sponse to the fi­nal re­port of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. The re­port, is­sued in De­cem­ber 2015, asked the gov­ern­ment to pass an Indige­nous-lan­guages act and ap­point a com­mis­sioner to over­see it; it called on uni­ver­si­ties to cre­ate de­gree and diploma pro­grams in these lan­guages; it used the phrase “Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guage rights.” In the past eigh­teen months, Cana­dian Her­itage, the de­part­ment re­spon­si­ble

for draft­ing the act, has been pri­or­i­tiz­ing the file. The act is, in the prime min­is­ter’s words, be­ing “co-de­vel­oped” by the gov­ern­ment and three nat ional Indige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions. It’s ex­pected to give for­mal recog­ni­tion to the dozens of Indige­nous lan­guages still spo­ken here and to com­mit long-term fund­ing for their main­te­nance and re­cov­ery. Will the price of the new Indige­nous-lan­guages act and large-scale im­mi­gra­tion in re­cent decades be Cana­di­ans’ long-held be­lief in lin­guis­tic du­al­ity? Laws that were passed when Pierre Trudeau was prime min­is­ter en­shrined English-and-french bilingualism as a key prin­ci­ple of Cana­dian pub­lic life. But, in the era of Justin Trudeau, the fu­ture ap­pears mul­ti­lin­gual — a com­plex ver­bal land­scape in which Indige­nous lan­guages en­joy an of­fi­cial place. Half a cen­tury ago, doubts about the iden­tity of Canada as a bilin­gual coun­try were ex­pressed mainly by English Cana­dian diehards and Que­bec sep­a­ratists. To­day, as the voices of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and new Cana­di­ans gain vol­ume, those doubts are much more var­ied — and they’ve taken on a dif­fer­ent tone. Canada’s core lan­guage ten­sion now fo­cuses not just on the promi­nence of French at an of­fi­cial, na­tional level but also on a grow­ing self-aware­ness that ours is a coun­try shaped by far more than the lega­cies of two colo­nial em­pires.

Der­rek Bent­ley steps into a hand­some build­ing that houses the Cen­tre Cul­turel Franco-man­i­to­bain in St. Boni­face, an old neigh­bour­hood of Win­nipeg that was once a sep­a­rate city. Streets here are still named Jeanne d’arc, La Vérendrye, Louis Riel. None of Bent­ley’s an­ces­try is French. Yet, at twenty-four, he’s the pres­i­dent of Con­seil je­unesse pro­vin­cial — a Man­i­toba group that is, he ex­plains over cof­fee, “run by and for youth, so they can live in French cul­ture in their own way.” For a long time, Man­i­toba’s con­seil je­unesse served only those whose­mother tongue was French. Then it ex­panded to in­clude peo­ple, like Bent­ley, who are fran­co­phone — and fran­cophile — by choice. Bent­ley at­tended French-im­mer­sion school as a child. In grade nine, fear­ing he might lose his sec­ond lan­guage, he fought for the right to switch into an en­tirely French high school. There are twenty-three schools for fran­co­phone stu­dents scat­tered across the prov­ince, and they have been run, since 1994, by a school board of their own. R.S. Thorn­ton must be turn­ing in his grave. Now the con­seil je­unesse also strives to wel­come mul­ti­lin­gual new­com­ers from coun­tries such as Congo and Rwanda. “The com­mu­nity has re­al­ized,” Bent­ley says, that “con­ver­sa­tions can be­come more and more vi­brant with these mul­ti­cul­tural back­grounds.” The re­sources that Ot­tawa makes avail­able to French speak­ers out­side Que­bec — and to English speak­ers in Que­bec — are of­ten gen­er­ous. It’s no sur­prise that many Indige­nous lead­ers see the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act as a won­der­ful prece­dent for an Indige­nous-lan­guages act. But Franco-man­i­to­bans have of­ten had to bat­tle hard for their rights. In the 1980s, when French speak­ers were urg­ing the prov­ince to of­fer bilin­gual ser­vices,

the of­fices of the So­ciété de la fran­co­phonie man­i­to­baine were de­stroyed by ar­son. A so-called Man­i­toba Unity Com­mit­tee sprang up, its goal be­ing to pre­vent “creep­ing bilingualism.” To­day, French is a marker of cul­tural pres­tige. Among mid­dle-class par­ents with as­pi­ra­tions for their kids, in Win­nipeg as in many other cities, French im­mer­sion is a de­sir­able choice — de­spite the lack of gen­uine flu­ency with which most stu­dents grad­u­ate. But across the prov­ince, the ev­ery­day use of French is on the de­cline. Whereas the 1971 cen­sus showed that 60,485 Man­i­to­bans spoke French as a mother tongue, by 2016 the fig­ure had fallen to 40,520. These num­bers are em­blem­atic of the broader strug­gle for all fran­co­phones out­side Que­bec: If the lan­guage keeps on shrink­ing in its his­toric west­ern strong­hold, what chance does it have in Hal­i­fax or Hamil­ton? Ex­cept for New Brunswick — fran­co­phones make up just over 30 per­cent of peo­ple in Canada’s only of­fi­cially bilin­gual prov­ince—no prov­ince out­side Que­bec now has a mother-tongue fran­co­phone pop­u­la­tion of even 4 per­cent. “The ques­tion of num­bers is im­por­tant,” says Gra­ham Fraser, who served as Canada’s of­fi­cial-lan­guages com­mis­sioner be­tween 2006 and 2016. “One of the things that has made the ap­pli­ca­tion of the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act eas­ier to un­der­stand is that there are 4 mil­lion French-speak­ing Que­be­cers who don’t speak English.” Rights don’t de­pend on num­bers. Ser­vices of­ten do. The Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act did not try to cor­rect de­mo­graphic im­bal­ances, nor was it de­signed to re­duce the rights of English speak­ers; it merely aimed to give French speak­ers equal rights. Af­ter it was passed in 1969, lin­guis­tic du­al­ity be­came a widely ac­cepted goal among English-speak­ing Cana­di­ans, and bilingualism has since be­come a cor­ner­stone of Canada’s global image. Yet, last year, even a fed­er­al­ist gov­ern­ment in Que­bec felt com­pelled to sup­port a Parti Québé­cois mo­tion de­nounc­ing the wide­spread use of “Bon­jour, hi” as a greet­ing in stores and busi­nesses. “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has strug­gled for decades to get civil ser­vants to say ‘Hello, bon­jour,’” ob­serves Fraser. This bilin­gual greet­ing, known as an “ac­tive of­fer,” is meant to in­di­cate that fed­eral ser­vices are avail­able in both of­fi­cial lan­guages. Sales­peo­ple in Mon­treal, says Fraser, have ca­su­ally em­braced the idea. But a level of bilingualism that in most of Canada might be ap­plauded, of­fi­cially at least, is con­demned by na­tion­al­ist Que­be­cers as a threat. Mon­treal has more trilin­gual res­i­dents than any­where else in Canada, and the lim­ited space French oc­cu­pies in the city is a sub­ject of con­stant de­bate — es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the ero­sion of French out­side Que­bec. Nearly half of all Que­be­cers are able to carry on a con­ver­sa­tion in both of­fi­cial lan­guages; in the rest of Canada, just un­der 10 per­cent of peo­ple can do so. Cen­sus data from 1996 show that the num­ber of mother-tongue fran­co­phones in Canada ex­ceeded that of peo­ple with a non-of­fi­cial mother tongue (any­thing other than English or French) by more than 2 mil­lion. By 2016, the pic­ture was very dif­fer­ent: mother-tongue fran­co­phones are now fewer in num­ber than those who speak a non-of­fi­cial mother tongue. A gen­er­a­tion from now, will the French-speak­ing com­mu­nity in Man­i­toba — or any­where else out­side Que­bec and parts of New Brunswick — still be vi­brant?

To some, that’s not the right ques­tion to ask. Ak­oulina Con­nell, CEO of the Man­i­toba Arts Coun­cil, spent much of her ca­reer in Que­bec and New Brunswick be­fore mov­ing to Win­nipeg. Flu­ently bilin­gual in French and English, she’s aware of the sen­si­tiv­i­ties, po­lit­i­cal and lin­guis­tic, that come with any de­bate touch­ing on the place of French. “But in a post-tr C con­text,” she in­sists, “we have a stronger aware­ness of the deep so­cial wrongs that have been per­pet­u­ated by both fran­co­phones and an­glo­phones. Lin­guis­tic du­al­ity is a colo­nial con­cept.” Parts of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, Con­nell sug­gests, are geared to­ward re­in­forc­ing the power of the two col­o­niz­ing lan­guages. “I don’t want to use the word ‘re­sent­ment,’” says Me­lanie Kennedy, who di­rects Indige­nous Lan­guages of Man­i­toba (a non-profit group funded by the prov­ince), “but there’s cer­tainly some envy of Franco-man­i­to­bans. It seems so sim­ple for them, as op­posed to how hard we have to fight. You can only do so much with no money.” But Der­rek Bent­ley, look­ing at things from a Franco-man­i­to­ban stand­point, in­sists that “it’s al­ways an up­stream bat­tle for any mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity. There’s so much work in­volved in get­ting the ser­vices and re­sources so the com­mu­nity can flour­ish.” And, in­deed, pro­tect­ing French lan­guage rights and pre­serv­ing Indige­nous cul­tures are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.

“What dis­tin­guishes us from our south­ern neigh­bour,” says Justin John­son, “is the idea of [of­fi­cial] bilingualism.” At twenty-six, John­son is the pres­i­dent of the Fédéra­tion de la je­unesse cana­di­enne-française. He comes from the small town of Lorette, his­tor­i­cally a Métis en­camp­ment — La Pe­tite Pointe des Chênes. His great-great-grand­fa­ther An­dré Beau­chemin was part of Louis Riel’s pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment in 1870. “But we never talked about it,” John­son ad­mits. When he was grow­ing up, he says, most of his mother’s fam­ily spoke English, and they weren’t proud of their Métis and French past — it felt like a bur­den. To­day, John­son is happy to call him­self both Métis and French Cana­dian. “Our ideas founded the coun­try,” he says. “And they should be seen in a mod­ern con­text. Bilingualism, re­li­gious lib­erty — these no­tions are part of the Cana­dian char­ac­ter. The rea­son the French com­mu­nity is vi­brant now are the Métis peo­ple who shed blood on the plains.” The re­sis­tance that Louis Riel led in 1870 aimed to pre­serve Métis rights to prac­tise the Catholic faith, use the French lan­guage, and main­tain their own cul­ture. John­son doesn’t speak Michif, a lan­guage of the Métis peo­ple. Only about 200 peo­ple in Man­i­toba do. And yet — such are the com­plex­i­ties the gov­ern­ment has to nav­i­gate in pre­par­ing an Indige­nous-lan­guages act — Michif can’t be over­looked. It fas­ci­nates lin­guists, hav­ing long been seen as the­o­ret­i­cally im­pos­si­ble: it con­sis­tently mar­ries the nouns of one lan­guage (French) with the verbs of an­other. Across the Prairie prov­inces, the lan­guage’s Indige­nous el­e­ment is Cree, of­ten min­gled with Ojibwe; ac­cord­ing to a Michif lan­guage in­struc­tion web­site, the ques­tion “Where do your grand­par­ents live?” would be ex­pressed, “Taande tes granparaan ay­wekachick?”

Michif has not been stan­dard­ized, nor was it ever the lan­guage of all Métis peo­ple — many of them spoke French, oth­ers quickly adopted English, and a few de­vel­oped a now near-ex­tinct id­iom known as Bungee (it in­ter­wove Cree with Scots Gaelic). Yet, thanks to the pre­car­i­ous sur­vival of Michif — in all of Canada, a lit­tle more than 1,000 peo­ple, less than 0.2 per­cent of all Métis peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data, can speak one or an­other form of the lan­guage — the Métis Na­tional Coun­cil has been asked to “co-de­velop” the Indige­nous-lan­guages act, along with the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The dif­fi­cult ques­tion is: What can the act rea­son­ably be ex­pected to achieve?

“It’s shock­ing to me how many Cana­di­ans don’t know the mean­ing of the name Canada, the name Man­i­toba, the name Win­nipeg,” says Ni­igaan Sin­clair, a pro­fes­sor in the De­part­ment of Na­tive Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba. (He is also a mem­ber of this mag­a­zine’s ed­u­ca­tional re­view com­mit­tee.) When it comes to place names, “it means we have an il­lit­er­ate cit­i­zenry.” “Two things have to hap­pen in the act,” Sin­clair says. His fa­ther, Sen­a­tor Mur­ray Sin­clair, chaired the TR C, the fi­nal re­port of which called for the cre­ation of the act. “First, Indige­nous lan­guages must be rec­og­nized as found­ing lan­guages of the coun­try — all of them. And sec­ond, there have to be the re­sources and sup­port to en­sure these lan­guages carry on into the fu­ture. With­out these two things, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is im­pos­si­ble.” When Sin­clair says “all of them,” he means it. Some peo­ple have qui­etly won­dered if the pas­sage of an Indige­nous-lan­guages act might lead to a sort of lan­guage triage, whereby widely spo­ken tongues, such as Ojibwe, re­ceive a healthy in­fu­sion of funds but lan­guages with few speak­ers are merely doc­u­mented for pos­ter­ity, no se­ri­ous ef­fort be­ing made to re­vive them. In British Columbia, ac­cord­ing to the 2016 cen­sus, 8,435 peo­ple spoke an Indige­nous lan­guage as their mother tongue. This to­tal was split among al­most fifty lan­guages (not just di­alects), many of them near death’s door. Only one, Car­rier, still had a thou­sand mother-tongue speak­ers. Yet Sin­clair dis­misses the no­tion of lan­guage triage: “That’s so dis­re­spect­ful — it’s [a] vi­o­lent idea. There’s noth­ing more col­o­niz­ing than de­featism.” Ge­og­ra­phy fur­ther com­pli­cates the mat­ter. Cree, Inuk­tut, and Ojibwe — the three Indige­nous lan­guages with the largest num­ber of speak­ers — all stretch over vast ar­eas of Canada. The re­sult, in each case, is a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of di­alects. Be­cause of the lack of stan­dard­iza­tion, most of the course ma­te­ri­als de­vel­oped to teach these lan­guages ap­ply to only a sin­gle re­gion. Ojibwe, as spo­ken across much of On­tario — and in the US, where

Aside from English, Filipino is now the most widely used lan­guage in Win­nipeg, Edmonton, and Cal­gary.

it’s known as Chippewa — dif­fers from the lan­guage in Man­i­toba. What Sin­clair calls “re­sources and sup­port” could mean an eco­nomic boost for Inuit, First Na­tions peo­ple, and Métis peo­ple. That’s be­cause, es­pe­cially in the North, many high-sta­tus jobs in teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­clude lo­cal peo­ple. (As a side ef­fect, such jobs also ex­clude most im­mi­grants.) They re­quire English-french bilingualism in­stead — whether or not the em­ploy­ees have any con­nec­tion with the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Un­der the Canada-nunavut Gen­eral Agree­ment on the Pro­mo­tion of French and Inuit Lan­guages, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment now pro­vides nearly as much fund­ing for the 630 mother-tongue fran­co­phones in Nunavut as it does for the 22,600 peo­ple who speak an Inuit mother tongue. In 2017, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted al­most $90 mil­lion over three years to sup­port Indige­nous lan­guages. When Arif Vi­rani — par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary to the min­is­ter of Cana­dian her­itage and a key player in de­vel­op­ing the new leg­is­la­tion — spoke to the Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ples Tele­vi­sion Net­work (APTN) last year, he promised that, un­der an Indige­nous-lan­guages act, stable, longterm fund­ing would be pro­vided: “We’re not keen on draft­ing leg­is­la­tion that be­comes a sym­bolic white ele­phant.” Vi­rani is a Toronto lawyer and a refugee from Uganda. The min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for the leg­is­la­tion, Mélanie Joly, is a Mon­treal lawyer. In­ter­viewed one af­ter­noon near Mon­treal’s Old Port, she ad­mits that when Trudeau asked her to come up with a new law, “I wasn’t as aware of Indige­nous is­sues as I am now. I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “But, as a fran­co­phone, I re­ally un­der­stand the im­por­tance of lan­guage and iden­tity.” Indige­nous lead­ers have told Joly the act should rec­og­nize Indige­nous lan­guages as a right un­der Sec­tion 35 of the con­sti­tu­tion — the sec­tion that now af­firms “ex­ist­ing abo­rig­i­nal and treaty rights” — and place con­trol over lan­guage fund­ing in the hands of Indige­nous peo­ple them­selves. Al­though a fi­nal de­ci­sion has not yet been taken, it seems likely that the act will also es­tab­lish the of­fices of three lan­guage com­mis­sion­ers (one each for Métis peo­ple, First Na­tions, and Inuit). “The so­cial con­tract in Canada,” Joly sug­gests, “is based on three pil­lars. First, there are two of­fi­cial lan­guages. Sec­ond, we pro­tect mi­nori­ties and we sup­port mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Now we’re adding the third pil­lar: rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. That’s fun­da­men­tal to our so­cial con­tract.” None of those pil­lars, it’s worth not­ing, were in place be­fore the late 1960s. But will rec­on­cil­i­a­tion erode bilingualism? When asked if an Indige­nous-lan­guages act means that Canada will soon be of­fi­cially mul­ti­lin­gual, Joly hes­i­tates: “It’s too soon to have that con­ver­sa­tion.”

Many of the kids in the Her­itage Lan­guages Pro­gram ar­rive at Win­nipeg’s Maples Col­le­giate tired and hun­gry — it is, af­ter all, the end of a long school day. Bar­bara Nepinak and Clarence, her hus­band, bring them

a snack. Then, act­ing like sur­ro­gate grand­par­ents, they tell the chil­dren sto­ries and teach them Ojibwe words: nouns and verbs from daily life. But there’s only so much a child can pick up be­tween 4:00 and 5:30 p.m., three days a week. To ac­quire real flu­ency, you need to go fur­ther and deeper. That’s why the Seven Oaks and Win­nipeg School di­vi­sions now of­fer a bilin­gual pro­gram in Ojibwe and English, one that will stretch from kin­der­garten to grade five. The chal­lenge is not in find­ing chil­dren to learn Cree and Ojibwe but in re­cruit­ing adults who are qual­i­fied to teach them. River­bend Com­mu­nity School, also in Win­nipeg’s north­ern suburbs, has taken up the chal­lenge. “I’m a tra­di­tional per­son,” says Au­drey Gui­boche, who came out of re­tire­ment to teach here and to cre­ate part of the Ojibwe cur­ricu­lum. “I’m a sun dancer, a pipe car­rier, a sweat-lodge keeper. I live the life. I’m just blown away by the fact that I’m get­ting paid to teach the lan­guage.” She is sit­ting on the only adult-sized chair in a cramped of­fice. A wall chart be­hind her shows the months and sea­sons, set into a large cir­cle. The key con­cepts for bi­boon (win­ter) in­clude an­i­mal hi­ber­na­tion, star teach­ings, and el­ders. Zi­ig­wan (spring) will fo­cus at­ten­tion on com­mu­nity, cra­dles, and the cy­cle of life. “The kids are hun­gry for self-knowl­edge,” Gui­boche says. “In one of the classes here, 85 per­cent of them are in fos­ter care. I see the work I do as hav­ing a sa­cred­ness to it. It’s geared to mak­ing them think about their in­ner world.” At the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba, the crip­pling short­age of qual­i­fied teach­ers led the De­part­ment of Na­tive Stud­ies to make a star­tling hire: one of its Ojibwe-lan­guage in­struc­tors is a thirdyear un­der­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Win­nipeg. Aan­deg Mul­drew, ad­mit­tedly, is no or­di­nary lin­guis­tics stu­dent. He learned Ojibwe as a child from his grand­mother Pat Ninge­wance, who teaches the lan­guage to­day at Al­goma Uni­ver­sity in Sault Ste. Marie, On­tario. Al­goma’s main build­ing be­gan its days as the Shing­wauk Res­i­den­tial School — and, Mul­drew says, “my grandma’s of­fice is on the same floor as where her bed used to be.” His youth­ful flu­ency is un­usual: across Canada, only about 15 per­cent of young First Na­tions peo­ple can hold a con­ver­sa­tion in their an­ces­tral lan­guage. For var­i­ous rea­sons, sta­tis­tics are not en­tirely re­li­able, but it’s clear that in re­cent decades, Ojibwe has suf­fered a se­ri­ous de­cline. Of the eight most-spo­ken Indige­nous lan­guages, Ojibwe has the low­est per­cent­age of mother-tongue speak­ers who con­tinue to use it as their pri­mary lan­guage. Cen­sus data show that, in 1996, Ojibwe had 25,885 moth­er­tongue speak­ers; by 2016, the to­tal had fallen to 20,470 — less than half of whom re­ported the lan­guage as the one they spoke most of­ten at home. (An­other 13,465 peo­ple spoke, as their mother tongue, the hy­brid lan­guage of Oji-cree.) Speak­ers of Indige­nous lan­guages, and would-be speak­ers, feel they can’t just sit around and wait for leg­is­la­tion to help them. “Indige­nous youth in this neigh­bour­hood are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing racism daily,” says Jarita Greyeyes, the direc­tor

of com­mu­nity learn­ing and en­gage­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Win­nipeg. “They’re feel­ing the ef­fects of over-in­car­cer­a­tion and over-polic­ing in their neigh­bour­hoods, some of their fam­ily are be­ing mis­ap­pre­hended by the child-wel­fare sys­tem — but cul­ture and lan­guage in­su­late them from some of these harms. They get all the beau­ti­ful parts of the cul­ture that are em­bed­ded in the lan­guage.” That idea of lan­guage as a spir­i­tual vac­cine is not fan­ci­ful. One BC study found the sui­cide rate in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties with a high rate of lan­guage re­ten­tion to be far lower than in places where the lan­guage has been lost. Greyeyes works out of the Wii Chi­i­waakanak Learn­ing Cen­tre, a store­front space in the city’s core. Al­most 13 per­cent of first-year stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Win­nipeg are Indige­nous, and the Wii Chii cen­tre tries to bridge the gap be­tween the uni­ver­sity and the in­ner city. Its pro­grams — free and open to ev­ery­one — have in­cluded Ojibwe im­mer­sion, sa­cred hoop danc­ing, and Pow Wow Club. As a Cree woman, Greyeyes looks on lan­guage as a “thread that links us to this land, these an­ces­tors.” Not that the Cree and Ojibwe threads are static. Bar­bara and Clarence Nepinak, who grew up in ru­ral Man­i­toba, sense a dif­fer­ence in the words they hear to­day. “There’s many of us Ojibwe in the city,” Clarence says. “But, even within our own lan­guage, we speak a Win­nipeg di­alect.” “The younger peo­ple shorten the words,” Bar­bara ex­plains. “And they mix English into the con­ver­sa­tion.” That’s a typ­i­cal con­cern for mi­nor­ity lan­guages — speak­ers of French and Filipino here no­tice a sim­i­lar trend — but for a land-based lan­guage such as Ojibwe, the changes can be dis­con­cert­ing. You can’t speak it flu­ently if you drop Ojibwe words into English sen­tence struc­tures: “Ojibwe op­er­ates from a whole dif­fer­ent range of ideas, put to­gether to ex­press and de­scribe the en­vi­ron­ment,” Clarence says. “The en­vi­ron­ment dic­tates what the lan­guage is go­ing to be. With us, the sense of time is dif­fer­ent.” But the en­vi­ron­ment for the kids at River­bend Com­mu­nity School and Maples Col­le­giate is one of In­sta­gram and pickup trucks, Youtube and SU Vs. Cranes and ea­gles, loons and bears: these are among the tra­di­tional clan sym­bols of the Ojibwe. Many of the Win­nipeg chil­dren try­ing to learn Ojibwe have likely never seen those an­i­mals in the flesh. Yet all lan­guages and cul­tures evolve. Va­nia Gagnon, the direc­tor of the St. Boni­face Mu­seum, is a sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion Franco-man­i­to­ban. She’s un­trou­bled by what some peo­ple hear as an in­sid­i­ous de­cline in the qual­ity of her lan­guage. In French, she ex­plains, “you’d say, ‘je m’en vais ma­g­a­siner.’ I might say, ‘je m’en vais shop­per au mall.’ My kids don’t

Through­out Franco-man­i­to­ban his­tory, “peo­ple turned their backs on French be­cause they were crit­i­cized so harshly for mak­ing mis­takes.”

even use the in­fini­tive — they wouldn’t say, ‘je vais te tex­ter,’ they’d just say text as a verb. It an­noys some peo­ple — ‘The lan­guage is be­ing mas­sa­cred!’ they say.” Through­out Franco-man­i­to­ban his­tory, “peo­ple turned their backs on French be­cause they were crit­i­cized so harshly for mak­ing mis­takes. And by teach­ers, mostly.” For Gagnon, there’s no point in be­ing afraid of the fu­ture: “Some­times the nu­ances are bet­ter with a dif­fer­ent word. Franglais is just a new Michif!”

In 2007, the school-pro­grams di­vi­sion of the Man­i­toba gov­ern­ment pro­posed a de­tailed cur­ricu­lum stretch­ing from kin­der­garten to grade twelve and ap­pli­ca­ble to all seven of the prov­ince’s Indige­nous lan­gauges. But the plan bore lit­tle re­la­tion to the ac­tual state of these lan­guages and made un­re­al­is­tic as­sump­tions about re­sources and teach­ing staff. And so years of work by twenty-one el­ders, thir­teen youth ad­vi­sors, seven mem­bers of a project ad­vi­sory team, twenty-seven mem­bers of an Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages and cul­tures cur­ricu­lum project team, and nine mem­bers of the ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment’s staff ul­ti­mately achieved very lit­tle. Some com­mu­nity-based ini­tia­tives have been much more suc­cess­ful. Brian Mar­a­cle — Owen­natekha, to give his Mo­hawk name — is the co­or­di­na­tor of Onkwawenna Ken­ty­ohkwa (“Our Lan­guage So­ci­ety”) at Six Na­tions in south­ern On­tario. A for­mer Globe and Mail re­porter and CBC Ra­dio host, he was not a child­hood speaker of Mo­hawk. But he and his wife, Au­drey, were de­ter­mined to mas­ter their lan­guage, and cre­ated a pro­gram that has suc­ceeded in trans­form­ing young adults who could say al­most noth­ing in Mo­hawk into grace­ful speak­ers. The pro­gram re­lies on im­mer­sion, six hours a day, eight months a year. A res­i­dent of Six Na­tions who com­mits to this ef­fort is paid a stipend — though less than the min­i­mum wage — by the Hau­denosaunee Con­fed­er­acy chiefs. (The band coun­cil pays Mar­a­cle’s salary and other ex­penses.) “They see we’re get­ting re­sults,” Mar­a­cle says. “A dozen kids are grow­ing up who speak it as their first lan­guage” — the sons and daugh­ters of peo­ple who have put in the 2,000 class­room hours that Mar­a­cle be­lieves are re­quired to at­tain rea­son­able flu­ency. The pro­gram cov­ered two years at first; to­day, it stretches to a third, com­plete with re­search projects and “philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sions.” Mar­a­cle has also cre­ated an on­line course for peo­ple who can’t spend years at Six Na­tions. One-third of all par­tic­i­pants on the course have been non-indige­nous, some from as far afield as Den­mark, Brazil, and Mon­go­lia. Among those par­tic­i­pants is Marc Miller, the Lib­eral MP for a chunk of in­ner- city Mon­treal. Af­ter months of study, he rose in the House of Com­mons in 2017 and de­liv­ered a state­ment in Mo­hawk; he be­lieves it was the first time a non-indige­nous MP had ever spo­ken an Indige­nous lan­guage in Par­lia­ment. Not

only did he get a stand­ing ova­tion, his speech also “touched a chord with lots of peo­ple you wouldn’t ex­pect,” he re­calls. “An im­mi­grant wrote to me to say, ‘I strug­gle ev­ery day to make my­self un­der­stood in English. Be­cause I talk with an ac­cent, peo­ple as­sume I think with an ac­cent.’” Speak­ers of en­dan­gered lan­guages else­where in North Amer­ica have launched projects based on Mar­a­cle’s. If the course at Six Na­tions serves as a model for other com­mu­ni­ties, and if the Indige­nous-lan­guages act pro­vides them with stable long-term fund­ing, Mar­a­cle’s work could be­come the most pow­er­ful cat­a­lyst for sav­ing lan­guages any­where.

Mata, a Filipino teacher has writ­ten on a black­board be­side an out­line of a hu­man body. Binti. Bibig. As a bit­terly cold af­ter­noon turns to evening out­side Maples Col­le­giate, he’s ad­dress­ing chil­dren in grades two and three, some of whom wear their snow­suits in­doors. They are not the only Win­nipeg kids at­tend­ing an af­ter-school pro­gram in Filipino; five other schools host a sim­i­lar class. This course isn’t about sav­ing a lan­guage, it’s about valu­ing the cul­ture of what has be­come the city’s most prom­i­nent im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion. Thanks to the rapid growth in the Philip­pine com­mu­nity, the Seven Oaks School Di­vi­sion is launch­ing a Filipino bilin­gual pro­gram this fall. Chil­dren en­rolled there will be im­mersed in the lan­guage ev­ery day. No­body would have pre­dicted, half a cen­tury ago, that the Philip­pines would be­come Canada’s lead­ing source of im­mi­gra­tion. And even if Toronto has the largest num­ber of Philip­pine im­mi­grants, Win­nipeg is the city where they make up the high­est per­cent­age of all res­i­dents. At least 50,000 peo­ple here speak a mother tongue from the Philip­pines. The most com­mon one is Filipino (a com­pos­ite based on Ta­ga­log, the id­iom of Manila and sur­round­ing dis­tricts). Aside from English, Filipino is now the most widely used lan­guage in Win­nipeg, Edmonton, and Cal­gary. Most of its Cana­dian speak­ers live in ma­jor cities. But not all. Neep­awa, the child­hood home of the Man­i­toba au­thor Mar­garet Laurence and an in­spi­ra­tion for her iconic nov­els The Stone An­gel and The Divin­ers, now con­tains a huge slaugh­ter­house and pork-pro­cess­ing fac­tory. The work­force over­whelm­ingly speaks Filipino. Neep­awa had, ac­cord­ing to the 2016 cen­sus, a pop­u­la­tion of 3,939, about 1,060 of whom named a lan­guage from the Philip­pines as their mother tongue. “It’s the sec­ond lan­guage of Man­i­toba. We de­feated the French!” crows Rod Can­tiveros, the pub­lisher of Filipino Jour­nal and the owner of Hot Rod’s Grill. In the sum­mer, it’s a food truck fa­mil­iar to Win­nipeg’s fes­ti­val go­ers; in the win­ter, it’s a café housed in a Ford deal­er­ship on the high­way to Gimli. The deal­er­ship ad­ver­tises a spe­cial: Oil Change and Break­fast. Over a lon­gadog — a sweet and spicy Philip­pine hot dog — Can­tiveros ex­plains what he’s learned since ar­riv­ing in Win­nipeg in 1974. “If the mu­sic here is tango, then tango,” he tells new im­mi­grants. “Don’t cha-cha. Go with the mu­sic.” Per­haps Filipino speak­ers can do this with­out too much heartache be­cause their lan­guage is se­cure at home. It’s pos­si­ble that, in Canada, Filipino will even­tu­ally go the way of Yid­dish, Ice­landic, Gaelic, and other im­mi­grant lan­guages of the past. All of them were once prom­i­nent in Man­i­toba; none is prom­i­nent now. But, at the mo­ment, it can be a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for a Win­nipeg busi­ness to flaunt its prow­ess in Filipino and other lan­guages. A Toy­ota deal­er­ship in the city’s north end makes a prom­ise on its web­site: “We are proud to speak English, Pun­jabi, Ta­ga­log, Hindi, Ara­bic, Por­tuguese, Pol­ish, Ukrainian, and French.” The or­der is re­veal­ing. Al­ready, sev­eral of the city’s churches sur­vive only thanks to Philip­pine im­mi­grants, with ser­vices tak­ing place in both English and Filipino. Peo­ple from other tra­di­tions are equally keen to sus­tain a her­itage lan­guage for the pur­poses of wor­ship. Win­nipeg has pri­vate Is­lamic schools where Ara­bic is a core sub­ject. It has a pri­vate Jew­ish school in which He­brew is taught at ev­ery level. And it has a pri­vate school for Sikh chil­dren — “the preser­va­tion of the Pun­jabi lan­guage and our rich cul­tural her­itage” is a stated mis­sion. To­day, all this may seem nat­u­ral and nor­mal. But fifty, even thirty, years ago, it would have come as a shock.

The rapid and sus­tained growth of im­mi­grant tongues, in­clud­ing Filipino, has al­ready be­gun to al­ter the de­bate about lan­guages in Canada. The Indige­nous-lan­guages act will change the con­ver­sa­tion some more. As the gov­ern­ment pre­pares to in­tro­duce the act, it needs to de­cide what bal­ance to strike be­tween the rights it will rec­og­nize and the ser­vices it will pro­vide. Marc Miller is op­ti­mistic about the lin­guis­tic fu­ture — as long as Canada is will­ing to ac­cept what he calls “a change in men­tal­ity. His­tor­i­cally, we’ve made the mis­take of ap­proach­ing lan­guage as a zero-sum game. But that’s not how it’s seen in Eu­rope. If you give value to Indige­nous lan­guages, if you give value to French in many parts of the coun­try, if you give value to English in Que­bec, we’ll all come out bet­ter.” Ni­igaan Sin­clair ex­presses a re­lated idea in more po­etic form. “If you saw part of a tree,” he says, “wouldn’t you want to see more of it? English of­fers you just one way to see the tree. Cree of­fers you an­other way, Ojibwe an­other way again. It seems Canada has al­ways said, ‘There’s only two pos­si­ble ways to see the tree.’ But aren’t there roots? Aren’t there branches?” The Indige­nous-lan­guages act has to pro­vide hope — but not false hope. If you thought bilingualism was tricky, wel­come to our glob­al­ized, Indige­nous fu­ture.

MARK AB­LEY lives in Mon­treal. His new book Watch Your Tongue: What Our Ev­ery­day Say­ings and Idioms Lit­er­ally Fig­u­ra­tively Mean will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber.

The O’ha­gan Es­say on Pub­lic Af­fairs is an an­nual re­search-based ex­am­i­na­tion of the cur­rent eco­nomic, so­cial, and po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of Canada. Com­mis­sioned by the ed­i­to­rial team at The Wal­rus, the es­say is funded by Peter and Sarah O’ha­gan in hon­our of Peter’s fa­ther, Richard, and his con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic life. Richard O’ha­gan is a mem­ber of The Wal­rus Foun­da­tion board of di­rec­tors.

PRE­VI­OUS Paul Daniels drums and sings with stu­dents at River­bend Com­mu­nity School.

ABOVE Au­drey

Gui­boche teaches Ojibwe lan­guage and cul­ture.

OP­PO­SITE

Some of the school’s Indige­nous ed­u­ca­tion re­sources.

op­po­site Justin John­son, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for fran­co­phone youth.

be­low

Va­nia Gagnon, direc­tor of the St. Boni­face Mu­seum.

above Rod Can­tiveros, ed­i­tor of the Filipino Jour­nal and the owner of Hot Rod’s Grill.

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