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The Impact of Residential Schools on The Language

Learning about residential schools and their impact on the language, the journey of bringing it back, and the interest in Indigenous culture from non-Indigenous children.

As I’ve learned more about residential schools and their impact on our language, it has been heart-retching and devastating. But it has driven me not to give up hope in the efforts to revive the language and culture and how we can heal from what was taken away. I’ve learned from survivors their mother tongue was taken away as soon as they stepped into a residential school. They were brutally punished for trying to speak for themselves, and their childhood was stolen in residential schools, which tried to assimilate culture and identity. 

I remember reading “Take the Indian out of the Indian,” an initiative by Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to erase Indigenous people’s heritage, traditions, ceremonies and language by stealing children. That, in turn, destroys the family’s well-being by attending residential schools. This was in 1880’s 

And this one… 

“If you no longer speak your language and no longer practice your culture, then you have no right to demand Aboriginal rights from us because you are assimilated with the ruling power.” P.E. Trudeau said this while Indian residential schools were still operating in 1983.  

The time frame 1880 to 1983, the erasing and the assimilation, the stealing of children, the not allowing practices of our culture, and not speaking to one another in our language has had an incalculable impact on families and communities to lose their sense of belonging completely. Belonging has been lost, which leads to what is called intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma has played out in a person’s life in many forms, such as alcoholism, abuse, and losing one’s identity, culture and language. It’s hard to see the destructive ways people cope with the pains of life. 

My common law asked his late mother, “Why didn’t you teach us Cree or talk to us in Cree?” Her answer was, “I didn’t think you needed it.” 

Our journey together has been rewarding because he inspired me to take my current job, attend powwows, and do cultural events in and out of school to share with the community of Gillam, Manitoba, which is a hydro town. We get a lot of support from the town when we have cultural events. 

Culture is the way of life which transmits from one generation to another. So, language is important to understand and define who you are and to learn the world around you to have truthfulness to land and spiritual values. The government, churches, and education systems tried assimilating Indigenous peoples and removing our language and culture. Because of this, both federal and provincial governments today are obligated to support revitalizing the Indigenous languages. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action acknowledge this. Here are just some of the Calls to Action. 

  • We call on the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation, including protecting the right to Aboriginal languages [and] the teaching of Aboriginal languages as credit courses. 
  • We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles: 
  • Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and preserving them is urgent. 
  • The federal government is responsible for providing sufficient funds for Aboriginal language revitalization and preservation. 
  • The preservation, revitalization, and strengthening of Aboriginal languages and cultures are best managed by Aboriginal people and communities. 
  • Funding for Aboriginal language initiatives must reflect the diversity of Aboriginal languages. 
  • We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages. 

So, there is a need for language preservation, revitalization and teaching.  

 Also, we could build our language programs to develop programs for training and certification for aboriginal language teachers. Develop more and better-quality curriculum materials. To attend gatherings and conferences. To learn the language more if we have some knowledge. To teach in a home setting, label and speak in the home. Offspring sessions outside the school to learn and improve teaching. To set up “language banks” in the community and to encourage and support the young and old and our non-indigenous friends and family. This will help renew, preserve, and promote to help build our Ininimowin. 

It starts with connections to the Motherland, mother tongue and culture and recognizing your identity. Our mother tongue, Ininimowin, will survive if we fight for it. The generations before me still have the mother tongue, so we need to help preserve and record our fluent elder speakers who

 are over 70 years of age. If we do not act now to bank the language that family generations and the residential school survivors do not know their language or, if they do, have not taught it to their children. We need this language to be “cool” again for this generation. When losing the Inininmowin language, we lose greetings, praises, laws, literature (legends), songs, riddles, proverbs, cures, wisdom, prayers, way of thinking and knowing, values, and culture. 

I have the mother tongue and help restore it. I take the survival of my language to exchange and share with family and others, meaning non-indigenous. We must be viable to maintain it, use the language in everyday life, and revitalize it to have more speakers. So, to share and teach with my family and share with non-Indigenous people who want to learn and speak has had me strive to revive in any way I can. 

I teach the Cree language at a school that is so diverse in students from Nursery to grade 6. It is interesting to see non-Indigenous students work hard, follow the lessons, and learn the Cree language. I’ve noticed that some Indigenous students’ reading levels are low, and so is their self-esteem. I always encourage them to review their work to feel good about themselves during class. Some do the work; hopefully, it’s been taken home to share with their family. I know they do because I have caregivers who thank me with gifts and tell me how their child is enjoying singing in Cree.  

I am a language keeper, I am a Cree woman, and I am a teacher. It has become a pipedream for me, the school, and the community to teach the language. The language has survived to have it taught in the school, and the community sees that when Cree sheets, arts and crafts are sent home. In Christmas concerts, the Cree Christmas songs come alive. Not only am I a Cree language keeper, but I also started a powwow club. I am a traditional jingle-dress dancer. It’s so beautiful to see the interest of Children, adults, and elders when the beat of the drum gets to dance and practice something that was once banned and forbidden to do.  

I’m so grateful to be allowed to do this with my Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends and families to join me in rejuvenating culture and harmony. 

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