Back from the brink

(Edmonton) Joe Wilmot, one of about 2,300 members of the Migamaw tribe in Quebec, says his language is in pretty bad shape and doesn't want to see it die. With support from a University of Alberta program that helps to preserve, document and protect indigenous languages, Wilmot is among several First Nations community leaders working to keep indigenous languages alive in Canada.

Every summer since 2000, the U of A's Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute has offered courses to about 1,000 Aboriginal community members who have come to the U of A from as far away as Nunavut to get the tools to revitalize their languages.

“Of the 15 [Aboriginal] communities in the P.E.I region, about 10 of them are not faring well at all," said Wilmot, whose language, Migamaw, has been on the decline for 60 years. "Many of these communities are down to one or two speakers.

“From 40 down, there are no speakers of the language; they may understand it but they can’t speak it. And kids under 20 simply don’t understand it.” 

He added, "I’d hate to see it die, it was my first language."

Wilmot has attended the program every year for four years because, as he puts it, he comes with the hope of taking something back to his community. “And I usually do. I don’t come here for nothing,” he said.

But he’s not only receiving, Wilmot has been giving back.  He says while the course has helped him develop an online dictionary of sounds in Migamaw, after receiving his Community Linguist Certificate from the program last year, he returned this year to help teach a class on building language portals.

“The certificate that I’ve taken here gives me insight into how language works,” he said. “This year is the first time that work on online dictionaries was part of the course, and I think we did a good job.  Those who took the course are happy; the course took away some of the mystery of online dictionaries.”

Wilmot was on hand July 22 to cheer six new certificate recipients and four students who were presented with the institute's new Indigenous Language Instructor Certificate.

Benjamin Tucker, U of A researcher and CILLDI’s interim director, says graduates will return to their communities to help preserve their languages through teaching. He says the certificate course, one of several programs the institute offers, also highlights language loss.

“Quite often people are not aware of it happening or what the consequences are when children are not learning a native language. Language is connected to culture, as we lose language we lose culture,” said Tucker.

Tucker says CILLDI gives the students more than just linguistic tools, but also the policy and planning training that is needed to revitalize a language.

Speaking at the ceremony, Ethel Gardner, who teaches at the institute, says the graduates are at the helm of preserving their languages.

“I don’t believe there are any more motivated, dedicated and concerned folks than those who come here to bring back what they’ve learned to their communities and to enhance language revitalization,” Gardner said.

Lynda Minoose, who started taking classes with the institute two years ago, says the courses have been empowering. 

“One of the biggest highlights for me is being able use the skills being taught here in my own language. I’m very grateful that the great spirits have put these wonderful people in our paths to help us Aboriginal people get our languages back to be strong again,” Minnose said.