From March 20-24, the week will include introductions to Mik’maq, Innu-aimun and Inuttitut — languages of the aboriginal peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s sad but true that most people in Canada know almost nothing about the aboriginal languages of their country,” said Marguerite Mackenzie, a professor emerita with MUN’s department of linguistics.
She led the development of the Innu Dictionaries, including more than 27,000 words from Innu-aimun, available online and through mobile app. She has been tapped for the introduction to Innu-aimun.
The sessions are not meant to teach a language outright, she said, but the hope is they will contribute to recognition of aboriginal languages, their unique qualities and value.
“It will help with respect to raising the status of the language in everybody’s eyes,” she said.
“The more that people … understand that these are wonderfully complex languages, which one can use to say anything one wants, the more people will see them as viable and as being of equal status to the official, European languages in the province and in Canada.”
Truth and Reconciliation required
Aboriginal languages have a declining number of speakers. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada placed duty for revitalization with all Canadians.
The Commission’s report spoke to colonial policies that cut the use and status of aboriginal languages, with specific attention paid to aggressive destruction through residential schools.
“Students were punished — often severely — for speaking their own languages,” the report stated. “Michael Sillett, a former student at the North West River residential school in Newfoundland and Labrador told the Commission, ‘Children at the dorm were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. I remember several times when other children were slapped or had their mouths washed out for speaking their mother tongue; whether it was Inuktitut or Innu-aimun.”
But generally, the Commission noted a suppression of language, a stifling, stigmatization deterring use.
The significance of language has been recognized in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and nationally in an interpretation from the Supreme Court of Canada of Aboriginal and Treaty rights under Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. And for day-to-day recognition, more work is needed.
In “Building Reconciliation,” the theme of MUN’s Aboriginal Peoples Week, education on languages is a starting point.