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Words matter in MUN’s Aboriginal Peoples Week 2017

The MUN Students Union claims the university's administration is proposing a 16.3 per cent increase in tuition and additional fees.
The MUN Students Union claims the university's administration is proposing a 16.3 per cent increase in tuition and additional fees.

Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) is heading into its second Aboriginal Peoples Week, with the celebration of languages a large part of this year’s calendar.

Marguerite Mackenzie

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.

Douglas Wharram

Language is a link

Marcella Williams is working with the Flat Bay Band, studying at MUN’s Grenfell campus and hoping to be able to teach Mi’kmaq language. Mi’kmaq teachers are a rare commodity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She said she began learning the language as more than detached study.

“I was very lucky to be able to grow up learning bits and pieces of my culture. I knew how to live off the land and how to make snowshoes, what I could and couldn’t eat, and traditionally I was brought up to respect my elders and to heed what they had to say … but the language was something that was always missing,” she said. “For me it was something I tried very hard to learn several times (using online sources) and it wasn’t until we actually managed to get some classes brought into Newfoundland that I was able to start learning.”

Aboriginal people are more than just a status card, she said. And language, she suggested, can reflect traditional knowledge, shared history and unique worldview — valuable for everyone to hear.

An assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics, Douglas Wharram will be leading a session on Inuttitut. “The less visibility Inuttitut has, the easier it is to ignore the voices. And that, I think, would be a terrible mistake,” he told The Telegram, noting climate change as just one topic where Inuit people would be uniquely positioned to contribute to research and discussion.

Wharram has been one of many university staff working in partnership with aboriginal governments on linguistic research in Labrador. He will also teach introductory language courses in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in May and June for the university’s Bachelor of Education program designed to train teachers for Labrador Inuit population.

Catharyn Andersen

Language one discussion

Special adviser to the president of MUN on Aboriginal Affairs and a lead in developing Aboriginal Peoples Week, Catharyn Andersen grew up hearing Inuttitut, but not speaking it a first language.

It was a subject in grade school, she recalled. And she has pursued it since, completing a Master of Arts in Linguistics with research on use of Inuttitut in Nain. She tracked proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, spending time on the land with elders and taking in the nuances. She noted the reduced proficiency in younger generations and warns against reliance on language as an identifier of who is aboriginal and who is not.

But language is an important topic, she told The Telegram, fitting for the Week.

Aboriginal Peoples Week 2017 at MUN

The Innu Dictionaries

It will also feature forums on how the university can contribute to reconciliation and a feature session on the Beothuk, with Chief Mi'sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation and Karen LeDrew-Day. A full schedule is available online.

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