Due to the affects of residential schools and the “60s Scoop,” many Indigenous people across Canada lost knowledge of their own languages.
An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools in Canada where they weren’t allowed to speak their Indigenous languages.
Between 1951 and 1984, 20,000 or more Indigenous infants and children were taken from their families by child welfare authorities and placed for adoption by mostly non-Indigenous families.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s actions 13 through 17 deal call for Indigenous language revitalization.
A former Cree teacher and advocate for Indigenous language Bridget Fanta, who lives in Wetaskiwin, strives to pass on knowledge of her native tongue in her everyday life, believing the revitalization of language is a crucial part of reconciliation.
“You can’t have a culture without language,” said Fanta, adding they go hand-in-hand. “That’s the first thing elders tell us.”
From Bigstone Cree Nation in Treaty 8 territory, Fanta, now 63, grew up speaking fluent Woodlands Cree.
“It was the only language my mother spoke,” said Fanta. “I grew up knowing right from when I was a child.”
While Fanta did attend a day school as a child, it was only for a few days. Her father raised their family in the wilderness, avoiding residential schools.
“Now looking back, it was a good thing,” she said.
Teaching Cree for years at the Nipisihkopahk Education Authority in Wetaskiwin, Fanta says she has a “keen interest” in language.
She calls herself a keeper of language because she feels it’s her calling.
“Those of us that carry language — we should be very free to speak it and share it,” said Fanta.
Fanta went to Ottawa in February, 2019, to speak as an Indigenous language consultant on Bill C-91, an act respecting Indigenous languages.
Fanta is also a published author, writing a raw and open account from her own life, Sleeping With Alcohol. Copies are available online now.
In her everyday life, Fanta practices speaking basic conversational Cree with her friends and teaches Cree to her grandchildren through play, number games and songs.
Her five-year-old grandchild now knows how to greet her in Cree.
“I’m doing my best to teach my own children and grandchildren … I’m starting with that. It’s something that should be done.”
In Indigenous schools, children learn conversational Indigenous language, however, by the end of the year, the goal should be moving beyond that.
In her experience as a court worker, she has encountered many individuals who expressed they wished they had learned their own language.
“They’re remorseful and it’s not entirely their fault.”
Fanta noted there are some free online courses for learning Cree, however, she believes more resources should be made available.
“I think it’s really important that everybody should learn it — or try to,” she said.
Fanta explained the Creator listens most thoroughly through Indigenous language, and will call you first by your Indigenous name.
“You can’t pray if you don’t know Cree,” she said, adding that praying the English way feels awkward to her and doesn’t flow as well as Cree does.
Fanta shared that her spirit animal is a turtle. The turtle has three functions: he is the keeper of language, is a traveller and an interpreter.
“He’s slow but he gets it done. That’s me,” said Fanta with a laugh.
The first annual Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization (SILR) gathering celebrating National Indigenous Languages Day was held in Edmonton in March, 2023.
The gathering was open to language learners, speakers, teachers, and advocates.
“Our presenters came from diverse backgrounds to explore the connection of mind, body and spirit in language, land and culture; raise awareness on the importance of language revitalization and share language learning and teaching strategies and resources,” said SILR executive director Pamela McCoy Jones, noting a number of attendees were from Maskwacis.
“Indigenous language revitalization is so crucial because it preserves our identity and cultural traditions in many communities across Canada and internationally,” said Jones.
“Again and again, I have heard and listened to Elders share that our languages provide a unique worldview and connection to the land. Revitalization fosters a sense of pride and cultural belonging amongst our people and works to diminish the narrative of loss due to historical trauma and cultural loss as a direct result of colonization and harmful government policies.
“This work is ongoing and from what I have learned will take time and effort from Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies to create space and build mutual respect and a shared recognition of Indigenous rights.”
SILR is currently deciding on a date and location for the 2024 National Indigenous Languages Day gathering.