First Nations Language Gathering (March 25-26, 2024)

The Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages (the Commission) held the first of many gatherings on First Nations Languages, bringing together over 90 participants in Mi’kmaq’ki territory (Halifax, NS). The goal of this gathering was to engage with First Nations language keepers, Elders, and youth to connect, share knowledge, and highlight the importance of preserving and promoting Indigenous languages. This session represented the Eskasoni and Membertou communities, with a specific focus on Mi’gmaq/Mi’kmaq language revitalization.

An evening reception, MCed by Dion Denny from Eskasoni, kicked off the two-day gathering. Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council Norman Sylliboy offered a prayer and welcomed the participants to their traditional territory. Commissioner Ronald Ignace welcomed the participants and gave a keynote, sharing the story of how the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages was created and its mandate.

The crowd watched moving performances by ko’jua dancers, singers, and drummers. This display of strong cultural pride set the tone for an inspiring event. For the remainder of the evening, attendees mingled, got to know each other, and shared laughs.

The next morning, the crowd was first greeted and welcomed by MC Denny and Grand Chief Sylliboy. Elders Patsy Paul-Martin and Albert Marshall offered prayers and support. Commissioner Ignace stated that “it is of upmost importance that the work of the Office of Commissioner of Indigenous Languages is grounded in your voice,” reiterating that the purpose of the gathering was to hear the stories of participants of language revitalization, use and protection.

Director Joan Greyeyes then addressed the participants and introduced keynote speaker, Dr. Lorna Williams, member of the Lil’wat Nation, and trailblazer in Indigenous language work. Dr. Williams spoke about the importance of language and teacher training, the social responsibility of language revitalization, and the incredible work that can be achieved with the energy of young people, combined with the wisdom of Elders. There is incredible power that comes with the work of reclaiming, using, and nurturing Indigenous language, which Dr. Williams put so movingly into words: “community spirit lifts with the use of language.”

Dr. Daniel Brant then provided a presentation focused on the research currently underway on behalf of the Commission on Indigenous languages and adequacy of funding. It was noted in his presentation that funding is central to ensuring language programming is consistent and makes a difference in communities; however, managers spend an inordinate amount of time finding money to keep the programs operational. Dr. Brant also called for the amplification of community success stories, which can help inspire other communities in their language work.

The afternoon comprised of various breakout sessions to hear the perspectives of participants. Several ideas came out of these discussions, including incentivizing learning by providing better pay to Indigenous language speakers; producing and creating movies and shows in Indigenous languages; and, taking the children back to the land to learn the language. It was shared that language revitalization requires a multi-faceted approach across the life span, where Indigenous peoples have access in multiple domains, from womb to grave. It was highlighted that, while critically important, language will not be saved in schools alone.

The youth panel discussion was held and moderated by Michelle Marshall-Johnson, Director of Mi’kmaw Language and Culture. Youth panelists (Ainsley Denny, Donovan Johnson, Cole Stevens, and Norelle Stevens) offered their perspectives on Indigenous languages. They discussed the misconception that learning the language is too hard. They addressed that youth can often be shy to speak the language as many feel ashamed when pronouncing words wrong. Music was also recognized as an alternative form of immersion for youth. Donovan, a fluent speaker and leaner, shared an impactful statement about the importance of language, saying, “whenever I speak my language, I feel at home”.

The gathering received presentation from Shingai Manjengwa (Artificial Intelligence Education & Data Insights, Fireside Analytics), with a focus on artificial intelligence and Indigenous languages. Manjengwa’s presentation highlighted the importance of Indigenous voices in the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  The breakout room session focused on important considerations around the role of AI and language revitalization. A key takeaway from this was that although First Nations across the country can use AI as a tool to help and revitalize languages, AI should never replace Elders and lived experience – the spirit of the languages. Concerns were raised about protecting stories and teachings as the use of AI will eventually be difficult to avoid. Overall, there is interest in incorporating AI elements into language work, and participants requested the Commission to provide expertise in the future.

A final panel discussion was held, focused on teacher training for immersion programs. Moderated by Director Joan Greyeyes, panelists Dr. Lorna Williams and Dr. Kevin wâsakâyâsiw Lewis discussed the importance of language warriors, who keep language work consistent, even with a lack of funding. They also touched on the importance of teachers in maintaining a healthy mind, body, and spirit as part of their work.

The gathering ended with storytelling by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall, on the two-eyed seeing approach. Elder Patsy Paul-Martin sent participants on a safe journey home with a closing prayer.