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Issue of language revitalization should not be reduced to a question of money

The following opinion-editorial by FNEF Executive Director Scott Jeary was printed in the Waterloo Region Record


Issue of language revitalization should not be reduced to a question of money

Language revitalization work is not the simple expiation of white guilt, Scott Jeary writes.

OPINION Mar 03, 2019 by Scott Jeary – Waterloo Region Record

In Peter Shawn Taylor’s column on Indigenous languages (Speaking out about language death — Feb. 28), he concludes that money should be spent efficiently in language revitalization work, which we feel most Canadians would agree with. However, writing on behalf of the First Nations Education Foundation (FNEF), I would say those opinions seem surrounded by the overall feeling or tone that language revitalization is a waste of time and that there is no justification for engaging in the process, which is why we decided to write.

When Taylor says that some of Canada’s Indigenous languages can’t be saved, and they will die, it may well be the case. But referring to this as a “natural death” is an incorrect and misleading description. FNEF feels confident that anyone who does some quick reading on the topic would agree. The quote Taylor provides from Don Drummond as to Canadian obligation says the decline in language usage was “provoked” by settlers (or the government of the time) seems to be profoundly understated — kind of like saying the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima “provoked” cancer in the local population. On the West coast for example, in the mid-1800s, the deliberate introduction of small pox into Indigenous communities to decimate the population and reduce resistance paved the way for a 92 per cent reduction in treaty settlement lands (the argument being those lands aren’t occupied) and doling out the property to the settlers, miners and loggers of the day; that should not be described simply as a “provocation” leading to the loss of language. Most people are completely unaware of the “entire” history of the communities they live in. This was never taught; but at least some of that history is coming to light finally.

As to the growing expectation that Canadian taxpayers have an obligation to return to common usage every existing Indigenous language in the country, FNEF feels a need to add that Canadian taxpayers are not going to return to common usage any Indigenous language at all. This work is being done by passionate and dedicated people in their own communities who are responding to their own and their community members’ desire to learn their unique language, and through that their culture and who they are as people. That is something many Indigenous children today are not afforded, due in part, to residential school policies imposed on their parents. There is not enough space here to get into why that is so vitally important in so many ways. Language revitalization work should not be reduced to or described as only taxpayers writing a never-ending cheque.

Taylor writes that “if it is inevitable that Canada spends huge sums on Indigenous languages simply to expiate white guilt let us at least spend it on those with a fighting chance of survival.” FNEF feels that the desire to participate in language revitalization work is not the simple expiation of white guilt. And saying so is a very shallow statement that offends the notion that a person, community, or government can reach a level of noble thought that stimulates a desire to take action, to rectify a wrong from a moral perspective just because it is the right thing to do. We don’t feel everything is about guilt and atonement. We don’t feel it’s possible to completely atone for our colonial history, but we could take a few lessons from Germany’s actions and attitude over the past century as a way to start.

There is not enough money to do everything; there never is enough money. We should not, however, reduce the entire issue of reconciliation and language revitalization to money and because there is not enough to do “everything” that we therefore should do nothing.

Scott Jeary is the executive director of the First Nations Education Foundation.


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